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Letters from the Atlantic Letters from the Atlantic by Barrie Mahoney

'Writing Inspired by an Island in the Atlantic'

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​All Helmets and Lycra

All Helmets and Lycra

Over the years, cyclists from all over Europe have headed to the Canary Islands to take advantage of some decent weather with which to indulge in their favourite pastime. All of the inhabited islands have become increasingly popular, but with the favourite destinations being Tenerife, Gran Canaria, Lanzarote and Fuerteventura that are selected as ideal destinations for all-year-round cycling. The tourist boards and hotels are grateful, since income from cyclists and their entourages makes a healthy contribution to tourist income.

As well as heat, the islands offer mountains, breath-taking scenery and a refreshing sea breeze. Rainfall is rare during most of the year, which makes the islands ideal for winter training. The main disadvantage are the dust storms, which although occasional, are like riding through a blanket of hot, dry fog. These ‘calimas’ are caused by very fine sand being blown from the Sahara. Locals are wise enough to know that they should remain indoors in such conditions, but it is not unusual to see dozens of cyclists attempting to complete their training schedule in conditions that must be injurious to their general health, and with some being admitted to hospital for treatment. Those suffering from asthma, as well as other breathing conditions, would do well to avoid cycling on the islands during the presence of a calima.

Whilst following behind two ‘team cyclists’ the other day, who incidentally were holding hands, it occurred to me that I rarely see a happy cyclist nowadays. They all seem to be so deadly serious, gritting their teeth and with huge quantities of sweat leaking from their designer Lycra. It looks to be anything but pleasurable and seems to be more of a test of endurance; maybe that is the point. I rarely see cyclists actually enjoying their cycling in the beautiful scenery that these islands have to offer. Their eyes seem to be glued to the road just ahead of them, or glued to the sensuous bottom of the team cyclist in front.

It all seems such hard work nowadays; whatever happened to cycling for fun? Am I the only one who remembers actually enjoying cycling to work or going for a leisurely cycle in the countryside with friends, and stopping for a pub lunch before cycling home? Cyclists visiting these islands have spent a considerable amount of money on flights and accommodation, as well as transporting their cycles from their home countries, so why waste it peddling aimlessly up and down the same stretch of road near my home?

As I cautiously follow the two cyclists holding hands, musing on my cycling memories from the past, other motorists were getting impatient behind me. Road conditions meant that I could not overtake, so I was content to wait. However, others were not, which encouraged one very angry motorist to hoot the cyclists loudly, as he overtook me whilst approaching a bend. The cycling ‘lovebirds’ merely dropped their physical connection briefly and offered the angry motorist a one-finger salute, which is not the best way to gain friends or to promote one’s sport.

Anger is never appropriate in these circumstances, but it did remind me of a number of emails that I have received in recent months, complaining that “cyclists are a nuisance” (with much stronger language being used). It is also clear that negative comments on the islands’ social media are rapidly increasing, with angry comments declaring that team cyclists are becoming a curse on the islands’ roads. Rarely does a week pass without at least one cyclist being seriously injured during a road traffic accident, or even worse, alongside their crushed cycle. There are regular reports of children, the elderly, the infirm and those simply not paying attention, being hit by a speeding cyclist. It seems that the days of welcoming team cyclists to these islands is fast disappearing.

The old adage of ‘each to their own’ comes to mind, but maybe enjoyment from cycling can be achieved without inconveniencing, annoying or maiming pedestrians and other road users. An appropriate message to team cyclists might be to enjoy these beautiful islands, appreciate the ever-changing scenery, adjust appropriately to road conditions, and to be thoughtful towards others. Maybe looking less desperate and smiling a little, might help too? Speed and sweat is not what life is about.

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The Russia Connection

The Russia Connection

During the time that I have lived in the Canary Islands, I have come to understand, appreciate and admire the contribution and influence that these small islands have made over many years; an influence that is far in excess of the size of this unique archipelago.

Anyone who has travelled across these islands and has driven through some of the older road tunnels, carefully crafted through the centre of some of the volcanic mountains, will appreciate the impressive engineering skills demonstrated by the talented workers of earlier generations. I was reminded of this once again when it was reported that the authorities in St Petersburg, the second largest city in Russia, announced their decision to dedicate a bridge on the tributary of the Neva River in honour of the Canary Islands engineer, Agustín de Betancourt, who worked for Tsar Alexander I.

This bridge will be inaugurated on the eve of the opening of the World Cup later this year, which links the islands of Petroviski, Serni and Dekabristov through the Malaya Neva. The naming of this bridge after Agustín de Betancourt marks 260 years since the birth of this Tenerife engineer. This bridge will help to reduce the traffic congestion of St Petersburg, which has traffic jams as big as Moscow, and has a stadium that will host one of the World Cup semi-finals.

Agustín de Betancourt was born in 1758 in Puerto de la Cruz in Tenerife and his roots can be traced back to Jean de Béthencourt who began the colonisation of the Canary Islands in 1402, declaring himself as King of Tenerife in 1417. Agustin’s father was a well-educated businessman with commercial interests in textile machinery, and his mother, Maria, was the first woman in Tenerife to publish a scientific article about dyes used in textiles. Agustin graduated in Madrid, and worked on canal buildings and mining, before travelling to Paris to study hydraulics and mechanics.

Betancourt had work published on engineering within the coal industry, but his main role was to discover new technologies that would benefit Spain. His work took him to England where he visited James Watt and Matthew Boulton, who were pioneers of the steam engine. Much of Betancourt’s work appears to be connected with intelligence gathering from engineers working in France, England and the Netherlands, which would probably be called commercial espionage nowadays. His interests were wide and varied ranging from the optical telegraph, Spain’s first hot air balloon, harbour dredging, gun barrels, building a city jail, preservation of several ancient churches, building a cathedral and rebuilding a fairground, which gives a flavour of the interests and achievements of this dedicated engineer at work.

It was Betancourt who became the founder and director of the Institute of Communication Route Engineers, and, among other things, designed the first paper money printing machine in Tsarist Russia. He lived in Russia for 16 years and was also involved in construction projects in the Nizhny Novgorod main commercial precinct during the Nineteenth Century, and the modernisation of the Tula weapons factory. During his life, he also created the School of Civil Engineers of Roads, Canals and Ports for Madrid and built the Double Effect Steam Machine.

Agustín de Betancourt died in 1824 in St Petersburg. Engineer, architect, builder and inventor, Agustin de Betancourt has a memorial in the form of a bust in the premises of the University of Railway Engineering and is buried in the cemetery of Alexandr Nevsky Monastery in St Petersburg. Once again, many will be surprised, as well as humbled, by the impressive achievements of this son of the Canary Islands.

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