Le Col des Ackers

View from the top of Le Col des Ackers

The Ackers is short for the Ackerducks, the name given to this parcel of land by the children who played there before the adventure facility was built.   The Cole Valley cycle route passes through it, and a new section of path has been built that is quickly gaining a reputation for all the wrong reasons.

Firstly, the path is ludicrously narrow, especially given that it is a shared use path.   It is so narrow that two people travelling in opposite directions cannot pass each other and stay on the path.   What is particularly inexcusable is that new bridges have been built that are narrower still than the existing path.   Secondly, the path twists and turns, exacerbating the width problem.   And thirdly, on this twisty path the sight-lines are poor to non-existent.   However, these are not the greatest problem.

Until now, cyclists had three options. The most direct route was down a short, steep incline next to the ski slope. The two alternatives were quite a long detour to the west via an apparently abandoned service road, or to the east on a narrow path surfaced with now crumbling bitmac. Both these options have a much shallower gradient than the direct route, and that could prove useful travelling in the uphill direction. To this selection Birmingham City Council have added a fourth option. The gradient is less than the steepest option, but it remains steep and the new path rises higher than any of the other options. There are several chicanes made from metal barriers to negotiate, and the surface has been finished in spray and chip. Getting to the bottom was hard enough, with wheels locking up on the loose surface, but this was as nothing compared to the challenge of climbing the path.   It proved to be impossible to climb the gradient simply because the loose gravel just resulted in a freely spinning back wheel.

Push Bikes raised the problems with the council, who swept up the loose gravel.   Two members of Push Bikes returned to the path a couple of weeks later, but it still proved impossible to climb, simply because the gradient is far too great and the chicanes prevent building up any momentum.   The need to deliver lots of torque means that turning through the chicanes is very difficult, and each time we got no further than the second chicane.   The following video shows the path through the Ackers and our attempts to climb the incline.

It's worth adding that whilst the two Push Bikes members in the video never made it to the top, some people have.   However, there is widespread agreement that the design of this path is ludicrous.   I spoke to some people walking through the Ackers who saw me fall over on my third attempt, and the designs faults were all too obvious to them.

The Dutch cycling design guide details how to design a path on an incline:

  • The incline to a bridge or tunnel should be less than 1 in 20 (5%).
  • Upward inclines: "Upward inclines require cyclists to make an extra effort and should be avoided where possible in the design of a bicycle friendly infrastructure.".
  • Downward inclines: "On long declines, attention should focus on the speed of the descending cyclist". It is suggested that planners should expect  "35 to 40 km/h" and that there should be "plenty of free deceleration space at the bottom of inclines, with no intersections, sharp bends or other obstacles in the way".
  • Absolute minimum width of cycle-paths should be 3 m. That's permissible only if there's a separate 1 m minimum walking path on both sides of the cycle-path. Without a separate walking path (i.e. where no pedestrians are expected, this isn't shared use) the minimum width becomes 4.15 m, made up of 3.5 m cycle-path plus 0.325 m clearance between each side of the cycle-path and any railings or wall.
  • Gradients should not be constant all the way up the incline. Cycling speed diminishes when climbing. For relatively short inclines (height less than 10 m), the highest section should be less steep than the lowest section to enable cyclists to maintain an almost steady speed uphill.
  • If a height over 5 m must be climbed, 'resting places' in the form of a horizontal section about 25 m in length should be provided before cyclists must to climb again.

Additionally the Dutch do not place barriers on cycle paths, because not only do they make cycling awkward, but also they have found that they result in injuries.   Even bollards are now being removed, because they have been found to be a hazard to elderly cyclists with poor eyesight.   This sort of attention to detail is why the Dutch are so successful at getting people to cycle.   As for loose chippings on a steep gradient, it doesn't require forty years of building cycling infrastructure to tell anyone that's a dumb idea.