I can’t believe it’s happening again. A British cyclist wins the biggest sporting event on earth, then almost immediately opens his mouth and spoils it. First we had Brad Wiggins, with the flabbergasting statement that “Ultimately, if you get knocked off and you ain’t got a helmet on, then how can you complain” – an opinion that’s so wrong, morally and legally, that if it was said about certain other types of crime, might have ended his career even before it could fizzle out.
Now Geraint is making the same blunders, airing the headline-friendly opinion that cycle helmets should be mandated by law. “I would certainly make helmets compulsory. I always wear a helmet, I’ve put on a helmet more times than I’ve buckled a seatbelt” he recently told The Times, blissfully ignorant of all the evidence from around the world which says that when you make helmets mandatory, cycling levels undergo a Rampage-style drop off a cliff.
He’s a good bloke but…
Now I generally hold Mr Thomas in a good deal of affection. He’s a lovely bloke, he’s frequently hilarious in post-race interviews, and he can literally ride away from the best cyclists in the world. But on this topic, his opinion is neither wanted nor needed. The article is accompanied by a photo of Geraint aged 12, posing with a brakeless track bike and a cup the size of his head. He’s a professional athlete who, before he was in secondary school, had dedicated his life to riding a bike at speeds that would make many people have some sort of prolapse. When most British cyclists were schlepping to work in the dark this winter, hoping we’d packed some dry pants, he was at a training camp in the sunshine somewhere. “I’ve never ridden a bike in London, apart from in a race. I’ve watched from a taxi and it does seem a bit crazy” he sagely opines. It’s a bit like an astronaut telling everyone who’ll listen that they, too, should wear a space suit when they go to work.
Thinking of mountain biking as “cycling” is a bit like thinking of going to a Star Trek convention as “socializing”
It’s not just road racers who have this bong-eyed view of the cycling world. Folks, I’ve got some uncomfortable news for you. Thinking of mountain biking as “cycling” is a bit like thinking of going to a Star Trek convention as “socializing”. Technically it’s correct, and yet it’s also a focus on one very specific aspect of a much bigger thing.
Take where we ride. It’s a fair generalisation to say that mountain bikers aren’t put off by hills, distance, or surfacing of a quality that might be more appropriate to the surface of an asteroid than a public thoroughfare. But what works for us might not work for kids riding to school, or someone nipping to the shops for milk. What we do – putting our bikes in cars or vans, driving them to trails, riding round in circles, and posting photos of it on the internet – is not “cycling” in any comprehensive sense. There’s a whole panorama of leisure and transport by bike out there, and we’re just one tiny corner of it.
This confusion between cycling as a sport and cycling as a way of getting around is ubiquitous in the UK. Politicians talk about it being a golden age for cycling, when what they actually mean is that we’re winning lots of races. Way more people walk or take the bus, while cycling’s share of everyday journeys remains a blip on a graph at 2% or so, yet no one talks about it being a golden age for buses.
Racing is not cycling
When my local council launches a cycling initiative, it almost invariably uses some photos of the last bike race to visit our valley. Making road racing a lazy stand-in for everyday cycling pisses everyone off. The casual cyclists see it and think they’re not serious or fit enough, while for non-cyclists, it reinforces the preconception that cycling is an odd little sport for a niche audience, rather than the most energy-efficient mode of single-person transport ever devised.
More than once while cycling to work, I’ve been asked what I’ve been training for, when the only honest answer I can give is “cake and beer”.Inadvertent flattery isn’t so bad, but there are lots of other reasons why road racing is not just unrepresentative of cycling as a whole, but often harmful to it. It’s fair to say it’s had its share of issues, but it’s not just the doping. It’s also a sport with a ridiculously narrow range of representation. Pro cyclists are overwhelmingly white Europeans, women are still sidelined by the highest profile events, Geraint is considered old at 32, and you’re not competitive if you have much more than 10% body fat.
And of course professional cyclists are keen on helmets. The speed and risk involved in road racing, even for someone who cycles, are mind-boggling. The accident rate for the 2012 Tour De France was 150 times higher than for commuter cyclists in London. (Better order a taxi for next year, eh G?) The average speed of the peloton for the entire race, mountains included, is currently about 25 mph (and trending upwards), while most cyclists are pottering along at 8-12 mph – the sort of speeds that, if they could persuade motor vehicles to stick to, would see road safety professionals included in the Queen’s honours list.
Then we’ve got the bikes – impractical machines that can barely carry a bottle, let alone a six pack from the off licence. Yet if you go to a bike shop, or check the shed at work, that’s what most people seem to be riding. The idea that you can just run an errand on your bike in normal clothes has become anathema to many people who cycle in the UK. You need the fastest bike you can afford, special shoes, and of course your special clothes, with none more special than helmets.
Ultimately, to sort this mess out, we need to stop assuming that sportspeople have any right to speak authoritatively about transport (I’ll make an exception for Chris Boardman, because he’s actually paid attention to what countries with double-digit levels of cycling are doing). And it would also be nice if the cycling industry bucked its ideas up, made more kit for everyday cyclists, and funded a few more initiatives along the lines of British Cycling’s #choosecycling campaign, or SRAM’s People For Bikes. The sort of thing that’s actually going to create more cyclists, instead of flogging stuff to the ones we already have.
I’ll leave the last word to Brad, who seems, like Geraint, to have moderated his views on safety equipment when confronted with a bit of evidence. “He’s the Tour de France winner now, and everyone wants to know his view on certain things like he’s some sort of Messiah”. We need to remember that just because someone can win a bike race, it doesn’t mean they know much about cycling.