It is easy to paint the world in extremes and to make gross generalisations. All drivers cut cyclists up and are inherently evil. All cyclists jump red lights and are self-righteous eco-hippies. Take your pick.
We allow our media to establish and to reinforce these myths. We allow their well-honed skills to manipulate our emotions and we react accordingly. We reinforce them ourselves by the allegiances we make. Arrogant Top Gear petrol-heads versus Lycra Louts. And vice-versa. So it goes on.
I thought the reaction to what Bradley Wiggins said this morning about the latest cycling tragedy in London was fascinating. One minute a cycling hero, the next a pariah. I bet it brought a wry smile to his face.
I pointed out to a friend on Twitter that Wiggins had been riding behind Andrei Kivilev in the 2003 Paris-Nice race when the Kazakh rider crashed and died. This was in the era when helmets were not compulsory in UCI races. She suggested that parallels between racing and commuting were spurious, and on that I don’t disagree. However what we should remember is that often we have personal, emotional reasons for our beliefs which over-ride anything else. Showing respect for those reasons is crucial.
And no, racing is not commuting. So why should we be so shocked when a racing cyclist doesn’t spout the typical commuter party line? Especially when it’s Bradley Wiggins. It’s interesting, isn’t it, how we can admire someone for their sense of individualism and contrariness right up until the point when they don’t agree with us.
There is a real danger that this so-called ‘popularisation’ of cycling leads to a homogenisation of the sport in the public eye; that it will blind us to the fact that people cycle for a multitude of reasons, some of which may be mutually exclusive. I think it’s wonderful that so many people in cities like London want to commute by bicycle and those people are right when they say that the provision of well planned infrastructure is more likely to save lives that making helmets compulsory. I have no argument with that. What I’m wary of, as I have noted previously, is how segregation of bicycles and other traffic might similarly become compulsory. As someone who cycles primarily for health and fitness instead of commuting (although I do ride to work fairly regularly in term time) this idea fills me with dread. I mean, I’m a long way from being a super-fit athlete, but even I will often ride at double the speed of those I pass on the cycle paths around Exeter, enjoying a leisurely pedal in the afternoon. It may be a sci-fi nightmare scenario to imagine bicycles being banned from all roads, but to those eco-warrior hippies I mentioned earlier I say be careful what you wish for. And don’t assume that just because I ride a bicycle I’m automatically in your gang.
Ultimately though, regardless of these arguments we should remember that cycling deaths are always tragedies, regardless of context. They are tragedies because they leave behind grieving family and friends. Lives ripped apart. In that respect the cycling is secondary. It’s the tragedy that matters. In these moment it’s really not about the bike.
It’s a good question. Mark Cavendish threw it back at a reporter after the Olympic road race. That it was rhetorical was shown the following day when tabloids branded him a “nowhere man” and suggested that Alexandre Vinokourov was an “unknown”. But that’s tabloid journalists for you.
“Do you know anything about cycling?”
Nigel Wynn suggested in his blog for Cycling Weekly that now is a great time for experienced cyclists to share their knowledge and enthusiasm for the sport with ‘new fans’. I’m all for that. What I’m not so sure about is the idea that we should try and make analogies with football to do so. Quite apart from the fact that I chose cycling (or that it chose me) as a teenager precisely because it wasn’t football, I’m not even sure that the comparisons make much sense. Certainly the one Nigel makes in his blog went right over my head. Of course I’m prepared to admit that’s down to my (peculiar?) vacuum of knowledge about football, but still....
I always assumed that all the people I heard talking about football, rugby or whatever actually knew what they were on about. I thought it was just my determination to disengage from those parts of mainstream sporting culture that led to my ignorance. In recent years though, as those same people have talked in a similar way about cycling, it has dawned on me that the chances are they don’t really have anything more than a rudimentary knowledge of any of those other sports either. In other words, they are not really fans of sport at all; merely fans of watching sport and of pontificating blandly about it in the pub. And I’m not knocking that, because I realise that it’s pointless to insist that people should love something in the same way you do yourself. I realised that years ago with music: for many people it’s simply not that important. And why should it be?
For many people the sport itself isn’t really that important at all: every four years the notion of success for their nation trumps everything. For many people the ‘failure’ of Team GB and Cavendish to bring home an Olympic gold medal was a personal affront. These kind of people deserve no respect. No amount of explanation of the subtleties and complexities of road cycling would change their minds. Why waste the energy?
“My national pride is a personal pride” sang Kevin Rowland back in 1985, and I wonder to what extent athletes, as opposed to fans, identify with that sentiment. I know I always have. And pride is a powerful emotion. I thought David Millar was spot on when he exhaustedly expressed pride at the way the team rode on Saturday. Because for all the hype about Cavendish being nailed on for the win, anyone with any knowledge of cycling always knew what a monumental task it actually was.
And really, this is what it comes down to: knowledge of cycling as a sport carried out by others is all but impossible without knowledge of some vaguely-serious cycling yourself. I’m sure it’s the same with swimming, gymnastics, rowing, athletics. Football, even. If you want to truly understand something, you’ve got to try and do it yourself.
So let’s not dumb down a beautifully complex sport to sound-bite banalities for the tabloids. Let’s not ignore the long, rich and colourful history of road cycling simply because our country chose to all but ignore it for the best part of a century. And above all, let’s get out on our bikes (Police permission pending, of course).