Heroes of British cycling: Bradley Wiggins and the pavement cyclist

Bradley WigginsI loved Bradley Wiggins’ victory punch as he crossed the line on Saturday’s final time trial. To launch his fist like that, from an incredibly fast-moving and twitchy machine, having just ridden it all out for 64 minutes and 13 seconds, was no mean feat. But then nor was winning the Tour de France …

The clenched fist is a potent symbol, perhaps because it’s ambiguous. Triumphant? Defiant? Both? Wiggins’ powerful finishing pose reminded me of the work of the Mexican painter David Alfaro Siqueiros, through whose hands the human hand is made to mean so much. This is a self-portrait …

Images are open to interpretation, but Wiggins’ closed and punching fist seems to express defiance as well as triumph. He wasn’t ‘just’ winning the Tour; he was also achieving – executing – his potential; and he was answering his critics and responding to nay-sayers too. As seems so often to be the case with Wiggins, the celebration seemed real and honest precisely because there was a touch of anger about it.

self portrait el coronelazo 1945Will anger and defiance now broaden, as many more people feel inspired to get onto bikes in the wake of British cycle sport’s success?

I think it might, as people who have until now shown little interest in cycling sit up and notice Bradley Wiggins and the Tour de France, and look forward to seeing more cycling at the Olympics. I think it might, more importantly, as they pull bicycles from sheds, fix them ready to ride, and think about where to go.

This is the hope, isn’t it? That the phenomenal success of British professional cycle racers will translate into more people climbing onto bikes. Chris Boardman – a man whose cycling exploits certainly inspired me – made this explicit connection during post-Tour analysis and comment on ITV4 this past weekend.

During Wimbledon, tennis courts across Britain are suddenly in demand. Following the London Marathon, more people get out running. But cycling is different, because the majority of the environment in which cycling occurs has other things in it – and roads are especially full of cars.

Thrilled by Bradley’s success? Moved to ride? Then get outside and … and confront (and perhaps truly notice for the very first time, because now it matters to you, personally) the brute reality of roads full of speeding cars and trucks, a fair proportion of whose drivers act as if they have very little – if any – concern for your well-being.

Compared to tennis or running, then, there is for cycling a more complicated translation from inspiration to action. You might have seen the Tour, you might have been inspired, you might feel ready to ride. But where do you go?

We must beware the gap here, which only critical thinking can fill. It’s great that we’ve got a buzz around cycling, and we must certainly seek to capitalise on it. But it’s just naive to imagine that euphoria around cycling will automatically convert to a big boom in everyday cycling journeys. For that to happen, other things need to change, or rather be changed.

Velodromes and sportive riding away from the city can to some extent cater for people keen to try cycle sport. Canal towpaths, sea-front promenades and converted railway lines can cater for those wanting to experience the cycling buzz in a leisurely and rural way. But I’m also wondering whether the pavements of our towns and cities will start to teem with cyclists, trying their best simply to get around using the machine about which there is – quite rightly – currently such a hubbub.

Pavement cyclists aren’t seen as heroes, but perhaps they should be. (To be clear here, by ‘pavement’ I mean what in other countries is called the ‘sidewalk’; a space which is traditionally considered the preserve of the pedestrian (although there’s a longer story to be told there). So in Britain we are taught that pavement cycling is a problem and that it’s wrong; though in truth it is neither.) Today, Bradley Wiggins is the great hero of British cycling, and I hope he enjoys all the adulation he richly deserves. But in the meantime, the great unsung heroes of British cycling – pavement cyclists – bravely pedal on, or try to any which way they can. They are not celebrated; they are seen as deviant, and are demonised.

Heroes of British cyclingBecause the vast majority of people feel there is nowhere safe to ride, everyday cycling across the UK is being very effectively and very systematically blocked. Much premature talk of ‘a cycling revolution’ conveniently ignores the fact that a big majority of people are afraid to cycle, and will not start anytime soon unless something fundamentally changes. In the meantime, in most places most of the people who do ride a bicycle do so (either always or mainly) on the pavements. They ride either because they have no alternative – for example, needing to get to shift work (rendering public transport infeasible) at a location beyond walking distance – or because they actually like cycling but they just don’t like cycling in roads full of cars, trucks and buses.

I have no figures to back this up (I don’t think any exist), but I’m sure that pavement cycling is also subject to a huge amount of what transport researchers call ‘churn’, which means the life of a pavement cyclist tends to be brief. This is because to pedal through the disapproving and hostile gazes of society is difficult to do. People who want or need to cycle but who have nowhere safe to go are made to feel guilty. And cycling guiltily is no way to make cycling stick, or big, or inclusive, or aspirational. For cycling to be embraced big-time, the cyclist needs to feel welcomed, not apologetic. (The resilient cyclists – those who do stick with cycling over the longer-term – are those, like me and perhaps like you, who ride on the road, but we form a very small proportion of all cyclists, and an absolutely tiny proportion of the whole population.)

But even though pavement cycling demonstrates a huge repressed demand for cycling, it is seen as a problem rather than a potential.

We badly need to invert the standard moral tale here. According to that tale, people who ride on pavements are committing a crime.

No, no, no. These people are heroes. Any crime is in endorsing cycling but then providing nowhere for people to ride. Any crime is showing how magnificent is cycling, inspiring people to give it a go, but then dashing their opportunities to do so under half-way decent conditions – conditions which the ‘average person’ regards as acceptably safe, comfortable and enjoyable.

I hope and expect that right now, at the start of the summer holidays, there are thousands upon thousands of children across Britain who have noticed and been touched by British cycle sport’s current success. But what a travesty that the very big majority will be unable simply to jump on bikes and discover the delights of riding for themselves? Long days of summer spent exploring their neighbourhoods, let alone further afield, have been closed off to them by an increasingly car-centric society. To taste the joys of cycling, they’ll have to wait until they’re somewhere their parents deem it’s acceptable to ride. And they’ll probably be taken there by car.

There’s something deeply sad about this, isn’t there? We have rafts of policy and pronouncements in favour of cycling. And to add to this we now have a superb and historically unprecedented collection of role models – led by Bradley Wiggins, but including many other remarkable men and women – inspiring people to give cycling a go. And then we have towns and cities which are so dominated by speeding motorised vehicles that we’ve eliminated people’s ordinary habitat as a place to ride.

If we’ve got the ‘crime’ wrong, so also the punishment.

Instead of scolding and/or fining people for riding bicycles on pavements, we should be congratulating and rewarding them for giving cycling a go at all. Meanwhile, this Government should take the lead on making the changes required for people to cycle safely from their front doors, and punish any local authority which fails to adopt those changes quickly enough. Such changes include reducing the amount of urban space devoted to parked and moving cars, radically slowing down the cars which remain, and building top-quality cycling infrastructure where for whatever reason cycling needs (for the time being, at least) to co-exist with other (whether faster or slower) modes of mobility.

The Tour and Olympics combined should encourage many more people onto bikes, before realising there’s really nowhere safe to go.

Heroes of British cyclingRather than giving up before they’ve even got started, which is what tends to happen, we must hope that many will find ways to cope with currently atrocious cycling conditions and – like many of the people I saw cycling during three years of research towards the Understanding Walking and Cycling project – at least sometimes take to the pavements. (The danger is that because cycling on pavements is hard to do, most people who are inspired to cycle will not do so – they might cycle ‘invisibly’ on a Sunday morning somewhere safe, but their cycling – and more importantly their desire to cycle – will be easy to miss; their invisibility can then be used as evidence by Government that “there’s no demand for cycling, so we cannot justify spending money on it”.)

There are obvious ways to make our cities fit for cycling, but they are not being done. London journalists might believe things are changing fast, but they should get on a bike in Leeds or Worcester or Lancaster or pretty much anywhere outside of the capital. In most of these places, what we have is a huge gulf between rhetoric and reality. I’ve recently been trawling through transport policy documents produced at different levels of UK Government. Reading these, you’d be forgiven for thinking that a sustainable transport revolution – in which walking and cycling dominate our towns and cities and short journeys by car become practically obsolete – is just around the corner, about to happen.

The (excellent) aspiration of one local authority, for example, is “to make it easy to get from any part of the city to any other part of the city without using a car. Pivotal to achieving this is making sure that, when any plans are considered, pedestrians and cyclists are considered first”. But this kind of progress at the discursive level is, so far, completely unmatched with any notable changes on the ground, the place where we actually live out our day-to-day, intensely mobile, lives. We’ve had decades of empty rhetoric about sustainable urban transport, yet politicians remain intent on driving a massive, new and hugely unsustainable road through my home town.

Hordes of people suddenly cycling on Britain’s pavements might be the most effective route to building the pressure to get something done, to create safe space for cycling. If British cycling’s sporting success brings this massive tension – created by encouraging something which it is so hard to do – to a climax, we’ll have its stars and orchestrators to thank. But from where I’m currently sat, that’s a big ‘if’.

Heroes of British cyclingI think what’s most likely to happen is lots of fine words, rhetorical flourish, and vague and vacuous pronouncements of ‘a cycling revolution’, accompanied by very little change in the ideological and material structures which currently underpin and reproduce our society in car-centric ways. We need to do what we can to prevent this from happening, and instead make these potentially pivotal moments stick, whether it’s out of respect for cycling, respect for the health of ourselves and our neighbourhoods, respect for our towns and cities, or respect for our planetary home, the one which cycling rather than driving helps make viable.

As a tribute to Bradley Wiggins and Mod I’ll finish with the words of Mod revivalists Secret Affair, “this is the time, this is the time for action”.