Sunday, 12 August 2012

Promoting sports cycling has absolutely nothing to do with generating a mass cycling culture

After some hints that he would say something about a "cycling legacy" from the London Olympics, Boris Johnson announced on Friday (or rather re-announced) that next year there will be a two-day festival of cycling in London to be called (rather boringly) RideLondon.

There seem to be two main elements of this. The first is a "family fun ride" on an 8-mile loop of closed roads in central London: exactly what we have had for several years annually, under the name, first, of Freewheel, and then, of the Sky Ride. This idea, was, indeed, originally suggested by the London Cycling Campaign (but not by me) to the previous mayor. The other, new, element, is a 100 mile road race for amateur and professional racing cyclists that will use a route similar to the Olympic road race.

The reaction of various cycling organisations and websites to this news has been of a certain form.

The ibikelondon blog said:
I welcome the RideLondon festival and know that it will be a phenomenal event, made so by all of the wonderful participants and crowds that turn out to cheer on our cycling heroes.

But I'm livid that a one off event is being spun by the powers that be as a "permanent legacy for cycling" in London. It is nothing of the sort, and sadly only demonstrates the utter paucity of imagination from the people whose very job it is to run our city.
The LCC said:
The London Cycling Campaign welcomes these events, but shares the disappointment of many Londoners that an announcement supposedly offering an ‘Olympic legacy’ for cyclists doesn’t include any new infrastructure to make London’s streets more safe and inviting for cycling.
The Cycling Embassy of Great Britain said:
The Cycling Embassy of Great Britain welcomes the Mayor of London's newly-announced Ride London festival. However, we note that, while closed roads for cycling, even for only two days a year, are obviously appreciated, a real legacy for cycling would be to make the roads of London safe and inviting for people of all ages and abilities, every day of the year, not just for a weekend in August.
So, all of the form, "We welcome this, but..."

Ever iconoclastic, I'm going to break the pattern. I don't welcome it. Not at all. I've been to enough of those Sky Ride type events. They are horrible. They amount to a kind of unique torture for cyclists, cramming us together like sardines in a tin on a few niggardly-handed out kilometres of closed roads in central London, for which privilege we have to suffer a bombardment of unwelcome music, moronically-cheery "motivational" announcements over PA systems, the advertising of sponsors forced down our throats, a sea of stupid yellow tabards, the promotion of helmets, and the presence of boring cyclesport celebrities. Like everything else to do with the official treatment of transport cycling in the UK, it's just another insult.

If you've seen the Netherlands now, you've seen what we could have in the UK. We could have spacious, calm, relaxed, quiet, helmetless, tabardless, traffic-free cycling for everyone, every day of the year, everywhere in the country, without damaging the economy, or banning cars. Sky Ride, or RideLondon, or whatever it is called this week, is just a grotesque travesty of this vision. I hate the whole thing, and I will not be going. If I do, it will be only to hand out Cycling Embassy publicity to try to built the campaign for transport cycling to be treated seriously by the UK.

The road race, well, there's nothing wrong with having that. I'm not interested in it, but I have no objection to it, but still, I'm not going to say "I welcome it but...", because there's no particular logic in me saying that. What I am interested in is building an everyday cycling culture in the UK similar to that which exists in the Netherlands, based on infrastructure, if that's at all possible.

In a long comment on my last blogpost from Paul M, which is worth reproducing part of here, he says of the "Olympic legacy":
But even if cycling does see a boost, and even if that boost does turn out to have legs, is that something for a “segregationist” to take much pleasure from? I doubt it – the entire thrust of Olympic cycling coverage has been about cycling as an extreme sport. Whippet-thin men with improbably muscular thighs careering along at 50kph+ on carbon bikes, got up in canary coloured lycra, helmet and wraparound shades, duelling other riders and occasionally coming to grief. All this on enclosed elliptical tracks or roads totally closed to non-official motor vehicles. There is more than a whiff of danger even without the HGVs and the boy racers to contend with. 
Segregationists, I submit, are about the very young, the fairly old, and the otherwise faint-hearted [in other words almost the entire population], who would like to use a bike in the manner of a wheeled pedestrian. There is absolutely nothing for them in this. Sure, some youngish men, and maybe indeed some youngish women, may be inspired to take up sports cycling. They will be drawn from those who are fit, confident, relatively unconscious of their own mortality, and assertive, perhaps aggressive in temperament. In other words, like the dominant cycling culture we have today, on our commuter journeys as well as out on weekend rides. To borrow from those popular postcards people pin above their desks, You don’t have to be fit, fearless, and aggressive to ride here – but it helps! 
Just as (apparently, according to the BBC last night) Darwinism can explain the athletic prowess of African-Americans through their experience of slavery and the journey across the ocean that brought them to it, the condition of our roads has evolved British commuter cyclists to have the genes which render them more likely to behave in the manner which upsets and infuriates some pedestrians and apparently all Daily Mail readers. We are caught in a vicious spiral of conditions breeding attitudes which in turn reinforce those conditions. I can see nothing in London 2012 which will change that – it will take something considerably more radical.
I agree fully. Paul puts it well. Having given considerable thought to the subject over the years, I have concluded that the promotion of cycling as sport has absolutely nothing to do with achieving the conditions needed for mass utility cycling. Absolutely nothing. Now I think the converse argument is not the same. I think that if we did have mass utility cycling, that would be good for cycle sport. One can see that from the Netherlands, where, as I wrote last year after I had been on David Hembrow's study tour:
When you have created such good conditions for cycling as the Dutch have, and cycling becomes normal transport from kindergarten to dotage, non-utility cycling also mushrooms and blossoms in every conceivable direction. Far from there being a lack of "enthusiast" or "sports" cycling in the Netherlands, the country is full of racing cyclists, time-trialists, Audaxers, long and short distance touring cyclists, leisure and enthusiast cyclists of every description, even, would you believe it, mountain bikers (there are specially constructed rough and muddy mountain biking courses, to make up for the lack of true mountains, or even hills). Every town of consequence has a racing bike track (far from the case in the UK), and you see all these breeds of leisure and sports cyclist far more frequently than you do in the UK.
I think it works this way round. The pyramid of cycling must stand on its broad base, it can't be inverted. I see no evidence that the encouragement of cycle sport, by itself, in any way influences conditions on the roads that utility cyclists (or indeed non-sporting leisure cyclists) have to cope with day in, day out. The thing I notice is that most people involved in cycling want to believe that this is not so. They are, even when they are engaged day to day in campaigning for better cycling conditions, as are, for example, so many good members of LCC and CTC, pretty much to a man, or to a woman, at least to some extent interested in the sporting side of cycling, and they want to believe there is a connection. They want to believe that if cycle racing is held in high esteem, that if half the nation follows Bradley or Chris's every move, if Team UK is winning races and if roads in Surrey are closed for the peleton to pass, that somehow this overflows into more people on bikes generally and stronger political demands for roads safe for cycling.

But in reality all the confusion and hoo-ha following Bradley Wiggins's ill-advised pronouncement on cycle safety and helmet-use just shows how difficult all this is. If we get into a world that is about speed, competition, risk, adventure, what have you, we are going further and further away from what we actually need to normalise everyday cycling in the UK. There is no way that these elite athletes, who are going to keep getting asked for their opinions on everything from helmets to cadences to energy bars to the best colour for a cycle superhighway, are ever going to be experts on safety or cycling policy. The more we in the UK focus on the image of the bike as the tool of a sport, it seems to me, the more the picture of ordinary people of all ages and fitness levels using bikes for daily short journeys goes out of focus. The more we associate cycling with speed and courage, the more reasonable seems to be the view of the "right" place for cycling as part of a flow of motor traffic, the "Effective Cycling" view of cyclists "driving" their bikes that has driven cycling into extreme marginalisation in the English-speaking world, that concurs with Boris Johnson's view that cycling on multi-lane gyratory systems designed for fast motor-vehicle throughput is no problem "if you keep your wits about you".

So I'm not going to "welcome" the organisation of a 100 mile race round the home counties by the Mayor of London, just as I'm not going to "welcome" Wimbledon, and I'm not going to "welcome" the Epson Derby or the London Marathon. I have absolutely nothing against any of these events, they are all great things to those who follow or participate in those sports, but they none of them have the slightest connection to the promotion of cycling as transport, and none of them belong in a paragraph of the form "I welcome..., but if we want to see everyday cycling...".

I was standing at a small vigil on Friday, the day Boris made his boring announcement. It was the vigil for Dan Harris, the cyclist killed by the Olympic bus at the entrance to the Olympic Park the night that Wiggins won his gold. There was a small group of cyclists there, not more than 30, and a lot of police standing round at a respectful distance from the crowd, the ghost bike, and the "shrine". The feeling I got was that we were like a tiny sect being guarded over, gently but firmly controlled, and overlooked by the security apparatus of the state. We were like the Druids who are allowed to have a ceremony at Stonehenge at midsummer, so long as they don't damage the monument, or like some other tiny minority religion, being humoured and allowed to exist by the state, though regarded essentially as a curious, slightly nutty irrelevance. That's how I think the British state regards non-sports cyclists. The reality is, behind all the warm words of encouragement, that we are held at a cold, tolerant distance. We are utterly marginal to the main thrusts of our state and society. And this is simultaneous with the whole nation loving Bradley's sideburns and Pendleton's... whatever.

What I saw in The Netherlands was the polar opposite: it was cycling embraced by state and society warmly, genuinely, unconditionally. As the mission statement of the Cycling Embassy of Great Britain puts it:
We at the Cycling Embassy of Great Britain want to see an end to cyclists being pushed to the margins; we want to see a network of direct, well-designed, separated cycle routes that are safe even for young children to use.
That's it. That's how it works. RideLondon is not a step towards that in any way, and I condemn Boris Johnson absolutely for it.

The vigil for Dan Harris. More pictures here.


    hi dave, have a listen to this. Academic jonathon grix states no evidence for legacy effect on sport participation from olympic events.

  2. Well said David. Speaking as someone who has no interest in cycle-sport (or any sport really) I find the British confusion over cycling as sport/transport to be very annoying, and it is one of the reasons it took me so long to become involved in any form of cycle campaigning.

  3. I am so pleased to read your feelings on the sky rides. I was beginning to think I was just being grumpy and bitter regarding these. I first thought they were a great fun idea, but once seeing how they were organised and the pushing of helmets and hi viz, how the actual rides are complete chaos and of course the fact that they are simply promoting recreational riding instead of every day safe transport riding, I then became cross that so much effort is being put into skyriding that could be put into fighting for real segregation cycling. Why not fight for car free sundays instead? To show people what it would be like as a motorist, cyclist and pedestrian if less cars were on the roads which would happen with segregated cycling.

    My town has been creating some off road recreational cycling areas across dead land that leads nowhere, yet have done nothing about those of us that use cycles for transport except turn narrow pavements into shared two way ped/cyclist paths. Paths I might add that when using them instead of the road they add 50% of the journey time onto ones A to B ride. People just end up driving their cars with bikes strapped on the back to these recreational cycling areas.

    Recreational riding is fantastic, but if it's not safe to ride ones bike on the roads to start a recreational ride what is the point.

    This 2 day event in London next year does absolutely nothing for the rest of the country, and does absolutely nothing towards a safe cycling infrastructure.

  4. Kristian Cyclist12 August 2012 at 16:13

    Couldn't help but notice the slight difference in figures either...£500m ringfenced for teamGB (a ~500 person team) to send this elite minority to Rio in 2016. Meanwhile, £15m to redo a few junctions for the UK (70 million people). So once again, the 99% get shafted. The bizarre thing about these olympics is that we are cheering for it, the turkeys are voting for christmas in droves. Panem Et Circenses *sigh*

  5. I went into Manchester to try this year's city sky ride quite late in the day, and got wound up by the incessant warnings that the roads were due to "go live" in half an hour, as if we were all about to turn into pumpkins.

    Maybe it was only fair to warn all those who aren't used to cycling, and who had driven into town with bikes on racks for the occasion, that they would have to share the streets with cars again. But I explained to a few of the stewards that the fact cars would be allowed again didn't mean that cycles would then be banned; that I ride on those same roads every day of the week without their help, sometimes even with my daughter on board, although I would rather the conditions were less hostile.

    This is a great article. As I'm sure you know, the Dutch apparently do a much better job of making the distinction between sport cycling and transport cycling:
    Of course with walking\running there is a clear difference in the gait, which betrays the purpose. With cycling, not so, and as you wisely explain, in this country the majority of transport cyclists will often have an element of sports cyclist (commuting in lycra) out of necessity, and might therefore not fully appreciate the problem.

    Overheard on the bus in Manchester tonight...
    Newly arrived visitor: You used to cycle a lot in Scunthorpe. How come you don't cycle here?
    Manchester resident: Because it's scary.
    Says it all.

    The question is what we do about it, although

  6. ...although I guess making the point on a blog like this has to help (is what I meant to say).

  7. Funnily enough, I was thinking the same thing just before I read this article. I was mulling over the London Assembly meeting about bikes and it struck me: Why the hell was British Cycling there? They are a sport cycling body.

    Do they ask someone from Formula 1 racing to discuss urban road safety? The very fact that British Cycling was there suggests to me that the London Assembly don't even understand what they're looking at.

    No disrespect intended to Martin Gibbs - his personal views are as valid as anyone's - but British Cycling as a body shouldn't have been on the panel, especially when the CEoGB were relegated to the public area.

    Sports cycling has as much to do with utility cycling as F1 does with driving to do the weekly shop: i.e. nothing.

  8. This may surprise you from a lifelong CTC-ite, but I couldn't agree more. I've always regarded cycle-touring as 'transport of delight' rather than any kind of sport. I find great synergy between travel and transport and comparatively little common ground with competitive cycling - except that the sporty types will use their commute and their holidays for training purposes. And there's the problem.

    The sporty types argue that way cycle-racing segues into touring and commuting is one of the wonderful things about cycling. But I don't think so. I beleive the conflation of cycle sport and transport is unhelpful to the point of dangerous. It's how the Aussies, Kiwis and Spanish got lumbered with helmets. In those countries, cycle sport was the only conspicuous and organised kind of cycling. Those organisations required their own members to wear the things already, which neutered their feeble opposition to public compulsion.

    Mostly though, the viewing of all cycling through a sporting lens is merely annoying. It fills our shops and the nation's garages with actual or in-the-style-of racing and mountain-bikes, rather than the practical bikes that would keep people's trousers dry and comfortably carry their shopping. I realise that equipment is not a major limiting factor in the growth to cycling, but it's my area of work, where I've struggled for decades to promote the practical and deal with the fallout from sporting specialisation.

    I've also struggled in my own small and probably insignificant way, against the infiltration of CTC by cycle sport. I think it's only thanks to the fact that the largest British cycling organisation all my life has been the Cyclists' Touring rather than racing club, that we don't have compulsory helmets already. That so much of our time is taken up with opposing repeated attempts to impose this headgear is certainly one reason we haven't achieved more to make cycling better. And I worry that the s-word, which appeared nowhere in CTC's origingal constitution, is given unwarranted prominence in our new charitable aims. I just hope that enough unsporting cyclists will remain in CTC to keep it from morphing into BC-lite!

    1. Chris:
      Great to see your sensible views on this. Don't you think we could do more to convince the UK cycle industry that there is plenty of profit in non-sporty bikes?
      Most people can't afford to buy, store and maintain more than one bike. They need something much more 'all-purpose' than current offerings to meet the needs of commuting, day riding, touring and even shopping. The spec isn't necessarily the same as the Dutch utility bike if only because we have more hills! There's room for some imaginative design to produce a UK-specific all-purpose bike.
      Here's hoping you'll be able to review some of them in forthcoming issues of 'Cycling'.

  9. You say that "Promoting sports cycling has absolutely nothing to do with generating a mass cycling culture" and this is probably true.

    The thing I find confusing is that there are some many voices who seam to thing that the opposite is also so, ie that generating a mass cycling culture, will not increase the up take of sports cycling. This is a ludicrousness stance to take, just look at the the countries where there is a mass cycling culture and you can see that these are also countries where sports cycling is also very popular. So this rather kills their all to frequent argument that providing cycling infrastructure (or segregation, as they put it) will somehow kill cycle sport. This argument is as sound as saying that building motorways is bad for motor sports. Stuff and nonsense. What is good for mass cycling as transport is good for cycle sport, but the converse is not the same.

    1. The facts clearly do not support the ludicrous suggestion that segregation kills cycle sport. There are plenty of racing clubs in Netherlands and Germany and plenty of racers out and about. There probably more of them, it's hard to tell when they're diluted by a much greater number of 'normal' cyclists, but it doesn't look like a lot more and their numbers certainly don't increase in proportion.

      I think there's a constant, rather small percentage of the human race who are by nature sporty and will find an outlet for that inclination come what may. In an environment that encourages transport cycling a higher percentage of these sporty types will discover an aptitude for cycle sport, but they won't be enough to make a whole lot of difference to anything important. Evidence the recent cycle sport success of UK versus Germany, a similar-sized and just as wealthy country where people on average cycle five times as much.

      German sporting cyclists do find the restrictions irksome and the ADFC has often been called upon to defend its more sporting members' illicit use of this or that road, by proving that the adjacent cyclepath is not up to the regulation standard for compulsory use! But a German with the motivation to excel at sport is not put off by a few km of slow cyclepath - before they reach a minor country road fit for training on - any more than a Brit is deterred by a few miles in heavy traffic. Perhaps the latter is more 'character forming' but I don't think that's a valid defence for the right to ride on such roads!

      Many in CTC disagree with me, but I believe that CTC became too close to cycle sport during a key period in 1940s and 50s, when main roads were being 'improved' for higher traffic speeds and adjacent cycle tracks constructed. CTC's leaders at that time had cycle racing roots and CTC even formed racing sections! The impracticality of accommodating racing club groups on these tracks was a key CTC objection and at no time before or since was CTC opposition to segregation more trenchant. The Gazzette carried a several pages article on the problem of junctions, but when the Association of Cycle Traders said cyclists should work with the authorities to solve that problem, CTC quashed their suggestion.

      It was a shamefully short-sighted policy, one that seems to have been unduly influenced by cycle sport, as opposed to those who cycled for travel and transport. The latter view can also be found in the Gazzettes of that era, but only on the letters pages and evidently ignored.