In the Spotlight: Robert Fleming and the Wednesday Wheelies

Photo credit: Christchurch City Council (supplied by Robert Fleming)

Robert Fleming has been involved in cycle advocacy for well over a decade, having first gone along to a Spokes Canterbury meeting in early 2013 after being knocked off his bike. He says he sat quietly for the first year and learned a lot, later taking on the role of organising Biketober (which he did for five years) and becoming the group’s Treasurer (which he’s still doing after ten years).

As a Spokes core member, Robert is actively involved in the group’s advocacy work and in providing input to submissions to support a better cycling environment for all of us. He describes Spokes as “great people doing great things.”

But, when I talk with him, it’s Wednesday Wheelies that our conversation keeps coming back to. And it’s Wednesday Wheelies the Christchurch City Council made particular mention of when it awarded him a Civic Award for services to cycling in December 2023.

Wednesday Wheelies

Wednesday Wheelies has its origins in the Papanui Parallel Cycleway. As Robert tells it, he got to know Lynne from the St Albans Residents’ Association who was very much of the view that “now we’ve got this thing, we need to use it”. She wanted to start a bike group and asked Robert to create some routes.

At the formal opening of the cycleway at Rutland Reserve, he was asked to lead the opening ride, so set off and was surprised to find 25 people following him. They weren’t people on e-bikes or racing bikes, and they weren’t people involved in recreational cycling or cycle touring. Just ordinary people of all ages riding ordinary bikes.

And so Wednesday Wheelies was born.

At first, there was a core group of seven people who went for a ride together every fortnight, with more people joining over time. After a few years, there were 20 people turning up, so the group switched to weekly rides, thinking there would be fewer people on any given week, making the rides more manageable. But people kept coming every week, and the group has continued to grow. Robert now has a contact list of over 250 people (some of whom have come and gone over the years), and 66 is the current record of the most cyclists on one day.

Robert says the decision to shift to weekly rides has worked well because it avoids any confusion about which Wednesday is a riding day, and whether or not to ride on the following week if a ride is cancelled due to extreme weather.

Every Wednesday, cyclists meet at Kohinga, the St Albans Community Centre, at 9am (9.30am in winter) and set off in smaller groups of 8-12 people on one of many routes that Robert and others have developed to take people around the city. The groups ride at a leisurely pace for up to three hours and always include a coffee stop. The routes follow cycle paths, quiet back streets and interesting reserves and tracks, and people often comment on a street or park they didn’t know existed and discovered on a ride.

On any given day, there can be up to six different groups, all setting off on a different route five minutes apart (to avoid overwhelming numbers of cyclists at traffic lights and intersections). Riders choose which group they want to ride with, and if one route is particularly popular, Robert might split the group into two and send half in one direction and the others in the opposite direction.

More experienced riders take responsibility for leading a group, and there is always a tail-end Charlie at the back of each group. Riders are asked to let the leader know if they want to leave the group before the end of the ride.

Robert enjoying the ride (photo supplied by Robert Fleming)

The group is open to anyone who can ride a bike for 20 kilometres or more. Robert says most riders are aged 60-80 years, with around 75 per cent now riding e-bikes. There’s a Facebook page if anyone wants to express an interest in joining (or email Robert says he’d particularly welcome people who have the skills and confidence to act as leaders and would enjoy “spreading the joy”.

Social interaction is a big part of the group, and the café stops are popular. If rides are cancelled due to bad weather, the group will meet at a café anyway, and Robert says there can still be 15 people turning up on a non-cycling day. Wednesday Wheelies has become an important part of people’s week.

The all-important cafe stop (photo supplied by Robert Fleming)

I suspect the success of the group can be credited to the work that Robert puts into organising Wednesday Wheelies. He’s developed a catalogue of about 160 different rides across the city, with maps, grades and descriptions, along with a set of common-sense safety and etiquette requirements that riders are expected to adhere to.

Each week, Robert will select several different routes for people to choose from. He emails the details of each route to people every Sunday, including maps, planned café stops, and any warnings about path surfaces or intersections to be aware of. He sends a follow up email on Tuesday to confirm details and he (or a ride leader) will contact each café the riders will be visiting so the café knows to expect a large group.

On Wednesday morning, Robert is the one coordinating riders at Kohinga St Albans Community Centre into the right groups with a leader and staggering the departures to avoid any disruption to access at the car park. And he’ll lead one of the groups.

Robert sees the Wednesday Wheelies as a form of cycle advocacy – people will tell other people if they are having a good time. And now it is an established and well-known group, Robert can point to Wednesday Wheelies when advocating for better cycle infrastructure in the city. (When we met, he was preparing a submission on the Christchurch City Council’s Long-Term Plan on behalf of Wednesday Wheelies.)

Robert the cyclist

Robert’s interest in cycling is as a means of transport rather than fitness (which he says comes anyway when you’re always riding your bike). He likes the connection that cycling provides to the city – it’s easy to stop and look at things and to talk with people, and being able to cycle is an important part of having a liveable city.

Like many keen cyclists, Robert owns several bikes – a cargo bike, a town bike, a mountain bike and an e-bike. For the past five years, he’s been using his cargo bike to make work deliveries to a couple of rest homes – which are easier and cheaper for him to access by bike rather than relying on a courier van. And the e-bike is handy when he’s checking out some of the longer distance rides for Wednesday Wheelies.

Robert with his very impressive cargo bike

In Christchurch, Robert’s favourite cycle route is the Heathcote Expressway to Ferrymead and on to Sumner. He enjoys the industrial decay in the Woolston area, the relaxing ride along Mackenzie Avenue, seeing the Port Hills, visiting Sumner, and then going back to the city by a different route. (If you haven’t yet checked out this video of Robert showing a video blogger around, you should.) He also describes cycling up above the city along Summit Road and Bottle Lake Forest as his happy places.

He’s cycled many of the Great Rides on the New Zealand Cycle Trail, including popular trails like the Alps 2 Ocean Cycle Trail, the West Coast Wilderness Trail, and the Lake Dunstan Trail. But he thinks there are plenty of other trails that are just as good but don’t get the same publicity. He says the Clutha Gold Trail, for example, is fantastic. He’s also cycled the Remutaka Rail Trail, the Hauraki Rail Trail, parts of Tasman’s Great Taste Trail, the Molesworth Muster…the list could go on.

When we talked, Robert was about to head away to Australia for a couple of weeks cycling in Victoria with friends (and since confirmed he had a fantastic trip). In the past, he’s spent time cycling in Brittany and Amsterdam, and has enjoyed doing half-day city bike tours in places like Berlin, Singapore and Melbourne. And many years ago, when he was living in London, he cycled around Ireland with a tent (but it rained on 28 days of the month-long trip).

For Robert, cycling is practical, fun, social and all about discovery. As for the Wednesday Wheelies, he’ll keep doing it as long as he’s enjoying himself (and he is).

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