The democracy of cycling

With the Tour de France starting on 29 June Philosophy Football’s Mark Perryman argues for a two wheels good politics

Every time I see an adult on a bicycle, I no longer despair for the future of the human race”
– HG Wells

Philosophy Football t-shirt 1 June 2013The most infamous quote on cycling from modern British politics remains hard right Thatcherite Norman Tebbit’s unhelpful advice to the 1980s unemployed to ‘Get on your bike’. So suggesting that two wheels are a more than useful basis for a progressive political project may be an uphill struggle. Whoops! Apologies, a cycling pun so early in the piece; don’t worry there’s sure to be more.

My weekend early morning ride takes me up Sussex’s Ditchling Beacon. Sad I know, but kitted out in a London 2012 Team GB replica cycling jersey I am Bradley Wiggins, Chris Hoy, Victoria Pendleton, Laura Trott all wrapped up in one for those stupendous and lung-bursting 90 minutes of cycling. And as I finish with a sprint drown Lewes High Street there’s a little bit of me that is Cavendish too. This is part of the fantasy of non-competitive cycling: we can all have that dream and not be too ashamed to admit it.

Usually before seven in the morning the Sussex country lanes I pedal furiously up, and down, are deserted but last Sunday they were a hive of activity. By 9am 30,000 cyclists will have set off from London bound for Brighton on the annual charity bike ride. This is one of the single biggest mass participation sports events in the country, numbers-wise on a par with the London marathon or Great North Run, yet without a competitive, elite, dimension attracts virtually none of the media coverage or the saturation live TV these events do. This goes to the core of cycling’s ability to subvert what we think of as sport.

First though some two-legged history then we’ll get back on our two wheels. In the early 1980s there was a running boom. In GB it was framed in part by the phenomenal success of middle-distance runners Seb Coe, Steve Ovett, Steve Cram and Peter Elliott. In the USA Frank Shorter’s surprise Gold Medal in the 1972 Olympic Marathon galvanised interest in what soon became known as jogging. Spurred on by the worldwide bestseller, Jim Fixx’s The Complete Book of Running. The London Marathon, the Great North Run soon followed, with the late, and now anything but great, Jimmy Savile doing more than any other single individual to connect together running, a healthy deterrent to heart disease and raising money for good causes. Via his primetime TV profile Jimmy helped spread precisely this message while running marathons himself complete with trademark cigar while his neck and wrists were draped in what we would now call Bling. If Jimmy could do it, anybody could.

I took up running in this era and have run most days ever since. The mix of appeal included elite success to aspire to and be inspired by, aka ‘role models’. A health conscious message. A fun, recreational non-competitive dimension alongside races for when I felt the need and impulse to compete. Its an easy sport to start, hardly any kit required, no special training facilities, you can run perfectly well on your own or if you prefer find plenty of groups to run with too. And its possibly the most meritocratic of all sports. Most of us are never going to catch Mo Farah. But if you put in the miles then the fitness and speed we never knew we possessed will be the result.

Philosophy Football t-shirt 2 June 2013Yet middle and long distance running, like all sports is socially constructed. Apart from the East Africans winning the London Marathon men’s and women’s races take a look at the rest of the field in this most multicultural of cities. Almost exclusively white, and I’d hazard a guess predominantly middle-class too, though the gender mix is better than most sports. For many this will be a one-off run, been there, run that, and a decent proportion will already be part of an existing sports culture. The jogging boom having failed to reverse falling levels of sports participation and rising levels of obesity. To run distance requires regular and lengthy training runs. That means time, and energy to run either before the start of the day, early when most are asleep, or in the evening when most will be relaxing after work. Not once a week but every day. For many, work patterns will preclude such a routine Apart from the respite of the summer it means running in the dark, something that will put many, particularly women, off. The roads will need to be safe, or preferably for the sake of your knees, access to off-road where the willingness to cope with the wildlife, the humans and the terrain you may well encounter will be another disincentive for many. Running in these and other ways, despite its easy accessibility, has a limited appeal. One that is socially constructed.

Cycling has its restrictions too but these are different. As a sport cycling is virtually unique in that we can do it as we travel to work, to the shops, to a meeting. For the more ambitious what other sport can we do as a day out, or even as a holiday. Like running it has a distance test to aspire to, the equivalent of the marathon is cycling’s Century ride, 100 miles to be ridden within a fixed time. There’s the connection with good causes too, numerous long-distance charity rides, the London-Brighton one of the most popular but there are plenty of others around the country. Different varieties of cycling too, the wannabe road racers, the cycle tourists, cross-country on a mountain bike.

Its green too, which for many will be an important part of its appeal. While for others the high profile success of Wiggo, Cavendish, Pendleton, Hoy, Trott and maybe in this summer’s Tour de France, Chris Froome too is what gets us on our two wheels.

It’s internationalist, or at least Europeanised. Notwithstanding the extraordinary world-beating success of Team GB cyclists on track and road this is a sport that is absolutely shaped by the Italians, the Spanish, the Belgians, the Dutch and thanks to Le Tour, most of all by the French. It is nigh on impossible to understand, appreciate , become a part of, cycling without immersing ourselves in this most European of sporting cultures. UKiP on two wheels it most certainly ain’t!

And for many this is a people’s sport as well. On the roads free to watch, and despite the branding on every inch, or should that read centimetre of the team’s cycling jerseys , the sheer length of the courses means that the corporate brands cannot frame our consumption as roadside or sofa-bound spectators in the way a stadium sport will be.

Philosophy Football t-shirt 3 June 2013Does all this add up to a two-wheeled utopia? No of course not. There remain barriers. The cost of a bicycle for starters, and the constant pressure to expensively upgrade. The near total-failure to build cycling into an integrated transport structure, the numerous obstacles to taking a bike by train or bus, both of which are easily feasible on the continent. The limited development of safe cycling paths. These, and others, require policy-led initiatives that need to be taken seriously.

But a progressive political project would have a deeper, positive understanding of the cultural potential of cycling too. A sport that is a cheap and green form of transport and holidaymaking, a recreational activity but for those who want it competitive too. Individualist and collective. Ungendered, male elite cyclists earn far in excess of what the women riders earn but for the rest of us we’re more or less on a par on two-wheels. It’s child-friendly too. Urban as well as rural, the former should be the key to its potential multicultural appeal, to date scarcely reflected by Team GB though this too is beginning to change, for example with the emergence of the track cyclist Kian Emadi and others in the team. Oh and the fact that we as a nation are rather peculiarly good at it, world beaters rather than the international also-rans our footballers have been for almost as long as any of us can remember. Cycling’s success down in large part thanks to public investment, the sponsors pay their way too but the bulk of the funding comes via taxation and the lottery.

The latest Active Britain Survey carried out by Sport England makes sorry reading one year after London 2012. As with every single previous Olympic Games there has been none of the promised surge in participation. Between October 2012 and April 2013 a drop by 220,000 in those physically active for at least 30 minutes per week, while year on year April 2013 recorded a 100,000 drop twelve months on from all the excitement as the Games approached. Cycling could play a vital role in reversing these trends but any ambition of this sort if it is not to disappoint must embrace a broader understanding that all sports, including cycling, are socially constructed.

Fifty years ago, in 1963, CLR James opened his majestic book on cricket Beyond a Boundary with the words ‘What do they know of cricket who only cricket know’. The finest sports book ever written, the author a Pan-African and Marxist, those words summing up more eloquently than anyone else has since why sport is politics, a core part of our political, social and cultural fabric, not an optional extra. Unpick the way a sport is framed, both to watch and to take part in, and in the process a politics of sport can begin to emerge.

A Good Society would surely encourage physical activity as both a pleasureable end in itself, and a contribution towards good health. Leisure time, access to facilities, the right to play these are heavily contested and should therefore be part of any credible Left agenda. Think on that as Froome and Cavendish dominate the sporting news over the coming weeks in their bid to turn France’s greatest-ever sporting event into Le Tour Britannique. A sport we’re rather good at the model for a progressive politics, now there’s a turn-up.

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10 comments on “The democracy of cycling

  1. Mark P,

    Just sent some thoughts over- here is the body of them if anyone else is thinking of coming over

    I’ve been watching the tour for years, and Caroline has been fanatic follower ever since doing the Big Red Bike Ride.
    My advice, for what it is worth is the last week is best, if anything is going to happen that is the week, Sunday 14th – 21st- some nice mountain stages, a time trial and of course the Paris finish.
    Camping is the cheapest option and the Alps are packed with campsites
    For the mountain stages cycle up nice and early, the earlier the better as they often close the road well in advance of the race arriving, take a packed lunch and tons of water- find a bastard corner high up, beyond the tree line- plonk your self in the middle so you can see the riders approaching and follow them round the corner.
    Paris- there is a point just outside the Louvre, on the rue de rivole where the riders come out of the tunnel and have to turn a sharp left towards the Champs, if you get there right early you get a great view of them passing 8 or so times. There are a couple of campsites in Paris as well. See http://www.eurocampings.co.uk/en/europe/france/%CEle-de-france/paris/

    After having been to many stages of the tour I now realise the best place to watch the tour is on telly, the France 2 and 3 coverage is exceptional

  2. Completely agree that cycling, like all sports is socially constucted. I find it very sad that I am categorised as a ‘cyclist’, which means people presume I am middle class, fit and environmentally minded. I have discovered that no one ever goes on at me about my weight if I carry my bike helmet around, so strong are the stereotypes.

    And yet, cycling provides a freedom that cars never can. With a little bit of know how most people can maintain a bike for fairly small amounts of money and the day to day running costs are tiny, as long as you don’t succumb to the need to buy lots of matching bits and things I understand are called cleats that mean you fall over at traffic lights.

    The control that cars hold over our streets also decimates our communities and means those in built up urban areas die younger and suffer more ill health.

    Cycling could so easily solve many of the problems cities face, we need to ask why politicians are so unwilling to take steps to popularise it.

  3. Uncle Albert on said:

    A-C: I find it very sad that I am categorised as a ‘cyclist’,

    But that must be preferable to being categorised as a motorist.

    Whatever you mode of transport there’s no escape from categorisation and that’s not such a bad thing – it highlights the unavoidably collective aspect of our existence.

  4. Rinka's Ghost on said:

    Totally disagree. Cycling is actually the most individualistic and atomising form of transport. No possibility for reflection or social interaction when on a bike. As a pedestrian I find the non-enforcement of the law against cycling on the pavement and cycle lanes taking up much of the pavement a serious obstacle to the really pressing need for walkable towns and cities supported by cheap public transport for longer journeys. There is nothing progressive about cycling.

  5. Tim Vanhoof on said:

    Rinka’s Ghost,

    There would be plenty of opportunity for reflection and social interaction while cycling if we weren’t constantly distracted by trying not to get killed by those fast-moving metal boxes.

    It’s very ironic that the national road race is taking place in Glasgow tomorrow, a city where the council is unremittingly hostile to both cyclists and pedestrians and is still building new motorways.

  6. Thanks. Some intersting responses.

    On visiting Le Tour. Was hoping to get to the individual time trial in Northern France, likely to be a key stage for Chris Froome. Oh the irony, almost impossible to do it because of poor public transport links. Generally French train system is very good but getting from Dieppe to Mont Saint MIchel is a total ‘mare.

    On cycling as an identity. Interesting, I feel this less so now that I’m not a commuter cyclist but in London I did feel this quite strongly. I’d turn up at a meeting, need to find a safe place to lock up the bike, helmet off, carry all my stuff in a pannier. A decent Left politics will accomodate all these various identities, and their needs.

    Cycling progressive? As I argued all sports are socially constructed. Cyclimg has a clear mass potential. Does that mean all cyclits, all cycling, are progressive? Of course not, it is a contest, one any decent Left would want to be part of.

    Elite sport vs recreation and leisure. Another vital contest. There is nothing necessarily wrong with the former but it it is the latter the vast majority of us wil ever be part of in terms of physical activity. Always be ready to point out the contradictions when the former is provileged at the expense of the latter. Brazil is currently showing the huge political potential for this, it tells us a lot about English political culture that nothing of the sort erupted during London 2012.

    Thanks. A good discussion. More?

    Mark P

  7. Uncle Albert on said:

    Tim Vanhoof,

    Perhaps you should try an Audax event – these take place all over the UK, use the least busy routes available – mostly country lanes – and are non-competitive. A guideline of fastest and slowest finishing times are provided – if you’re faster nothing is gained and if you’re very slow the cakes may have all been eaten by the time you reach the destination.

    http://www.aukweb.net/home/

  8. Tim Vanhoof on said:

    Uncle Albert:
    Tim Vanhoof,

    Perhaps you should try an Audax event – these take place all over the UK, use the least busy routes available – mostly country lanes – and are non-competitive. A guideline of fastest and slowest finishing times are provided – if you’re faster nothing is gained and if you’re very slow the cakes may have all been eaten by the time you reach the destination.

    http://www.aukweb.net/home/

    I fail to see how I could get to work or to the shops by attending one of these events.