Comment: Running the risk of rejecting the rulebook

Phil Cavell of London's Cyclefit writes for BikeBiz
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Words by Cyclefit's Phil Cavell

I have a friend called James. Despite being the world’s most affable giant and eminent doctor James insists on riding the wrong way down one-way streets and without a helmet. It is his casual rejection of tokenistic or non-existent cycling facilities. Like me James was born into a time of noisy rebellion and now quietly refuses to conform to something he finds unacceptable. He is prepared to pay the consequences and occasionally bounces off the wing of a Transit with good natured diffidence and then goes home to stitch his own wounds. 

I suggest we are living in a time of disconnect, a reverse ‘Field of Dreams’ if you will. ‘They’, the crowds, have ‘come’ in droves to cycling and yet in many cases the infrastructure has yet to be built. I use my own daily commute as a litmus to judge the cycling climate – would I, in all good conscience, recommend a much loved and elderly relative cycle on London’s roads despite the burgeoning numbers of riders out there? Are we at that critical mass yet where we are the literal and moral majority? As much as I am invested in all aspects of the proliferation of cycling, the answer is clearly no. Cycling in London and most of our city’s streets is highly dangerous and only to be recommended for the confident and experienced. 

St Barts Hospital in London has recorded a nearly 400 per cent increase in cycling-related serious injuries and fatalities in their hospital alone. They are so concerned that they have commissioned a study called ‘Bespoke’ to research this dangerous phenomena. 

I predict few surprises: 

1. The roads are inherently lethal to cyclists 

2. Cycling initiatives and infrastructure are poorly designed and tokenistic in nature 

3. There has been a succession politically motivated drives to entice people onto their bikes, despite the conditions they will face. 

4. More people riding on dangerous roads leads to more accidents and injury. 

There are folk out there who give eloquent voice to the struggle; BikeBiz Executive Editor Carlton Reid is seldom to be found on the wrong side of any debate, or struggling for wit or articulation, but is it enough? And therefore does my friend James have a point? We are all too accepting and passive. 

When I think about it my own cycling history is indeed steeped in personal revolt. A rejection of the mindless violence of soccer and worse rugby, a sport of over-nourished young men deliberately running into each other to cause harm. 

Matt Seaton calls it ‘The Escape Artist’ in his book and that sounds about right to me – the call of quiet country roads, company of like-minded folk and the opportunity for anaerobic self-harm was a powerful cocktail. But wrapped up in that was an implicit rejection, certainly in my peer group, of a right wing press, Margaret Thatcher, car-culture, apartheid etc. 

Running parallel to the London racing scene of the 80s and 90s was the altogether more raucous and more visible anarchy of the courier scene. Occasionally the two scenes would merge – some of us couldn’t help sampling the perilous charms of The Alley Cat courier race series. And more notably anti-hero and super-courier, Ray Eden would dob-out a roll-up and kick all our race-snake arses at Eastway and then all around the country. There is definitely a Sillitoe-esque ‘The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner’ film about Ray to be made by the way. We liked him a lot. 

So, if cycling has or had a soul, is it safe in current hands and without recourse to public rebellion and direct action? Well we have a very right-wing Boris Johnson as our unofficial Cycling Czar in London and his eponymous Boris-Bike scheme self-servingly and now it seems only temporarily backed by disgraced Barclays. And astride the world-stage we have Sky – the love child of similarly disgraced Murdoch press and lottery-funded British Cycling. The rumour is that Sky was attracted to cycling as a way of improving their public image. But, surely that finally went to shit when Sir Dave Brailsford became uncomfortably impaled on the horns of a dilemma between giving the country its in-form hero a run around an iconic Tour de France that started as a public party in Yorkshire, and the narrow interests of Sky and Chris Froome? Here is what Sir Dave should have announced:

“In the great tradition of bike racing and in the spirit of the iconic intra-team battles of Hinault v’s Lemond, Roche v’s Visentini etc, both Chris and Brad will ride and may the best man win. Furthermore I have ordered the team in the interests of great spectacle and spontaneity, not to use radios through the entire Tour.” 

The game would have been indeed afoot and instead of trying to control the game it would have been refreshing to see Sky actually play the game. It would have reflected well on all involved. 

But he didn’t say that and in my opinion thereby broke a contract with the roadside public who have been a compelling part of the racing landscape for a hundred years. Imagine how the French would have reacted to Fignon or Hinault being omitted from le Tour. Unimaginable, because most likely the public would have revolted and closed the race down through mass-participation and demonstration to save their sport. Imagine also if you will what would happen if The Tifosi were denied Nibali next year in a Tour de France that started in Italy? I suggest it would be met with hot-headed anarchy and not passive acceptance. We have come full-circle. 

There is more than a whiff of contradiction and hypocrisy in my words and deeds. In the sense that Cyclefit from the start has been built on a rejection of tradition and traditional ways in favour of developing more scientific techniques and new technologies to improve bike and rider connection. And maybe even worse I am trying to conflate my own mile-wide rebellious streak with a merely imagined history of my cherished past-time? But, even so, I do think that at its core the simple act of riding a bike is at once individualistic, moral, inherently rebellious and an expression of potential collective action. And furthermore these very qualities are part of the rich narrative of cycling and cycling sport that will make us poorer if we dare to forget them. 

I feel the stirring of revolution and agitation in my old bones again. Rarely a good look in a middle-aged man with a back problem.

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