Cycle Touring Festival returns virtually for second year

Tim and Laura are the founders of the Cycle Touring Festival which is now in its seventh year
Laura and Tim Moss first came up with the idea for a Cycle Touring Festival during their own world trip, and this year despite lockdown, they’re hoping the festival will be bigger than ever

Today, February 12, is the start of the seventh Cycle Touring Festival (CTF), kicking off with Laura Moss and guests discussing touring in a time of Covid. For the second year running, the festival will be a virtual event, jam-packed with talks, panel discussions, films and open mic sessions over 10 days, with people from all over the world tuning in.

Laura and her husband Tim had to think on their feet when the coronavirus pandemic hit the UK last year, with just three weeks to convert the festival from a physical event to a virtual one.

They had hoped they’d be fine to go ahead with a physical festival as normal this year, which usually sees hundreds of like-minded individuals coming together to camp over a glorious warm May weekend. But with the current restrictions in place, Laura was reluctant to start planning a festival which she wasn’t sure they’d be able to safely pull off.

Last year, the husband and wife team were initially worried about a virtual festival. They pride themselves on bringing the cycle touring community together: “A lot of people who attend the festival talk about having found their tribe,” explained Laura.

“It’s hard to recreate that sense of community virtually, so I was pretty sceptical whether the virtual festival would work that well, but the feedback was amazing last year.”

The physical festival, which happens in Clitheroe is capped at 300 people due to venue capacity, but much to Laura and Tim’s surprise, last year’s event saw record numbers of people attending, with more than 1,200 people from all over the world tuning in. From California, Canada, Columbia, South America, Malaysia, and Australia, lots of people were contacting Laura asking her to keep a virtual element in the festival in future.

This year, they’re anticipating even higher numbers logging on to listen to the likes of Timmy Mallett, Jenny Graham, Dr Stephen Fabes, Markus Stitz, Lee Craigie, Jack Thurston and Isla Rowntree, as well as Cycling UK’s own Sophie Gordon and Cycle magazine editor Dan Joyce.

“There’s a lot of people who for whatever reason can’t give up a whole weekend. There’s a family who came one year who live in the north of Scotland, they did this amazing talk about cycling to Japan with their two sons – but she’s a doctor and they struggle to get down here for the weekend, so she said how brilliant it was that they could still take part. I think we were always going to have to have some online element.”

What Tim and Laura are looking forward to the most about the festival is: “Catching up with the community. Catching up with people who like doing what we like doing, which I think is what everybody who has been to the festival before would say.

“The talks are great, but by far the most rewarding part of it is having the opportunity – even if it’s just over a Zoom chat box – to feel like there’s other people in the room who’re interested in the stuff that you’re interested in.”

Laura said she’s also looking forward to seeing the festival ‘regulars’ who, when they first attended, were quite shy but have since come to the festival every year and have “grown and blossomed over the years because they’ve gained confidence in a really supportive community”.

Laura decided to bring the festival forward to February this year. She wanted to give people something to look forward to during the current lockdown, and personally it’s given her something to focus on while she’s on maternity leave following the birth of her youngest son, Edward.

“Usually there would be three or four events running concurrently, but with the virtual festival, logistically we just can’t do that using the technology, so it means we can have more talks and you’re not sat in front of a screen all day every day. No one’s missing out because nothing’s clashing.”

This year will follow a similar format, and Tim and Laura have curated ‘9 things to do during CTF 2021’ which include activities like baking (and eating) a cake fit for a hungry cyclist, a camp out (or in if you prefer), and riding in fancy dress on a bike - with a prize for best creativity!

Because the festival runs over half term this year, Laura is hoping the supplemental activities will give families something to focus on and will also get the usual community feeling going by encouraging attendees to take part and share their creations on social media.

Understandably, there have been a few things that the pandemic has made difficult for Laura to plan. The film programme this year, for example, which is usually curated by two film buffs, was at risk of being thin on the ground because not many people were out making films last year. But Laura says they’ve found some “absolute crackers” which won’t disappoint.

There are several authors on the festival bill who released a book in the middle of the pandemic to whom Laura was keen to give a platform. Dr Stephen Fabes will be talking about his book Signs of Life, documenting his journey through 75 countries and racking up 53,000 miles while stopping at medical projects and helping people.

He’s on the bill with Timmy Mallett who will be discussing his pilgrimage along the El Camino de Santiago in memory of his late brother who passed away recently. Laura is particularly excited about his appearance: “I’m a child of the 80s and grew up watching Wacaday and playing Mallett’s Mallet, so me and Tim are so excited for that talk.

“I like Cycling UK because what the charity does so well is promote the idea that cycling is for everybody; you don’t have to be a Lycra-clad roadie. It chimes so well with what we’re about.”

The festival will also feature poet Caroline Burrows, who has spoken at the festival a couple of times. Laura says: “I love things like that which are a little bit different. It shows cycling in a different light, shows the creativity that can come from cycling. I think she brings something really nice to the festival which is a bit unusual.”

One year they featured Jet McDonald, whose book Mind is the Ride – A journey through cycling and philosophy& made for an interesting live theatre piece, where the author used his bike to tell a story about a journey from England to India, the different parts of his bike representing different parts of the journey. Laura remembers: “It sounds pretentious, but it was utterly brilliant. Stuff like that I am all for, it's just a bit of fun.”

This year, they have a slot for a guided meditation by Stephen Lord. He wrote the first couple of editions of the Adventure Cycle-touring Handbook, and often provides a yoga or tai-chi session at the festival. Laura agrees: “Cycling is a very meditative activity; it can be about slowing your mind down and focusing on what’s important.

“I remember a speaker one year talked about how because your feet are constantly moving left-right, left-right, it does something to the two sides of your brain, connecting and triggering different parts the organ.”

On the other end of the spectrum, the festival has played host to a session on the benefits of different tyre sizes from Richard Hallett, so there really is something for everybody.

The CTF really has been a labour of love for Laura and Tim, both working full time and relying on volunteers to help them put on the festival which was first conceived eight years ago during a round-the-world trip: “We’d given up our jobs in London, and ridden to Australia, and then we came back home across America.

“While we were away, I kept saying how nice it would be when we got home to meet up with people who’ve done similar trips so we can share experiences. I suggested to Tim that we should organise a big party where we could all get together.”

Before they embarked on their adventure, they were able to get advice from people who had done similar trips. They had some knowledge but were able to really build on it because Tim used to organise expeditions: “We were part of this really nice adventure community in London, and loads of them had done big cycling trips, so we got loads of advice, and read loads of blogs.”

During their adventure together, they met up with a couple of friends in Iran, who suggested that the festival they were imagining should have an educational aspect to it as well as being a story-sharing space, to help equip people with the confidence and knowledge they might need to go off on an adventure themselves.

Going to an event like ours you can pick up so much over a weekend that would take you years to read in books and blogs

Laura Moss, Cycle Touring Festival co-founder

It was important to Tim and Laura that the festival should bring together like-minded people to share stories: “Going to an event like ours you can pick up so much over a weekend that would take you years to read in books and blogs.”

Thinking about her own relationship with cycling, Laura recalled being a student in Bristol, watching her friends (one of them being Tim) going off to ride the three peaks.

“I remember thinking, I would love to do that, but I just don’t know where to start. I’d got this crappy mountain bike, and I just decided to do it. I bought some cheap panniers from Argos and went on my rubbish mountain bike down to Cornwall, and spent a few days cycling around.

“In many ways it was awful, it was raining, and it was really hard, and my bike was rubbish, but It gave me the bug. If I hadn’t seen friends go off and do it and thought ‘well, if they can do it, I can do it’, then I wouldn’t have had the confidence.”

Tim and Laura want to ensure the festival keeps this spirit, and is as inclusive as possible, acknowledging that the people who attend have perhaps never done a trip before, or wouldn’t dream of doing a cycling tour that involved camping because they hate camping. They wouldn’t dream of giving up their job and cycling around the world, but might want to do an overnight trip like the King Alfred’s Way.

“We try and cater for everybody, and I’m really keen that we don’t lose sight of the beginner end for that reason. This year Dan Joyce is doing a talk about how to adapt any bike for touring, emphasising that you don’t have to go out and buy a two-grand touring bike, you can use whatever bike you’ve got.”

Catherine Dixon and Rachael Marsden are speaking to Jenny Graham about their world tandem record at the festival this year. I asked Laura what she thought about there being a reluctance for women to travel alone and whether she thought that attitude was changing.

“We had a test call with them the other day, and they were just chatting about their experiences and Jenny said her round-the-world trip wasn’t a ‘suffer fest’, and that she really enjoyed it. It made me wonder if men who hold similar records would say something like that rather than claiming it was really hardcore and declaring how macho they are.

“Jenny described it as a privilege, and I think that’s right - we’re privileged to see the world from the seat of a bike.”

Laura thinks there’s a reluctance in women to go off and explore alone, but that she does think that is changing with the help of women-only groups: “In the last five years female adventure groups have seen a huge boom, groups like Love her Wild, Adventure Queens and Adventure Syndicate are really helping not just to showcase what women can do, but also to connect women together.

“Every person wanting to join has to take the first step – you still have to get the confidence to go and join a group or community like that. I’m really conscious when I’m curating panel discussions that we don’t just have male voices at the festival.”

This year they’re hosting a wild camping discussion: “I like wild camping in the hills, but when you’re on a bike tour on the fringe of an urban area it makes me really nervous and I don’t think I’d do it on my own.”

Laura considers whether everyone has that same fear: “I recently read Julian Sayarer’s book Fifty Miles Wide, and he talks about being really scared while wild camping and the fear factor, so perhaps everyone has those fears, but women talk about them more or perhaps they prevent more women than men from doing things.”

Laura mentions that the question of gender comes up all the time at the festival but notes that it’s not just women who are a bit nervous about going solo: “It’s emerged from the festival that there are quite a lot of men who are nervous about taking the first step. There’s definitely a place for women-only circles, but there are quite a lot of blokes who aren’t what you’d consider ‘macho’.”

Laura recalls a man in his 50s who came to a September gathering they once held: “He came over the evening he arrived and asked if someone would check his tent because he’d never put it up before, so we walked over with him and checked his tent was okay. It transpired that he was a car mechanic and this woman had brought her car in for an MOT and told him she hoped he could fix it because she was coming to the festival.

“He asked her what it was all about, looked us up later on, found that our next event was in September, and cycled along to it. I don’t recall if he’d ever cycled very far before, but he’d certainly never camped before. And he did it! He wouldn’t have done it if it hadn’t been a group thing. That was just brilliant.

“He’s been to the CTF every year now, and he’s gone off and done some big trips. I think if he hadn’t had that confidence of being part of something bigger than himself, he would never have done it.

“I think sometimes there’s an expectation that blokes can fix a bike or fix a puncture, mend the chain and so on. But actually if you’ve never been taught those things, then you don’t know them and perhaps there’s a bit of a reluctance for men to ask for help because they’re just expected to know this stuff.

“Cycle touring isn’t about competition or machismo, it’s just about enjoying yourself on the bike, and enjoying the world. We’re not about being in a pack or a chain gang, that’s not me, I’ve never been in a cycling club. I might have been in a pootling club, but I’ve certainly never been in a head-to-toe-Lyrca, race-around-Richmond-Park club.”

As Valentine’s Day is fast approaching, I’m keen to find out what Laura thinks about the topic of their ‘Cycling solo vs cycling as a couple’ event. “I think there’s a place for both. You tend to cycle further and harder alone, but together it’s more social, when I’m cycling with Tim it’s brilliant, it’s brought us much closer together.

“Sometimes my mind is always really full. I’m an ideas person, so my mind is always racing at one hundred miles an hour. Cycling helps my mind switch off, going out on my bike alone is when I find my inner peace – it really helps.”

Spending almost a year and a half cycling around the world together meant that Tim and Laura were somewhat prepared for lockdown: “Lockdown was really hard for some people because suddenly they’re spending all their time with their family or their partner which they’ve never had to do before.

“When you’re cycle touring with your partner, you’re the only support system for each other, you spend 24/7 together. So lockdown isn’t much different really; you could say it was a good way to test our relationship.”

Laura empathises with a lot of families trying to juggle work and parenthood: “Lockdown one was a bit rubbish for lots of reasons, not least because we were both working full time and nurseries were shut, so we had our toddler, Ben, at home. But we did manage to get out and cycle loads.

“This time around, in lockdown three, because Edward is only five months old, he can’t go in the trailer on the bike yet, so we’re on pause.”

The pair’s approach to cycling has changed a lot since they became parents: “We’d go off and do big days, or big trips as a couple. When Ben was big enough, we’d go out for 20 miles and have an ace time because he was with us. It’s different, but it’s no less enjoyable.”

On whether the way they curate the festival programme has changed since becoming parents, Laura says: “Family cycling has become more important to us, so naturally we've ended up organising sessions which are a bit more relevant to us.

“Because the festival falls over half term, I was keen to have quite a few talks this year which are about family cycling because obviously families are stuck at home at the moment and it’s been such a rubbish and hard few months for them, I thought it would be quite nice to include some family stuff.”

Laura is a huge advocate for cycling while pregnant: “We did a cycle tour in Denmark when I was six months pregnant. For me, cycling is easier than walking because it’s so supportive. Walking is quite hard on your pelvis and your joints, whereas when you’re cycling you’re sat down.”

Laura recommends riding a step-through bike, like a Dutch bike, when pregnant: “Your bump doesn’t get in the way. I found getting on and off my road bike quite hard, getting my leg over the cross bar, and because your joints are looser when you’re pregnant, it made me quite achy.”

She continued to cycle every day to work during her pregnancy and found that putting a ‘baby on board’ sign on the back of her bike gave her a confidence boost – a tip she got from a lady at the festival!

Looking forward to a post-coronavirus era, Laura is hoping that everyone who has taken up cycling over lockdown will continue to cycle: “One of the reasons why I was quite pleased I had sessions for beginners on the programme this year is because I hope a lot of people will realise that cycle touring is a great way to holiday.”

She is keen to get out and explore again, especially taking baby Edward and toddler Ben along: “I want to go down to the Peak District and do a few days there. There’s lots of really good traffic-free routes there like the Monsal trail and you can connect them all up.”

Further ahead, they’re looking to plan a trip away as a family to Germany once travel restrictions are eased.

Talking about her hopes for Ben and Edward, Laura is keen for them to take up cycling: “They’re still tiny, so we just put them in the trailer when we’re cycling, but we’re looking forward to them coming out with us on their own bikes as they grow.”

Looking ahead to next year’s festival and beyond, Laura says: “We’ve always been really happy to keep the festival small, but the virtual aspect of it has really opened the door to making it bigger and more international. I don’t think there’s anything like our festival in the world. There’s a cycle touring film festival in Paris but apart from that there isn’t another a CTF that I know of.”

The Cycle Touring Festival starts today, 12 February, and finishes on 21 February.

Cycle Touring Festival info:

  • The live events will not be recorded, so make sure you set your reminders!
  • The festival is non-profit and run by volunteers, so is free to attend, but donations are welcomed and help pay for the costs associated with Zoom and web hosting.