A Question of Sport

Hello dearest readers! Sorry about the long lay off but I had to take a little step back due to my Father being diagnosed and treated for Cancer of the throat and me being made redundant from day job (although I was informed that it wasn’t me but the role that was being made redundant, which of course made things much better).

Still, with a New Year brings a fresh start, a revamped website which I will expand upon and, it transpires, a Brand New Hope For The Future Of Cycling In Britain which usually happens this time of year (This must not be confused with a Brand New Summer Hope For The Future of Cycling In Britain or the Perennial Brand New Hope For The Future of Cycling In Britain). This year, it comes in the form of a Government Inquiry which comes of the back of some generosity from last years Brand New Hope For The Future Of Cycling In Britain, The Times’s Cities Fit for Cycling campaign, which was launched last February [2012] after a reporter, Mary Bowers, was run over by a lorry on her ride to work in November 2011. According to The Times, ‘she remains minimally conscious and still receives round-the-clock medical attention’, so please pause for a moment, spare her a thought and wish her all the best.

From the All Party Parliamentary Cycling Group Blog:

The All Party Parliamentary Cycling Group (APPCG) will start taking evidence for an inquiry entitled: “Get Britain Cycling” on the 23rd January. There will be six evidence sessions with a panel of MPs and Peers who will take verbal evidence from a selected group of witnesses. The last session will be on the 6th March.

The inquiry will examine the barriers which are preventing more people from cycling in the UK. Cycling makes up 2% of all journeys, compared to 27% in the Netherlands and 18% in Denmark. Some European towns have more than 50% of all journeys made by bike.

I have no trouble with this premise. It’s a very good premise and one on which The Cycling Embassy of Great Britain submitted evidence on which you can read here. However, I have trouble being convinced that the Inquiry will look at cycling, and mass utility cycling in particular, in a fresh and progressive way.

One fundamental problem that I wish to cover in this post stems from how the bicycle is regarded in this country. It simply isn’t viewed as a serious mode of transport, and very rarely advertised as such. It is a piece of sporting equipment, a child’s plaything and something to stick on the back of the car and take to the New Forest provided it isn’t raining. This is a perception that can of course change with proper leadership and Government policy. After all, it was only a little over 5 years ago when smoking inside a public building was perfectly acceptable. However, there seems to be an unbreakable connect between cycle sport and transport, particularly amongst the main cycling groups (CTC, British Cycling & Sustrans) that have been called to give evidence. I believe that a clear distinction has to be made, as sporting success, however uplifting and momentous should not dictate or influence transport policy in any way. I also believe that this is one of the major elephants in the cycle campaigning World and the failure to address it will only lead to further Schizophrenia, particularly amongst the major cycling organisations.

Just before the Inquiry, CTC (the National Cycling Charity) made a public announcement. To support women’s cycling they are going to launch a UK based elite women’s racing team that will take part in key events in the 2013 race calendar. Now, I accept that there is a massive gender imbalance in cycle sport, in fact most other sports too. I also can’t criticise CTC for doing this as a way to redress that imbalance. However, let’s not pretend that this will be some trickle down effect and that women across the land will suddenly start enquiring as to how to ride on busy roads to go to work or meet up with friends which is quixotic at best – the same with most men. This may not be a reason for CTC doing it at all but I have to question the raison d’etre when surely this is the remit of British Cycling (after all the members of a CTC backed team would surely have to get their racing licences from BC). I’m not sure what the actual point of it is. Lizzie Armistead was quoted on the BBC as saying the following…

…Britain’s Lizzie Armitstead, one of the shining lights of women’s cycling, told BBC Sport that “the issue is much bigger than simply putting a few jerseys on a few women’s backs”.

The 23-year-old from Otley in Yorkshire, who was talent spotted by British Cycling at the age of 15, first raised the issue on the back of her greatest triumph to date, winning Olympic road race silver – Team GB’s first medal of the London Games.

Moments after her medal presentation she told the media: “The sexism I have encountered in my career can get quite overwhelming and very frustrating.”

Armitstead points to disparity in pay and prize money for women compared to men and the lack of media coverage for women’s cycling.

With the emergence of the Wiggle Honda Team, backed by the Bradley Wiggins Foundation,  and another women’s team funded by the national cycling charity CTC,  Armitstead faces the inevitable barrage of questions about whether this tackles the problem.

Her response may be surprising to some.

“For me it’s almost become more frustrating,” she says.

“The general media in Britain don’t understand the ins and outs of cycling, so they fall into the trap of believing that something is going to create real change, when for me I know it’s just a media spin off.

“But, at the same time, if I become too involved in it and let it bother me too much then you become the person who’s the negative person all the time – and I don’t want to be that.

“I’m a passionate and honest person, but I am positive,” she adds…..’

Whilst remaining on the subject of gender, it must be noted that by the end of the second session of the Parliamentary Inquiry on Wednesday [30th January], 18 men and only 5 women would have given evidence. I expect this divide to be a gaping chasm by the end of the Inquiry.

What I’ve tried to draw attention to through this blog, and through the Cycling Embassy of Great Britain is that it is perfectly possible to just hop on a bicycle without the need for any specialist equipment whatsoever, that there are bicycles available that facilitate this (you do have to search a bit but the list is growing) and that there are countries that have made the bicycle as transport the norm. This is because they have created inviting conditions through dedicated high quality infrastructure that has had proven success, helping to remove transport poverty and empowering more vulnerable groups. The Netherlands and Denmark have been able to achieve this and still have a thriving cycle sport scene. However, they are regarded as separate things in the same way that Formula 1 and Touring Car racing are separate from everyday motoring (although I do wonder sometimes when driving on the M23).

And here we get to the crux of the matter in Britain. At the moment only the dedicated are cycling as in those that are riding in spite of the conditions as opposed to because of them. A great number of whom wear specialist clothing and equipment whilst riding fast bikes. Every time a mass cycling event or protest ride is held in this country for example, it is always noted, particularly amongst bloggers, how many people are wearing helmets, lycra and hi-viz clothing. It is also noted that this doesn’t help the cause as it merely confirms the suspicions of an already sceptical public – that cyclists are an ‘out group’ and not a societal norm. However, I would make the point that these cyclists would probably be wearing specialist clothing on fast bikes even in a British mass cycling culture as they are also probably covering longer distances, and its always going to be better than gym membership. The difference being that they would suddenly look like sporty, normal commuters in a sea of other normally dressed people just going about their day by bicycle, just like in the Netherlands and Denmark.

This is where the arguments start; the finger is pointed at established cycling groups for failing to understand a group that doesn’t really exist in this country at the moment. The established groups keep making the point that there is no political will. This is certainly true to a point, but political will comes from a mandate from the people and how can the people get behind something that they don’t know about yet? If you were to ask an average British person on the street what the first thing that came in to their minds would be if you were to say ‘The Netherlands’, the responses would range from Edam cheese, windmills, that song by Max Bygraves, or a startlingly mature perceived attitude to class B drugs and sex. ‘Bicycles’ and ‘Infrastructure’ would only be the response of cycling enthusiasts, such as myself (I turned 40 last November). What we do know is that where even mediocre infrastructure has been provided in this country such as the NCN2 near me, the stretch between Worthing and Brighton has seen consistent year on year growth in cycling numbers. We also know that there is a latent demand thanks to tons of research by people such Dr Dave Horton and his sublime and compelling ‘Understanding Walking and Cycling’ study.

A fear might be that if high quality infrastructure techniques where introduced to Britain, and a mass cycling culture developed as a result, not many would really want to join a cycling organisation. After all, I quite enjoy sitting down from time to time which, although it is a perfectly normal activity, does not compel me to become a member of a Sofa awareness group.

Perfectly Normal. And, no she isn’t reading ‘Sofa Sitting Monthly’


However, if mass cycling was unlocked in Britain, and conditions were made not just tolerable but inviting for all ages, races, genders, faiths and all types of bicycle, then I believe that more people would be compelled to join British Cycling and the CTC for sport, leisure and sound advice. The trickle should be from transport to sport. Not vice versa. But you all know that already.

At this point, I would show some dazzling footage from Mark Wagenbuur on how the Dutch have made the exciting quite deliciously boring but instead I’m going to leave you with Chris Boardman demonstrating how representatives from the British Cycle Sport fraternity ‘get it’ as far as cycling as transport is concerned, which for me is very heartening.

Well, there you go. It was a bit garbled but we got there in the end. More clearer stuff will feature very soon. I promise.

3 Comments on A Question of Sport

  1. Simon
    January 30, 2013 at 1:55 pm

    Chris Boardman is f*cking brilliant. When he opens his mouth, sense flows out. He should be the figurehead for any campaign to increase cycling.

  2. Martin P
    January 30, 2013 at 2:12 pm

    Woo hoo! That interview with Chris Boardman was just *fab*.

  3. Simon Parker
    January 31, 2013 at 1:45 pm

    I hope your father is well and on the road to full recovery: it’s amazing what they can do these days.

    You pose the question: What would be the first thing that an average British person on the street would think of if you were to say, ‘The Netherlands’? Well, as it happens, I am reading a novel by Robert Harris, and I have just got to the point in the book where the main character is thinking about Amsterdam:

    “He had visited it twice. He liked its elegance, its sense of history; it had intelligence: he must take [his wife] there when all this was sorted out. They could smoke dope in a cafe – wasn’t that what people did in Amsterdam? – and then make love all afternoon in an attic bedroom in a boutique hotel.”

    Yeah, yeah, I know. My fault for reading pulp. But isn’t it true that they only sell you what you buy?


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