Is Britain prepared for the rise of the bike? (Picture: Reuters)
Some time ago, if a spandex-clad cyclist in tight purple shorts had told you his sport was cool, you would have told him: ‘On yer bike!’
Fast forward a few years and chances are you’ll be pulling up alongside him in the cycle lane on your way to work.
His shorts may still be small but they have become a lot more fashionable. Cycling, on the other hand, is huge.
It is now worth billions to the British economy and more people are ditching public transport and their car for the bike. The government is trying to keep up.
Last week it announced the details of a £62m funding package which will see cycling hubs installed in a number of towns and cities, with the goal of making ‘travelling on two wheels more attractive’.
But can Britain really become a land which lives and breathes cycling like the Netherlands, or will the motor car remain king?
‘The best test for whether somewhere is equipped for safe cycling is to ask, “Would I be safe letting my grandma cycle here?”,’ said Andreas Kambanis, founder of bike blog London Cyclist.
‘In Britain, the answer is mostly no. Most people say they’d like to cycle more often, but they don’t feel safe. Until infrastructure is in place that makes people feel safe, you’ll never see a rate of cycling higher than two to four per cent.’
At the moment, 2.9 per cent of people in Britain make their way to work by bike. While there has undoubtedly been progress in getting more people cycling, there is clearly still a way to go.
‘To a certain extent, Britain’s just been catching up with how cycling is seen in other parts of Europe,’ said Hugh Gladstone, news editor of Cycling Weekly magazine.
While he welcomed the government investment, he warned that consistency and commitment are needed.
‘It’s no good chucking a bit of money at councils to encourage cycle use this year, then it drying up a year or two down the line,’ he said.
‘It’s more a question of whether Britain has the political will to provide sufficient funding and change its motorcentric views.
‘That will take huge political will and years of commitment. It didn’t happen by magic in the Netherlands and it will need a similarly concerted and committed effort here.’
So why has cycling suddenly become cool? It hasn’t harmed matters that Britain dominates the sport, epitomised by Sir Bradley Wiggins winning Olympic gold and the Tour de France last year.
But trying to emulate a skinny guy with sideburns who’s mates with Paul Weller isn’t reason enough to regularly hop on a bike. There is the fitness factor, the environmental factor and also the financial factor.
‘The recession has made people look to the bike as a mode of transport.’
The fourth and final round of this year’s Revolution event took place before a sell-out crowd at the Sir Chris Hoy Velodrome in Glasgow at the weekend. The other three events, at the velodrome in Manchester, sold out before the Olympics had ended.
Mr Pope said there had been a ‘massive change’ in how cycling is perceived in the past decade and that its poster boys and girls had a part to play.
‘When you create these heroes in any sport, it makes the sport more appealing. These heroes like Chris Hoy, like Bradley Wiggins, like Mark Cavendish, like Victoria Pendleton – they’ve been getting more profile and they’ve helped to attract a lot of interest into the sport.’
He welcomed the government investment.
‘It’s definitely going in the right direction. If they can make these investments in towns across the UK and break down some of those barriers and make more cycle paths, then we will certainly start to move toward countries like Holland and Denmark, where the cycling culture is really part of the fabric of urban society.’
Mr Kambanis remains to be convinced by the government pledge, calling the £62m ‘pocket change’ when it costs £30m to build just a mile of new motorway.
He said rising train fares and petrol prices had driven people to dig out their old bikes or buy new ones. For him, the fact the winner of the biggest race in cycling is British doesn’t really come into it.
‘Cycling is no longer the realm of Bradley Wiggins impersonators,’ he said. ‘It has become everyday, from daily commuters to grandparents who use their bike to pop to the shops.
‘When I tell people I cycle everywhere they ask if I’m some kind of crazy health nut. In reality, it’s quite the opposite. I’m really lazy and I don’t want to have to find parking, walk to the Tube station or rely on timetables.’
Mr Gladstone believes everyone needs to look at the bigger picture when it comes to making towns and cities bike-friendly.
‘It’s not just people who cycle who benefit from such transformations,’ he said. ‘This is about people reclaiming public space from cars, making our cities more human again.’
While that change won’t happen overnight, Mr Kambanis insists it is coming.
‘A silent revolution is taking place and it’s gaining momentum as there’s an overwhelming urge for people to rethink the way we live in our cities,’ he said. ‘The future will be centred around people, not cars.’
He doesn’t see the revolution ending any time soon.
‘If rail, Tube and bus fares dropped 50 per cent tomorrow and the government suddenly stopped charging fuel tax then, yes, the cycling boom could bust. Otherwise, people are going to keep cycling.’