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.The LCC said:
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 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.|