Tour de France cyclists

Part 1: Cog’s own county

As Yorkshire prepares to host le Grand Départ—the opening stage of the Tour de France—both cycling and “God’s Own County” will have their moment in the sun (or, if that is unrealistically optimistic, ‘a moment in the overcast but otherwise pleasant day’). Alex reflects on the part played by local charities in improving cycling infrastructure and raising the confidence of cyclists.

The Tour de France caps a run of recent sporting success for the county. Following the achievements of Yorkshire’s athletes in the 2012 Olympics, I noticed an involuntary uptick in my own county patriotism—despite being born and bred on the edge of Dales, I had only ever identified with the region in the mildest possible terms. But when the first British medal went to a cyclist from my home town, Lizzie Armitstead, I felt pride both as a compatriot and fellow cyclist.

The impact of a major sporting event is not counted solely by the number of elite athletes it creates and the inflated self-esteem of the rest of its population. The higher profile should generate a broader up-take of cycling (or running, or swimming) that can deliver a range of benefits, like better public health or greater community cohesion.

And it isn’t just competitive sport that delivers impact—even the gentlest excursion by bicycle brings benefits to individuals and the communities they live in: better for the environment, better for sustainable transport. As the American political scientist J. Harry Wray put it: What is striking about biking is not that it solves any particular problem but, instead, that it is part of the solution to several.’ Little wonder that former sports minister Rt Hon Richard Caborn, speaking at an NPC event last week, talked about his constant (if fruitless) efforts to fund sporting initiatives by rerouting money from the Health Department budget.

Compared to many other European countries, however, the UK has a strikingly poor rate of mainstream cyclists, and things aren’t necessarily moving in the right direction. Between 2001 and 2011, the number of people cycling to work in Yorkshire and the Humber fell from 2.9% to just 2.5%. The barriers are both practical and cultural. Our cycling infrastructure lags behind many other nations, with rural areas particularly poorly served. Myths about the risks of cycling are often overplayed and the bicycle is perceived as a more dangerous way to travel than in reality.

Charities play a crucial role in tackling these barriers—both by addressing the infrastructure and by raising the confidence of cyclists. In addition to the national charities (like Sustrans or CTC), Yorkshire has a number of local cycling campaigns, such as York, Sheffield and Leeds—all cities le Tour will visit this weekend. These local campaigns are often volunteer-led and their day-to-day work is a far cry from elite international sporting competitions. They engage with local decision-makers on practical issues, like ensuring that cyclists’ needs are prioritised in local transport planning, that poor quality infrastructure is addressed, and that motorists are educated on how to drive safely around bikes. They also frequently run guided rides for new and nervous riders.

Too often, the flush of enthusiasm that follows a one-off sporting event fizzles out. We should support the charities that are helping to translate le Tour from une fête de trois jours to a lasting legacy.