Here’s a challenge for you – go to any shop selling newspapers and magazines and try to find anything of substance regarding bicycles as transport. Sure, you’ll find lots on the subject of cycle sport from time trialling to triathlon to mountain biking to leisure riding but nothing on just riding to the shops. That’s because it would be commercial suicide to attempt such a thing – cycling as transport should be a boring, humdrum activity as opposed to a particular ‘lifestyle’ or activity filled with thrills and spills requiring the purchase of specialist kit. In Britain however, we don’t do boring and humdrum. Cycling is all about ‘FUN!’ or ‘Olympic Legacy!’ if you like.
When I visited the Netherlands on a David Hembrow Study Tour last year, I baffled the locals by getting my camera out and taking photos of the cycle infrastructure (at least, I hope that’s why they looked baffled). They simply couldn’t grasp why someone would want to take pictures of something that was, to them, so boring and taken for granted, or photos of them doing such utterly routine stuff like going to a cafe to meet friends, going to school, or to the shop to top up a mobile phone. To be honest, my wife would have agreed with the Dutch. I’m going to be 40 in November.
The fact is, in Britain, going to a cafe to meet friends, or to school or to the shop to top up a mobile phone are not regular activities undertaken by bicycle. Cycling around a forest or seafront or reservoir are activities undertaken by bicycle because it’s ‘FUN’! And you can buy a magazine to assist with all the tips on high-tech equipment to ride and wear (including racks to mount your bicycles to your car to go to that forest or seafront or reservoir). After all, adults and children are advised to get training and read a large manual of advanced techniques before really tackling British roads to go to a cafe to meet friends, go to school or go to the shop to top up a mobile phone.
In the Netherlands [and I would imagine Denmark also], all this boring, humdrum bicycle as transport stuff goes on, and yet they still manage to have an intensive and varied cycle sport scene. They have Road Cycling and Cyclo-Cross and BMX and Track Cycling and Mountain Biking and Human Powered Vehicles (yes, dear Reader, I did write Mountain Biking). See? In cycling terms, even in Europe they know how to have ‘FUN’!!!
It would be easy at this point to say something along the lines of, ‘well, at least the Dutch and the Danes know where to draw the line between sport and transport’ but that would be the wrong, and blatantly untrue distinction to make. Whilst I was cycling around Groningen and Assen on their bicycle infrastructure, our group was frequently overtaken by individuals or groups of cheery club cyclists in full kit on road bikes. However, because we were going through towns and villages where any infrastructure and population was obviously at its most dense, I found that although they were travelling quicker than us, it was respectfully quicker. They were always travelling at what the Starship Enterprise would call ‘Impulse Power’. The distinction I found, and I stress this is based purely on what I observed, is that they were cycling as though they still had a debt of responsibility where people were, the same as motorists. If they just kept their legs ticking over at a not unpleasant speed [for them] they knew they would be able to open up the speed later in their ride (particularly as Dutch Infrastructure is about segregated ROUTES and not the usual British misinterpretation). The point I wish to make is that the bicycle infrastructure provided is suitable for everyone – not always perfect, but more pleasant and often more direct than the road. It’s perfectly possible to travel at speed too.
The Dutch and the Danes know how to have ‘FUN!’ But they also know how to get to the shops and their children to school correctly.
The problem Britain faces is multi faceted but I’m going to quickly focus on two; Firstly, is the fact that practically every piece of bicycle infrastructure designed and implemented to date is diabolical, and one cannot blame the hardened experienced ‘FUN!’ loving cyclist for being deeply sceptical. If motorways were designed in the same cavalier fashion with piecemeal budgets, minimal consultation and guidelines that are readily ignored, then both driving and cycling on specific infrastructure would be ‘FUN!’ but in a white-knuckle, terrifying fairground ride sort of way. I personally think that level of excitement should come from inside a library book as opposed to cycling to the library to get that book.
Second is the fact that we are spectacularly awful at separating the ‘sport’ from ‘transport’. Some Britons like to think that by cycling to work, they have left the ‘Rat Race’ but all they’ve done is lock themselves into new one of their own construction. Consumerism finds a new and unexpected outlet with all the kit, cameras and, thanks to applications such as Endomondo, a smart phone negates the need for a cycle computer telling the rider everything from average speed to how many calories were burned each trip. A daily gauntlet has been thrown for the quick and the brave with a great deal of risk taking. The thought of ‘Going Dutch’ or ‘Danish’ horrifies them as they cling to the some divine right to the road. A right that has been effectively lost to the majority already.
I personally believe that there needs to be a standard in bicycle infrastructure that acts as a quality benchmark as opposed to guidelines that currently exist which, although are quite good, are all too easily discarded in the name of budgets or just simple lack of understanding of the bicycle as a mode of transport. There needs to be continuity, quality and more than a nod to what has enjoyed proven success in Continental Europe. A Standard that is suitable for every type of bicycle and caters for every type of rider.
There should never be a magazine about mass cycling as transport because it should be the routine, everyday thing you do to get to equally routine activities or more exciting adventures that start as soon as you walk away from a safely locked bike. Mind you, if there was such a magazine, I’d probably subscribe to it. I’d keep it hidden from my wife though. One must maintain an image of ‘FUN!’