Bradley Wiggins selling onions

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.



See also the recent musings of Chester Cycling and Dave Horton about what Tour de France success might mean for ‘ordinary’ cycling

This entry was posted in Cycle sport, Cycling policy, Cycling renaissance, The media, The Netherlands. Bookmark the permalink.

5 Responses to Bradley Wiggins selling onions

  1. On my recent rather long charity ride with my employer I actually realized I can get around on a bike, covering a fairly considerable distance, without actually needing to bust a gut (except at the points where I choose to make it hard or the road started heading upwards, both of these occurring when we passed over the Peak District!)

    For the bulk of the ride however I was doing around 15mph on some superbly beautiful country lanes just enjoying being at one with my bike, it was truly a wonderful experience.

    In total we covered 270 miles over 4 days and whilst the vast majority of the riders where on varying levels of road bikes, from Trek Madone 5.9’s down to my Giant SCR 3.0, one of our riders was on a hybrid and another on a very sturdy (read heavy!) touring bike 🙂 The tourer was used to high mileage (he actually rode back to Bolton from London over the following 3 days the mentalist!) but the hybrid rider wasn’t by any means a regular rider before this so for him to complete it was truly an achievement.

    The connection you’ve made between the current state of our roads and the demographic of riders and their style of riding is one that I think is lost even on some cyclists, those who still believe that we should be riding in the gutter all the time. It’s a similar story with vehicular cycling – it’s funny how no Dutch riders need to adopt such techniques isn’t it?

  2. Lorenzo says:

    Matt cartoon in Telegraph today amusing too. Saw this whilst stopping for food today in Cranleigh, Surrey, where available copies of the the Telegraph were outnumbered only by Dail Wails.

  3. Kim says:

    Cavindish might drive to the shops but David Miller is on record as riding his TT bike to the shops, although he admits is it not the best choice of bike for going shopping…

  4. Paul M says:

    I have no doubt that many people were disappointed by the outcome of the men’s road race on Saturday – a triple disappointment, in that Mark Cavendish did not win, the UK did not get a medal, and an unrepentant druggie, with by all accounts a reputation for very aggressive tactics, got gold.

    But every cloud has a silver lining: it focussed more attention than I suspect would otherwise have been focussed on the achievement of Lizzie Armitstead winning the silver in the women’s race on Sunday. And what an engaging character! In her interviews she came across as stunningly good looking, youthful, modest and engaging – more of a girl (which is *not* intended to be patronising) than an athlete. There is also the remarkable report in the weekend press that she is a relative newbie, having only acquired her first bicycle at around the age of sixteen(?)

    I think that as a nation, the UK has the general cycling culture it deserves. Male-dominated, predominantly young-to-early-middle-aged, fit and sporty, assertive and perhaps a touch sprinkled with testosterone. That must explain quite a lot of the pavement cycling and red light running which gets the gin&tonic crowd and the Daily Mail so aerated – it’s not just about self-defensive tactics by apprehensive or inexperienced riders, but also an impatient, hurry-hurry mindset. But that is what we get because we have made our roads unfit for anyone with a less adventurous outlook, and that is why such a mindset does not predominate in the Netherlands, because road conditions ensure that they are swamped by a gentler majority.

    This is not intended to be critical of male cyclists – I don’t know them personally and in any case the stars don’t generally seem to have particularly inflated egos – but we are beginning to see quite a lot of media attention on a clutch of female riders who are simultaneously top athletes and attractive, engaging personalities. Role models in every sense. Victoria Pendleton has her own range of bicycles at Halfords, which she has promoted wearing a party frock. One prominent sponsor features her in their ads riding a bike dressed in glamorous clothes and with her hair blowing in the wind, unencumbered by a helmet – necessarily so as the ad is for shampoo, but the point is that it depicts her largely as a woman, not a cyclist. I suppose that this could come over as a sexist observation, for which I apologise, but I am not sure that this concept would work as well for male cyclists. And I think it matters, because it is a far more effective bridge between the cyclist as elite athlete (or city commuting asshole (copyright WOTM)) and the cyclist as normal human being, or person who rides a bicycle.

    We should exploit it to the hilt.

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