Wednesday, 31 July 2013

Froome, Wiggins, and cycling from A to B; or, In Defence of RideLondon

My brother is a 'cyclist'. He never cycles to work. He never uses a bike to get from A to B. He never rides his extremely expensive steed without wearing lycra. He watches the Tour de France and many other less famous cycle races extremely avidly, bordering on dangerous obsession. It goes without saying that recent events, particularly the back-to-back Tour de France victories of Chris Froome and Bradley Wiggins, have helped to draw him even further into the sport.

Chris Froome dominating the 2013 Tour de France.
Until recently I felt quite strongly that people like my brother weren't really helping make cycling in UK safer or more pleasant. My brother will often put a bike in the car and drive to Richmond Park, then take the bike out and race around the road at high speed. Clearly the park is a fantastic place to cycle and train. However, by choosing to drive there, people like my brother are in fact making London's motor traffic congestion worse, not better. Moreover, by choosing to race around the Park at 30mph my brother could also be blamed for reinforcing the extremely negative 'lycra-lout' image that still pervades our national discourses on the word 'cyclist'.

What then is to be gained from the massive rise in 'sports cyclists' (for want of a better term) following successive British victories both at the Olympics and in road racing? Will this make it any easier to cycle from A to B, or simply increase congestion as TfL lays on extra vans to transport contestant's bicycles between Stratford and Pall Mall for RideLondon this weekend? (Presumably this is at least partly because TfL are concerned that even people willing to do 100 miles on a bike will be too scared to cycle on their deadly road system connecting East London and Westminster).

One thing I noticed when staying with friends in Zurich and then Heidelberg earlier this month (two big cycling cities) was the extremely large amount of 'sports cyclists' I saw all over the city. I've become more accustomed to seeing people stacked up in gear in London over the last few years, but they were really going for it in Switzerland and Germany, even the over 65s! When a friend and I rented bikes and went into the hills above Heidelberg we even passed 40 lycra-clad men bombing down in what must have been a semi-professional mid-week mountainous bike race.

When you think about it more, there's a definite link between countries where it is safe to cycle and countries that are seriously interested in sports cycling. It's not really a surprise, then, that Dutch people are so heavily represented among Tour de France spectators; nor that Paris is a far safer city to cycle in than London (given that it does just happen to host the world's biggest cycle race every year). If we want to watch the Tour de France in the UK we need to somehow find ITV4, but in Germany it is screened on their equivalent to the BBC, and to a much wider (and more captivated) audience. Similarly, Copenhagen is one of the world's safest cities to cycle in, and when one browses the Wikipedia page, Sport in Denmark, on quickly finds that, "in recent years, Denmark has made a mark as a strong cycling nation".

Does correlation equal causation? One could certainly argue that these countries are only interested in sports cycling because so many of their citizens travel by bike. However, I would argue that it certainly goes the other way too. After all, the Tour de France was created 104 years before the Paris' Vélib's or their inner-city HGV movement restrictions. One cannot, therefore, argue that the French are interested in sports cycling because so many people cycle in Paris. On the contrary, there is strong evidence to suggest the French cycle to work because they host the Tour de France. Utility/transport cycling and sports cycling are two (almost opposite) sides of the same coin; however, they do symbiotically feed and grow off each other.

Wiggins taking a ride along the Champs Élysées with his son Ben.
Therefore, despite idiotic comments from the likes of Bradley Wiggins ("helmets should be mandatory") and his former manager ("motorists would stop running over and killing cyclists if 90% of cyclists would only stop jumping red lights"), I feel that those of us that use a bike to get from A to B should embrace the recent growth in sports cycling. Even if the immediate benefits are far from clear (i.e. extremely silly articles from Carlton Reid saying that building a network of fantastic, safe cycle lanes wouldn't be enough to make cycling levels in this country explode), the long term benefits are.

We should embrace RideLondon this weekend. And... we should embrace an extremely famous politician like Boris Johnson getting involved (and creating the bloody thing in the first place!).

Certainly, Boris's time would be much, much better spent ripping up Holborn gyrators so that no one has to be killed like Alan Neve was, or sorting out his Cycle "Superhighway" 2 so that no one has to be killed like Philippine De Gerin-Ricard was. It's unacceptable that these aren't top priorities for a Mayor when 69 of inhabitants of his city have been killed on a bike since he took office in 2008.

However, by actively and very publicly associating himself with sports cycling through the RideLondon events, Boris Johnson can't help also attaching himself to transport/utility cycling. The two are inextricably linked. What follows from this is even more political pressure on the Mayor to deliver what he has promised in his Cycling Vision earlier this year. It might not be the best use of Boris's time, but it is still, I would maintain, a step forward.

A typical bike crossing in Heidelberg, a city with strong and long-standing sports cycling links. Note the sheer number of cyclists and the fact they are safely separated from pedestrians. None of this 'shared space' guff here thank you very much.

And here's a shot of someone trying to cycle to work along Whitehall, in the heart of London, a city that has only recently embraced sports cycling.

And another shot of the same street, about 30 seconds later. Obviously what this man is doing is not safe, but nor is waiting beside the taxis really. Westminster Council haven't really given anyone cycling on this street a safe option. The extremely easy solution is simply to build a cycle lane as we can see in use in Heidelberg.