This is Flo. She’s my daughter. She’s nine years old. I think and I hope she’s learning to love cycling. The question I ask in this post, in my convoluted way, is what are the prospects of her becoming, over the next few years, an ‘ordinary’, ‘regular’ cyclist – a young woman who uses a bicycle in order to stitch the different aspects of her everyday life together?
We’re just back from a three-week cycle-camping trip to Bavaria. It was Flo’s first cycling holiday riding her own bike. Two years ago we made this same transition with Bobby, who’s now 11, by heading to south-west France. He took to solo riding brilliantly, and he continues to be on the whole enthusiastic, if not fanatical, about cycling. But Flo is a less keen cyclist; this year she has done the occasional race, and if we’re going for a cycling day out she will come along (and enjoy herself), but on the whole I get the sense that she rides only because the rest of us ride, and because – as part of a family without a car – she sometimes simply has to, if we’re to get where we want to go.
In other words, cycling for Flo is normal, but it’s not actually desirable. She has yet – I think – to discover her own love for cycling. I know there’s no guarantee she ever will. If she doesn’t that is of course fine – she’ll find her own ways to live. But in the short and medium-terms, as she is part of a family which lives without a car yet thrives outdoors, it feels important that we continue to try to cultivate her ability and desire to cycle.
Encouraging Flo’s cycling feels more of a challenge than does Bobby’s. Why? I guess partly we’re a gendered family. I’m (a bit) more passionate about cycling than Sue; I get out on my bike more; and most of the cycle-sport we follow (and so talk about) is male. Nurturing a love for cycling in Flo is also perhaps more difficult because we’re part of a gendered world – we tend to follow male cycle-sport because it dominates the cycling calendar, it’s what gets shown on TV, and it’s what gets reported in the press. (I’m perhaps privileging this concern with sporting role-models in children’s imaginations and interests because we’ve returned home from Germany to find a nation – including many of our own friends – obviously still in the grip of (albeit now gradually eroding) Olympic, and especially cycling, fever; although in terms of gender politics the Olympics fares much, much better than does the rest of cycle sport.)
However, I think the main difference between Bobby and Flo, though still heavily cultural (and so heavily gendered), is more embodied. Basically, and maybe this has only happened over the past couple of years and Flo is set to follow, Bobby has learnt to be comfortable with – and perhaps even sometimes started to thrive on – bodily discomfort, and I think this ability is indispensable to becoming happily and sustainably active.
(Broadening my argument, I’d suggest that the embodiment of such a disposition is necessary in order to build active lifestyles more generally, and so too a culture of mass, everyday cycling; if an activity requires some degree of physical effort, for it to become normal the physical effort it requires must also become normal. It was interesting in Bavaria, how many of the (mainly older) recreational cyclists we saw would get off and push their machines up even the slightest inclines – I may be wrong, but my impression is that Bavaria has successfully built a (lucrative) culture of recreational cycling, in which many older people participate, but if those people are ever in a hurry, they surely jump off their bikes, straight into cars (BMWs, Audis or Volkswagens).)
The Olympics show us women and men pushing bodily discomfort beyond the limit, and perhaps – being so visible and so emotionally moving – that is an important and lasting legacy. Watching people exceed themselves is tremendously inspiring, and perhaps the kind of thing able to prod generally inactive people into sporting action. (Some people will note that utility cycling is precisely not a sport – nevertheless, it’s surely true that for people to start cycling they must to some degree become comfortable with using their bodies, in public; and that to do so they will need to overcome not just political, social and cultural resistance, but also overcome bodily sensations resulting from physical resistance too.)
Before our time in Bavaria, Flo didn’t seem comfortable with the uncomfortable bodily sensations which arise from hard physical effort. I don’t want to succumb to lazy stereotypes of ‘how boys and girls are’, but it does sometimes seem that she gets too much cultural (and gendered) support to maintain this ‘comfortable’ position – particularly from a culture of ‘young girl-ness’ which seems to be threatened rather than validated by sport. Flo and her girl friends prefer to play (remarkably imaginatively and cooperatively) indoors more than out, and tend not to challenge one another to take physical risks in the way that Bobby and his boy friends seem to do (and they’ve both moved much more firmly into gendered social worlds over the last couple of years). And she gets insufficient support to be otherwise – whilst we encourage her to be active, and we have wonderful local cycling and athletics clubs to help, there are strong counter pressures encouraging sedentary inhabitation of the private sphere.
So planning a cycling holiday which depended on Flo’s ability and desire to ride – and to keep riding – her own bike was a gamble. But I’m glad to say it’s one which paid off - Flo thrived on cycling in Germany.
Over the three weeks, she amazed me with her tenacity, endurance and skill. She sped across loose gravel surfaces over which in the past she’d have ridden with trepidation. Often coaxed by her older brother, she dug into and excelled on hills which I’d have thought might make her cry, and she looked thrilled with herself when she reached their summits. And often she and Bobby forced the pace, leaving Sue and I struggling behind – laden donkeys on the racecourse.
What Flo made me realise is that if only we could take away the factors which constrain our children’s desires and abilities to cycle, they’d be able to attain a freedom, independence and grace we can nowadays scarcely even begin to imagine.
Rid of the barriers which operate back at home, Flo was free to fly. These barriers include ‘typical’ ‘girls’ activities’, and TV (or in our case – as we don’t have a TV – the probably slightly less invasive iPlayer) and computer games. They include a socialized aversion to the bodily discomfort which physical exercise produces.
But we all know, don’t we, the overwhelmingly significant (I’d be tempted to call it the ‘determining barrier’, were that not likely to see me regarded as a bit too crude and somehow ‘unreconstructed’) barrier? Although key players within (what in my more cynical moments I’d label) ‘the cycling promotion industry’ sometimes seem intent on denying it, the major barrier to all cycling, but children’s cycling especially, relates to space, and how amenable or not it is to cycling.
In my admittedly limited and partial experience, Bavarian cycling infrastructure varies, but almost everywhere it puts British cycling provision to shame. And where facilities are less cycling-oriented, driving seems to have been civilised to the extent that it doesn’t matter. We certainly didn’t find a cycling paradise, but we did find ‘a cycling situation’ far ahead of the one in which we’re mired here in Britain. I now understand why my friend and colleague Tim Jones considers Germany more relevant as country which Britain could emulate than the Netherlands or Denmark – whether we were riding along dedicated cycling routes running parallel to big and busy main roads, or pedalling on the road through traffic-calmed town centre streets, I often thought how these quality cycling experiences could relatively easily be reproduced back home.
Cycle-touring is very popular in Bavaria. We felt normal! ‘Ordinary’, utility cycling is also unremarkable, although I personally found one sight quite remarkable – in a small town somewhere south of Munich, as we sat in the shade eating lunch and chilling out, we watched a girl of maybe four or five pedal up and back down the main street, several times. She rode completely independently. She looked happy. She looked free.
I’m angry about my children being barred from riding where they live. Seeing their own taste for freedom and the freedom which other children enjoy when we go somewhere such as Bavaria helps me to see what’s possible, and thus helps me feel more optimistic. But the clear fact that we’re not moving any closer in the UK towards achieving what’s been achieved in Bavaria makes me angrier still.
Each time we’ve travelled overseas to go cycling as a family it has felt to me as though we’ve taken a little step into the unknown. Of course, we know the different reputations for cycling which countries have. We know and talk to people who have cycled in these places. We read guidebooks and websites, and buy maps. But still, we don’t really know what a place will be like – particularly for children’s cycling – until we’ve been there.
I’ve heard far less about cycling provision in Germany than I have the Netherlands or Denmark, but to be both blunt and blithe, we found Bavaria to have almost as good provision for cycling as the Netherlands, but with the advantages (for us as camping holiday-makers) of higher temperatures and better scenery!
We experienced a wide variety of cycling environments. This included dedicated cycle routes alongside many bigger roads, signed cycle routes on very quiet rural back roads, and – within towns – lots of space shared (with no obvious conflicts) with pedestrians. Our upland rural itinerary also included lots of forest tracks – these would often start out (near to a village) as a surfaced lane, before switching to a loose gravel track through forest, and reverting to a smooth tarmac surface ‘on the other side’, as we approached another village.
Uncertain as to how Flo would cope with hills, we’d anticipated staying on flatter ground to the north of the Alps. But it quickly became apparent that she was up to any challenge we might throw her way so long as we kept daily distances appropriate to her age – our longest day was around 55 km (or 35 miles) and most days we rode more like 35 km (or 20 miles). So we rode into the heart of the Bavarian Alps, into Austria and out again.
Flo’s surprising and unwavering appetite for cycling forced me into realising how children – including our own children – are capable of so much more than we usually imagine. Provide them with appropriate opportunities and support to do something, and they can and probably will do it.
So I think the moral of this cycling tale is this – provide children with safe and supportive places to cycle, and of course they will (love to) ride.
During three weeks we had only one day off the bikes. We’d expected to have more, but even when we camped at the same place for a few days, we’d use the bikes to get around – visiting nearby towns such as Bad Tolz, Mittenwald and Fussen.
Bavaria lacks a coastline. Nonetheless, water’s everywhere – and people know how to make the most of it; in the summer heat they flock to the region’s lakes and rivers, and we did too. But guess what, on our rest day, the kids wanted to do? Ride surf-bikes!
By the last week Flo was riding in ways I’d have no thought possible only a few weeks before – descending hills at 30 miles per hour, climbing up them with both grit and composure, and handling her bike over rough, rocky roads.
Over three weeks she rode 400 miles. And in all that time there was not one close and/or uncomfortable encounter with a motorised vehicle. Holidays are different from everyday life; often we are in less of a hurry, we are keen to see ‘the best side’ of people and places, and we tend to go to places we think we’ll like.
Holidays can also sow seeds of dissatisfaction with ‘ordinary life’; they throw new light on ‘things as they usually are’. This is something we badly need in Britain – more people (including, but not only, so-called ‘decision-makers’; we’re all decision-makers) seeing what cycling elsewhere is like, and thus what it can be like, even here. Then agitating to make it happen.
That our idyllic Bavarian cycling holiday experience could be replicated anywhere in today’s Britain is utterly inconceivable to me: there isn’t the provision to keep cycling separate from fast-moving motorised vehicles; and not enough courtesy, care and consideration towards cycling and cyclists has been structurally embedded in ordinary driving practices where motorised vehicles and cycling do co-exist.
So back home in Lancaster, England, Flo’s freedom to ride has been curtailed. She moves around independently on foot in the immediate neighbourhood (and Bobby moves around independently by bike further afield, but only to quite a specific and limited set of places). But she’s no longer routinely using her bike to move around. Although she’s become a great little cyclist, we’re refusing her that independence.
A nine-year old girl moving around an urban area independently by bike? It seems outlandish, doesn’t it? But it’s not outlandish across much of the Netherlands, Denmark and Germany. In a small town south of Munich, I know for a fact that it’s not outlandish for a girl a good deal younger to be moving independently by bike.
Flo should be moving towards independence over the next few years. As part of that move, I aspire to her being able to move around her town by bike. But how many teenagers do you see cycling where you live? How many teenage girls? The outlandishness of the idea of young people cycling independently is a sign both of how badly we’ve lost our way in organising our urban spaces for movement, and of how far we’ve got to go in creating sustainable, democratic and convivial urban space.
Yes, I know there are rare exceptions, and I’ve little doubt that I will be told about them. But I don’t want exceptions; I want norms! I don’t know what I feel more angry about – the fact that young people don’t cycle, or the fact that even competent and accomplished cyclists such as Flo are unable to cycle in our cities. (Of course, I am equally angry about both, because they are connected, symptoms of the same problem.)
I want to make clear what I mean here; I am not barring my children from cycling. I encourage them to cycle all the time, and they are both fantastically good cyclists, Flo much more so after three weeks of ‘fast-tracking’ in Bavaria. It is the conditions out there which bar them from using their bikes when they want and where they want. As adults and parents with a duty of care over them, Sue and I respond appropriately, by refusing them the freedom to cycle.
There is no choice here.
The language of choice, in which many people who say they are promoting cycling continue to engage, is poisoning cycling’s future. We must move away from it, because it is a lie – when it comes to children’s cycling, we have exterminated agency. Until we recognise and rectify this, we will have no democratic culture of everyday cycling, let alone children’s cycling, in Britain.
We are an extremely pro-cycling, and fairly adventurous family – unusually so, I’d say, without wanting to appear arrogant, proud or pious. If we don’t let our kids ride through streets which they know by bike, I don’t think anyone (in their right minds) will. But of course, as someone who loves cycling and wants his children to cycle, I am very unhappy about this situation – unhappy, frustrated, angry and sad.
How lovely it was to see my nine-year old daughter, at the end of our holiday, pedalling amongst Munich’s early morning commuters. For three weeks she’d participated in a mass culture of recreational cycling; now she was tasting an urban culture of mass utility cycling for the first time, and you could see the thrill and delight coursing through her cycling body.
So the moral to this tale is obvious, and it’s one which I’m pleased to hear being repeated regularly and in many places right now. If we’re serious about accomplishing a cycling culture, we must create environments in which people can accomplish cycling and become accomplished cyclists.
But I have come across this moral tale so often lately that I’m also beginning to find it a bit worrying. So many of us are saying the same thing, yet still so little is being done.
Bradley-based momentum and Olympic excitement can’t last forever; we need to take advantage of them, with actual gains – gains which extend beyond the backwards-facing incrementalism which we’ve all become so accustomed to; gains which reach towards that radical re-structuring which so many of us recognise is really needed – NOW.
At the end of a summer which has seen so much British women’s cycling success, the project of encouraging Flo to continue cycling goes on. For now she’s thriving on the new-found sense of herself as fit and feisty Flo. On Thursday evening down at our local cycling circuit, Salt Ayre, she lowered her two-mile time trial personal best.
But Sue and I know, even if Flo herself does not, that bigger forces are set against her. I don’t know how much longer Flo will pedal, but I do know that the answer is for now very largely out of her, or (as her parents) our, hands. The answer depends on what is done for cycling, by people who she’s never met and via processes which she doesn’t understand.
Her mobility future, her health and well-being – just like the mobility future, health and well-being of her entire generation – lie in their hands. It shouldn’t be the sole and it’s probably not the most sophisticated strategy, but at some level I trust that if only we can keep shouting, they might just start hearing.