The current situation with Covid-19 is horrendous in so many ways. I am a big fan of looking on the bright side, but this has been hard to do lately.
But there are glimmers of a bright side.
For me the bright side comes in the form of more people appreciating the outdoors, more people walking, and more people cycling. Since getting more people (and particularly more women) on their bikes is something I have been passionate about for a long time, I am loving seeing so many people out on bikes.
I still see the cyclists I always saw, out on the same routes. Cyclists wearing lycra crouched over the drop handlebars of their road bikes. I smile and wave as I always have, an acknowledgement of a kind of kinship. These are the people I see when I am out wearing lycra, crouched over the drop handlebars of my road bike. I don’t believe ‘cyclists’ like this have really changed, apart from their frustration over missed club rides, sportives and races. This was the year I was going to get back to racing after a year off, and also ride my first big sportive since having children.
What has changed is the number of children, families, older people and women out on bikes. People wearing jeans, or skirts, or sandals. People with helmets on the back of their heads or no helmet at all. People whose bikes make funny noises, with their seats too low or their tyres too flat. People who have never heard of Strava and for whom a ride of 6 miles is a massive achievement. Friends who have said to me for years ‘I really should get a bike’ have now got that bike and are loving it. Others have dug out the bike which has been lingering at the back of their shed or garage for years.
This is amazing to see. Ordinary people getting on their bikes and loving it. Who cares what they are wearing and whether their bikes are the finest tuned machines on the road. They are on bikes.
We need this to continue. We need these people to keep riding bikes long after lock down and Covid-19 become horrible memories. If all these people who have discovered – or re-discovered – cycling keep riding their bikes, our societies will be transformed.
More people on bikes has the potential to mean less people driving. Less cars means less congestion, safer roads, cleaner air. More people on bikes has the potential to mean more people taking regular exercise, meaning a healthier population. The benefits of cycling have been shown over and over again. (If you need more convincing then ‘Bike Nation’ by Peter Walker is a great book).
Of course cycling (and walking) will not be the answer for everyone. Some people have mobility issues, some people need to drive for work, some people just plain don’t want to walk or cycle. Fair enough. But more people on bikes means less congestion for those who have to (or want to) drive. Surely that is a good thing for those people too?
This potential to transform travel right now has been recognised by France, where there is to be a subsidy scheme to encourage cycling. It now looks as if the potential might be even be recognised in the UK with funding announced to support active travel.
If the suggested improvements to infrastructure for cycling and walking do materialise (apologies for my cynicism) then this will be a great leap forward. Better provision of quality infrastructure will help more people to cycle more.
Cycling is in a strange position. For some people riding a bike is a sport, for others it is a way of getting to where they need to go. For some of us cycling is both. When I ride my road bike I am ‘training’. On my road bike (in addition to the sheer enjoyment) I am riding to get fitter, to get faster, to go further. I wear lycra and shoes with cleats and ride predominantly on the roads. I also (in the pre- and post-lock down world) use bikes to get to the shops, take my children to school, visit friends, go to work. To me this kind of cycling is nothing to do with sport, it is how I travel. I travel in ‘normal’ everyday clothes, I take my time, I use traffic free paths when I can, I carry a lock and waterproofs, and I often have a handbag stuffed in a pannier bag.
At this point in time, we do not need more people ‘training’ on bikes. We need more people travelling on bikes. This is supposedly the whole point of this funding. It is what the UK government apparently want us to do.
It is crucial that this message encouraging and supporting cycling is spread. But just as crucial as the content of the message, is the image of that message.
Yesterday, the image was presented in the form of professional Team Ineos cyclists, Chris Froome, Owain Doull and Geraint Thomas.
This infuriates me.
I have nothing against Chris Froome, Owain Doull and Geraint Thomas. They are incredible cyclists and I am in awe of their achievements. They are also male, white, skinny, super-fit and lycra-clad. This comes with the territory of who they are and what they do, and it is fantastic that they are keen to encourage more people to cycle…but.
But…it infuriates me because they are so very, very far from the image that we need of cycling right now.
What we need is images of ordinary, everyday people on bikes, people of all shapes and colours. And it’s not like these images are hard to find just now – they are the exact people who are out there, on bikes, right now.
Skinny, super-fit, lycra-clad cyclists are an intimidating image of cycling. The vast majority of people will find nothing whatsoever to identify with in these people. It is fantastic that they support the idea of more people cycling, but they should not be at the forefront of this campaign.
WHY is the image of training being used to promote the idea of travelling? Can you imagine a campaign to encourage more people to walk which is led by professional race walkers?
As someone who spends a lot of time encouraging more women to cycle, what also infuriates me is that this image is male.
I have no evidence to offer other than what I have seen in the past few weeks, but to me the number of men riding bikes has not really changed. What has changed massively is the number of women and children on bikes. Women have been in the minority of those using bikes for so long, and now that is changing.
This is not the first time that cycling’s male-dominated image has infuriated me.
If we really want to see a change to more people riding bikes, we need to see images people on bikes that everyone can relate to. We need role models who can advise on the best waterproofs for cycling, where are the best routes, what to look for in a second-hand bike, how to fix a puncture, how to lock your bike, how to cycle with children. We need approachable, enthusiastic, helpful people.
There are plenty of them out there. Many of them have been there for years, plugging away at the same message….and they’re probably not wearing lycra.