A cartoon from the current edition of Private Eye, that made me smile.
The joke, of course, lies in the new dominance of British cycling in a French race, and an extension of that dominance, beyond cycle sport, to a stereotypically traditional use of the bicycle by French people (although pedants might argue that the French, without a winner for decades, have been usurped, or ‘replaced’, a long time ago).
Selling onions by bicycle, and racing over 2000m high mountain passes, are obviously very different activities. You would struggle, I think, to carry any reasonable quantity of onions on Bradley Wiggins’ extraordinary time trial bike, which is designed to be ridden with your upper body in a horizontal position, and at speeds on the flat of around 30 mph (although not by mere mortals).
Likewise Mark Cavendish would flounder desperately in a bunch sprint if he had to compete on a sturdy bike with a wicker basket full of onions, and a baguette under his arm.
The fact that the word ‘cycling’ covers such a range of different activities permits the kinds of jokes seen in the cartoon. For cycling advocacy, this dual meaning (a dual meaning absent in the Netherlands) is a blessing, and a curse – although how much of a blessing and a curse will depend on your viewpoint.
It’s a blessing because it allows success in the sport of cycling to raise the profile of cycling in general. British success in sports cycling has, I think, far outstripped any improvements for cycling in general over the last decade, with multiple world and olympic champions on the track and the road, and now a Tour de France winner. Meanwhile cycling for transport, despite some positive stirrings, lags far behind, particularly on the evidence of national modal share patterns. Anything that puts bikes – of whatever form – on the front pages of newspapers is surely a good thing.
It’s a curse, however, primarily because plenty of British people aren’t all that interested in sport, or physical exertion – let alone the particular niche of cycling for sport. There is a danger that that the great success of our professional sports cyclists could lead to a reinforcement of the idea that ‘cycling’ necessarily involves exertion, and needs special, expensive-looking bicycles, and weird clothes, and consequently that the idea of ‘cycling’ becomes less attractive to the less athletically-minded sections of our population. Indeed, alongside hostile road conditions, I think this perception has been one of the main barriers to the uptake of cycling over the last few decades – the idea that riding a bike is necessarily a sporting activity. It’s only recently that practical – really practical bicycles, not just hybrids – have started to appear in significant numbers in bike shops.
Getting the message right is important because the current non-cycling demographic – principally women – are less likely to be interested in sport, and physical activity. The increase of cycling in London has primarily been amongst more athletically-minded young and middle-aged men, for instance. The physical demands of cycling safely on the roads of towns and cities in Britain have selectively created a cycling demographic dominated by young and middle-aged men. Those roads and streets have simultaneously put off the less physically able. In other words, these non-cyclists – the very people we need to reach – are those who are not as fast, or as powerful, and who had probably never heard of Bradley Wiggins until a week ago.
I don’t doubt that the success of Wiggins et al. will have a positive impact on British cycling, primarily for sport, but also for transport. But we should be very careful that, in trumpeting that success, we don’t put off potential cyclists by making cycling seem like an extraordinary activity. The message that riding a bike is easy, comfortable and (usually) effortless should be rammed home, and should not be lost in the promotion of cycling in the wake of sporting success.
We don’t use success in distance running to promote and publicise the ease of walking to the shops. Nor would we expect British success in motor racing to influence people’s decision to drive to the supermarket, instead of cycling, or walking, or getting the bus. It is only cycling that faces this problem of multiple meanings, and we should tread very carefully.
Mark Cavendish doesn’t ride a bicycle to the shops. He uses his car.
I grew up on the Isle of Man – so a white circle with a black line means ‘go as fast as you can’. It’s absolutely my favourite place to drive… the roads are wicked.