Firstly, the nice part: the history I share with Britain’s best ever racing cyclist. And then why I appeared on Thursday’s Sky News to explain why what he said the day before was so wrong.
BRADLEY, CYCLE RACING, AND ME
In 1997 Paddington Cycling Club , which I had joined in1979, became sponsored, mainly by Richard Allchin of Sport and Publicity - below Richard is 4th from and yours truly is on the far right. (My apologies for the gut betraying a few years of reduced cycling and the moustache):
In the winter of 1999 we held our club AGM in a pub opposite what is now Tesco (just down from the Roundhouse) in Chalk Farm. By that time Richard was also sponsoring two promising elite racing cyclists, Steve Cummings and a young man who lived on our patch (in Dibdin House, on the corner of Carlton Vale and Edgware Road, which I cycle past almost daily). He had just won the World Junior Pursuit Championships. We were impressed when this fellow came to our AGM – he was a well-known star rider.
Yes, it was young Bradley Wiggins. So, although he rode in slightly different clothing from that of Team Sport and Publicity (Paddington CC was soon dropped) it wouldn’t be stretching a point too far to see that, in a manner of speaking, we were both in the same cycle racing club (even if it was just our attendance at the same club AGM).
© Sport and Publicity
He was approachable – I remember a brief congratulatory chat with him after he won the same event at Herne Hill in Francaise des Jeux colours a year later. In those days cycling club culture was such that you could mingle with the stars. Although he has been a keen supporter of the grassroots club scene, that won’t be happening so easily with him now. Brad was also coached as a junior by another of my cycling acquaintances, Seán Bannister, who continues to be impressed by his commitment to drug-free sport.
I guess I’m not the only one who has been drawing on a tenuous link with Bradley Wiggins – in fact I have been for a good few years. My summer has been brightened by Brad’s victories: I don’t mind admitting that I am not immune to the circuses of modern society. I am pleased to have been part of the cycle sport scene.
SPORT AND TRANSPORT
But I am also aware of the difference between cycle racing and cycling as a form of everyday transport. Sport is, well, sport. Cycling as a form of everyday transport – for ordinary people wearing ordinary clothes to make ordinary journeys for ordinary everyday purposes of shopping, working, education, visiting people in their communities is what I am more concerned with. It is that which justifies social and political support.
Cycling as transport is a key element – probably the key element – in dealing with the problems of an unsustainable system centred on excessive car and road freight usage. Cycling as transport is particularly under-represented in the UK compared to similar kinds of society in northern Europe. Cycling as transport is necessary for increased health of the users of the mode, reducing danger to other road users, noxious and greenhouse gas emissions, visual intrusion, noise pollution, destruction of rural and urban environments through road building and increased or stabilised levels of motor traffic, costs of road building, and the loss of local community.
Cycle sport is something else: some people move from it to use cycling as a form of transport, and vice versa. I have, but many don’t. Plenty of racing cyclists are locked into car usage for most journeys (including to and from bike races). Even if a “Wiggins effect” bolsters numbers of active sporting cyclists to, for example, French levels, we are unlikely to have more than a fraction of 1% of journeys made by them. And then some key groups who may become the “utility” cyclists of tomorrow may be actually be put off by muscular young men with specialist clothing and equipment.
WIGGINS (AND CAVENDISH) AS ROLE MODELS
My understanding is that Wiggins has had reservations about being a role model, and I sympathise. He has been a superb athlete. A key characteristic of Wiggins career – his refusal to take performance enhancing drugs – is admirable. My recollections of him are as someone who wanted to be connected to the grass roots of the sport, which is fine as well.
All of this makes him an attractive character, and even the role model he now appears to accept he has to be. He says he “will never become a celebrity” and aspires to a “normal lifestyle”. A refusal to cheat, attachment to grass roots sport and local community, along with a sense of humour and modesty make him an attractive person.. But how does this make him specially qualified to speak about the requirements of cyclists’ safety in current, often complicated debates and campaigns?
ITV news on Thursday 2nd August referred to him as a “statesman” for cycling. Really? Who elected him to that position? Let’s look at how he (and to a lesser extent, Mark Cavendish) are qualified to speak for cycling as an everyday form of transport.
CRASH, CRASH, CRASH…
With a love of cycle racing comes an acceptance of crashing.( Minute remnants of my skin are no doubt lodged in the debris of the Eastway cycle circuit which was destroyed to make way for the Olympic Velodrome). In this year’s Tour de France, of the 45 withdrawals at least 20 were due to sustaining what we classify as “Serious Injury” (SI) That’s about 10% over the three weeks. Although this year may well have been worse than previous ones, this amounts to something like 10% over some 80 hours, equivalent to about 4 months of typical commuting for an urban cycling. As Wiggins’ Team GB team mate David Millar puts it: “Cycling is such a stupid sport. Next time you are in a car travelling at 40mph think about jumping out – naked. That’s what it’s like when we crash. “
To translate that into London cycling terms, that would result in some 30% of London’s daily cyclists being Seriously Injured every year – about 75,000. Instead there are some 300 – 200 times less. Even allowing for non-reporting, we have a difference of dozens, if not a hundred times less. If we used the (I think less valid) exposure measure of distance, it would still be the case that Tour de France riders are far, far more likely to suffer SIs in conditions where they rarely hit a motor vehicle than people cycling in London.
What Bradley Wiggins does to become a role model is, as only a few have pointed out, is far more hazardous than urban UK cycling, at least the London version of it. It is, unlike cycling as a basic mode of transport, inherently hazardous.
… AND HOW THEY GET ABOUT
The racing cyclists of Team Sky and Team GB do not cycle for everyday transport. Like other rich young sportsmen they seem to have a penchant for ultra-high powered cars. I don’t know about Wiggins now (he used to eb a Porsche man) , but one Team Sky member was charged with careless driving after being caught eating a salad at the wheel (reported in Cycling Weekly’s ”Grapevine” series). And then there is World Champion and long-time friend of Wiggins, Mark Cavendish, is happy to describe how “wicked” it is to drive on roads without speed limits, on a show fronted by a character who has “joked” about how he wants to run down cyclists if they ride two abreast in front of him. Of course, he is not being worse than any other young man with a taste fro speed and the money to indulge it. But cyclists are put in danger (interestingly, it is particularly sporting cyclists outside urban areas who are at risk) by high speed motoring. And as a role model for the urban cycling renaissance? .
All of which brings us to his comments, some of which were apparently retracted later . His (apparent) views tell us a lot about how many people think of cyclists’ safety, and in the next post I analyse them in depth.