Will Britain ever be cycle-friendly?

As traffic levels continue to build, have we already missed the opportunity to transform Britain? And how much of a part does the media's love-to-hate relationship with cyclists play in holding us back? John Whitney reflected on the national sport of cyclist-bashing in our June issue

coen-van-den-broek-C4S0b9RfO0E-unsplash

Sport may have largely gone into hibernation through the Covid-19 crisis, but nobody told certain sections of the British media, who have continued to indulge in a much-loved pastime: cyclist bashing.

“Cyclists ignore UK coronavirus lockdown rules as they ride together in the sun,” shrieked Mirror Online. The Scottish Sun was at it too, with the frankly lazily similar “Cyclists ignore coronavirus lockdown to go for a ride in sun.”

YouTube cycling vlogger Francis Cade challenged his appearance in a photo in The Times that said he’d “flouted” distancing rules by showing the powers of a telephoto lens in warping perspective. What was a line of strung-out cyclists looked in the newspaper as if they were riding in a bunch.

Of course, there will have been those riding bikes for leisure wilfully misinterpreting the current rules on exercise. It’s hard to agree with pro triathlete Joe Skipper that his 201-mile, nine-hour lockdown bike ride around Norfolk was what the government means by one piece of outdoor exercise a day. But I’ve no doubt that the vast majority – like the vast majority of people in the country, in whatever they choose for exercise – are obeying social distancing orders and staying home as much as possible.

But going after cyclists is a sport the papers had mastered before this pandemic. In the rule popularised by author Malcolm Gladwell, that 10,000 hours of practice is the path to expertise, then they’ve long been world class. I’ve written about the sociological idea of ‘othering’ in this column before, which is the undesirable objectification of another person or group, and those on bikes have long been seen as a homogeneous group that it’s fair game to stigmatise. In times of crisis, it becomes easier to ‘other’ groups and pin blame on them.

Whether you’re choosing to cycle as your means of exercise right now, or choosing some other form, we’re entitled to do it and we really do still need to do it. Nobody should be shaming us into not cycling, and those fuelling a perception of a problem bigger than it truly is risk causing even more damage to an already beset nation.

There are those out on the roads causing real harm – see another report in The Times, on the very same Monday as the ‘group’ cycling story, of speeding motorists being let off with written warnings because the police are too stretched. The Guardian also reported that the average speed of some 20mph zones in London had risen to 37mph over Easter as motorists took advantage of quieter roads. Just let that sink in for a second. Emboldened drivers taking advantage of a drop in traffic numbers to 1955 levels to get away with offences that could kill people. This whole ‘don’t cycle because you might fall off and put the NHS under more pressure’ argument feels very much like a talking point created by motorists. In truth, the only danger I’m under when riding a bike comes from negligent and distracted driving.

It’s hard to overstate just how important exercise is right now. We can only go out once, and not for as long as we’re accustomed to, so when we do see the light of day it is vital for our physical and mental health. By the time you read this, the UK might have gone down the route of some of our European neighbours and banned all outdoor activity. Health secretary Matt Hancock may have rowed back again on his initial row back and banned outdoor exercise. It would be an immense mistake for the nation’s short and long-term health. Imagine a country where running, walking or riding in the park is banned, but you can puff away on your ciggies
and stock up your drinks cabinet at the still-open off licences.

Raising the drawbridge on exercise won’t help us or the country now, nor further down the road.

To buy or subscribe to Cycling Plus, head here

Photo by Coen van den Broek on Unsplash

Advertisement