Dr Matt Watson asks if the Tour will help get more people out of their cars and on to their bikes.
The Tour de France is one of the world’s sporting mega-events and its temporary colonisation of the roads of Sheffield will inevitably give cycling an unprecedented profile in the city. Can it, though, be expected to help get more people out of their cars and on to their bikes?
There are all sorts of reasons to see cycling as a good thing. First in terms of environment: it is pretty much the lowest carbon way of getting around, and it contributes nothing to local air pollution. Secondly in terms of health and well-being: cycling keeps you fit and there’s some evidence that it makes you happier too. Proponents also claim benefits in terms of city space, social equity, community and more.
So, little surprise that local authorities and campaign groups are looking to capitalise on the Tour de France being in Yorkshire to promote cycling – both for recreation and for utility – in various ‘summer of cycling’ initiatives.
But cycling is not one thing. The Tour de France is probably the greatest endurance challenge of any high profile sports event. Keen local amateur cyclists around Sheffield will be pitching themselves against the stage 2 day’s 200km route on Sundays for months to come. Even those whose fitness gets talked of with disbelief by colleagues at work during the week will be wiped out by the weekend’s effort. The scale of superhuman ability needed to complete the Tour means those with a chance of winning are routinely suspected of being helped along with drugs. With or without drugs, the performances produced by cyclists in the Tour are a product of the work of vast support teams and years of dedicated training.
The risk, then, is that the Tour only bolsters the idea of cycling which has tended to dominate the UK in recent decades: a recreational activity mostly for fit (or wanting to be fit) men in lycra. Like in most of northern Europe, in the UK in the 1930s and 40s, cycling was a normal means of mass transport. Through the 1960s and 70s cycling declined radically, to the extent that in the late twentieth century most cycling was recreational and the preserve of enthusiasts. The Tour does not immediately promise to displace the understanding of cycling as principally about sport, or to help make cycling to work, school or shops normal, when the cyclists on the screens really are something ‘other’.
As I discussed in my previous article, the particular ways people get about is deeply embedded: in people’s routines; in shared norms and expectations (say of speed, comfort, convenience, effort); and in the very structures of road and city space.
Looking at how cycling is done differently in Scandinavia, and what underlies the gradual rise of cycling in UK cities over recent years, there are a whole range of interventions possible, to help move cycling to where it needs to be in order to become a significant part of personal transport in cities like Sheffield: utterly normal and mundane. The Tour de France is undoubtedly going to be a great event for Sheffield in all sorts of ways, but how far the extraordinary cycling spectacle can help make cycling unremarkable remains to be seen.