Will we get a cycling legacy from the Olympics

One of the oft hoped-for legacies of the Olympics is that the successes of the athletes will translate into more physical activity in the wider population. Nowhere is this more widely anticipated than in cycling where there seems to be an expectation that there is an obvious crossover between cycling as a sport and as a means of transport.

The problem is that the link is, at best, tenuous and, quite possibly, non-existent. The site of that supreme athlete, Bradley Wiggins, winning the Tour de France and an Olympic gold within a matter of days between each other does not necessarily inspire people to get that cobwebbed bike out of their garage and jump on it.

Indeed, when the superhero Wiggins mused about legislation to enforce helmet use in the aftermath of his victory in the Olympic time trial, it seemed to reinforce the gulf between the two types of cycling. While of course it is sensible for Wiggins and his fellow sports cyclists to wear helmets – though this is a relatively novel innovation and was initially strongly resisted with go slow demonstrations by Tour de France peloton – it is another matter for everyday cyclists.

Wiggins reignited the helmet debate even though he tried to row back from his original suggestion that wearing one should be compulsory. It is a controversy that goes to the heart of cycling and which has fierce exponents on both sides. Wiggins seemed almost to be blaming the victims in cycling accidents, rather than highlighting the difficult conditions under which many of us cyclists ride every day.

The helmet supporters argue that it is a no-brainer, in the same way that motorcyclists now have to wear one after a long campaign against compulsion. Cycling is a dangerous activity, they say, and accidents are likely to result in a head injury.

However, it is much more complicated than that. In a brilliant article for Mail Online (http://hanlonblog.dailymail.co.uk/) , the science editor Michael Hanlon debunks the myths surrounding the issue. He shows that wearing a helmet can make riders overconfident, leading them to take risks they would not otherwise and he shows that most deaths occur because of lower body rather than cranial injuries.

Worse, making helmet wearing compulsory would reduce the number of cyclists on the streets, as has been demonstrated in Australia where cyclists were deterred by the hassle and cost of helmets. That would actually make life more dangerous for the remainder. As Hanlon points out, it is by encouraging more cyclists, creating a critical mass, that riding a bike becomes safer. That is already happening to some extent in central London where at times the sheer number of cyclists means traffic has to slow down to accommodate them and it is noticeable that many of the recent cycle deaths in the capital have occurred outside the central area.

It is a pity that Wiggins’s comments side-tracked the more interesting issue of how to transfer sports cycling success into greater use of the bicycle on our streets. Ambassadors like Wiggins, Chris Hoy and Victoria Pendleton could do much to encourage young people to cycle but it will only work if their support is backed up by action from both local and central government to make the streets safer. However much they show that cycling is  wonderful activity, people will not start cycling if they perceive it as a risky activity, and Wiggins’ comments, unfortunately, reinforced that notion. In fact, it isn’t. There were 16 cycle deaths on London’s streets last year, fewer than one per 6 million journeys.

The perception of danger, however, remains, and only major improvements to the infrastructure will encourage those nervous new cyclists. There is a long way to go. I cycled to Stratford several times during the Olympics to do interviews on the travel situation (gloat note: as I predicted in this column, it passed off largely smoothly). I used part of one of Boris Johnson’s Cycle Superhighways which runs along the A11, although unaccountably it peters out at the notorious Bow where there have been two recent cycle deaths. It was the first time I had cycled on one of the Superhighways and if there ever was a misnomer, it is this sad piece of infrastructure pretending to be helpful to cyclists.  It is by no means continuous, goes through various colours – Barclays blue, another darker blue, red, and black – and there is no explanation to drivers about what the cycle lane is supposed to be – in fact it is merely advisory, and motorists go in and out of the lane with very little consideration to cyclists. As I wrote on my blog, to call it a joke is to demean humour.

Improving the streets to bring them up to the standard recognised as normal in many cycle-friendly northern European cities should be the focus of Wiggins’s attention, not the stale debate over helmets.

  • MrDrem

    If you want to see more of the dire state of the “SuperDeathways” as some bloggers have dubbed them (despite the small number of deaths and injuries along the routes), take a ride along CS7 between Tooting Bec and Tooting Broadway one evening.
    Once the parking controls finish, the blue stripe rapidly becomes filled with parked cars, forcing cyclists further out into the road to avoid the door zone, and annoying motorists behind them as they can’t overtake due to the proliferation of pedsetrian refuges in the middle of the road.
    If you’d like a guide, let me know, and I’d be happy to ride it with you.

  • I agree that more could be done. However I do think the RideLondon event planned for next year is a good idea, combining both elite cycling, amateur cycle racing and casual ‘free cycling’ all into the same weekend. Whilst events like this don’t necessarily have huge long-term impacts, they do at least raise the profile of cycling (both publicly and politically) which is important. Making it a regular annual event is a no-brainer.

    On the topic of public events, I think it’s worth looking at the huge success of running events throughout the UK. There is now an organised running event, be it 5K, 10K, a half or full marathon running almost every weekend throughout the year. Often organised by charities, these events not only raise money for charity and give people a great experience on the race day itself, but they also encourage loads of people to take up running (partly inspired by fundraising, part through fitness goals), and to exercise and train in the months running up to the event.

    If charities could be persuaded that there is scope to provide similar events for cycling (perhaps someone could invent an appropriate ‘cycling marathon’ distance?), then I think that could do a great deal to encourage and promote cycling for fitness & transport.

  • roym

    cost of helmets …’
    so you think people who spend £00s on their pashleys and bromptons wont shell out £30 on a helmet?


  • roym

    i see that every day along there as it is where i live. what can be done though? the road cannot be widened so the only option is to ban parking

  • Kim

    The way to get more people to cycle is to make the roads safer (helmets are a complete red herring), as was shown by the Pedal on Parliament ride in Edinburgh in April (http://pedalonparliament.org) there is a latent desire for that to happen. It is just a question of getting the politicians to take the people seriously.

  • 1. Wiggins specifically did not call for legislation of cycle helmets. Ask him!
    2. Nearly everything written about the negative aspects of cycle helmets is either irrelevant to head protection or prejudice masquerading as fact (just as this statement is).
    How about people don’t want to wear head protection for fear of ridicule from those who say it’s for sissies? It mess up your hair? A bit like those who are resistant to taking up exercise for fear of embarassment, & it doesn’t fit with their perceived view of their physical selves? All just as unevidenced but seems more authentic to me.

    But more importantly legacies require that people get off their arses
    and doing something. Otherwise it’s all fine words and nothing else. If
    people get out and cycle more (and there’s no such thing as 100% safe
    cycling) then that will be the legacy, if you like, irrespective of road
    widening and layout schemes.

    Knocking down Britain’s cities and rebuilding them to make cycling “safer” (or to privilege two-wheeled maniacs over their four-wheeled motorised counterparts) isn’t going to happen. And even if it did it’s no guarantee that a single extra person would cycle as a result. You’d probably get more cyclists if you had better weather.

    To put it in another context, I cycle
    in Italy where cycling is almost a religion for the millions that do it.
    It is also a means of transport for very many elderly and one of the
    reasons they have lived so long and so healthily. However, by any
    measure you like the roads are significantly more dangerous than in the
    UK with just as much traffic. The standard of driving is generally appalling – significantly worse than the UK in every respect. It doesn’t put people off cycling. So if
    people are resistant to cycling in the UK I suggest there is more to it
    than the lack of “cycle friendly” roads. You might find that the British population
    takes part in less sport in general when compared to some other European
    nations. A casual observation would tell you that far more Italian kids
    get about by bicycle (often beaten up old sit-up-and-beg bikes) than
    in the UK. And they continue to cycle into adulthood. Their parents and
    grandparent cycle too often as not. And it’s not like all Italians have
    gardens to park their bikes in since most live in apartments.
    Oh yes, and it’s nothing to do with being or looking cool. Cheap and second-hand bikes are plentiful on Italy’s roads. Bike shops are in every town.

    Cycling is a culture that begins in childhood. But it’s not encouraged by dividing the world into cyclists and motorists, as I see on my frequent visits to the UK.

  • A cyclist deterred by the minimal hassle and paltry cost of helmets isn’t what I would call a willing or enthusiastic cyclist. Given the hassle of bad weather and cost of appropriate clothing for all weathers, never mind the bike itself and its maintenance, something seems not quite right with that finding I reckon.

    And this – “He shows that wearing a helmet can make riders overconfident, leading them to take risks they would not otherwise…” – just like car drivers can become over confident and take more risks when they wear seat belts I suppose. And motor cyclists. Can or does? Possibility or probability?

    I would like to see many more people take up cycling in the UK too, but I don’t think your analysis of of the problems and how to solve them are necessarily accurate or feasible. Misrepresentation of Wiggins for a start. You can blame the press if you like for extrapolating what he actually said in the context he was asked a question, but there’s no excuse for blaming him for what the press choose to print. Wiggins also said quite unequivocally that he wasn’t calling for any legislation making cycle helmets compulsory and they he didn’t want to get involved in any debate about that. There is also an implicit assumption of two-wheel drivers good, four-wheel drivers bad which simply isn’t true. There are many good and considerate drivers, as I know from my own experience on both two-wheels and four, and there are sadly some aggressive, inconsiderate cyclists (particularly in London) who give the majority of good considerate cyclists a bad reputation. I say this from cycling in both the UK and Italy. There is an automatic assumption on the part of some (both motorists and cyclists) that the “other side” are a bunch of self-entitled wankers. And from my perspective as a visitor only these days, both “sides” are right and wrong, which is sad. It’s also sad that the debate in so many forums is so often couched in terms of warring factions.

  • Dr. Robert Davis

    Actually, the evidence for helmets – even for racing cyclists – is flimsy at best.
    At the risk of repeating much of what Christian says above, may I suggest looking at http://rdrf.org.uk/2012/08/kivilev-and-how-bradley-wiggins-gets-it-so-wrong-part-six/ and the five previous blogs on this matter on http://www.rdrf.org.uk . Plenty on the question of the supposed link between cycle sport and cycling as transport, helmts, transport policy…
    ..and you can see an interview with me on Sky TV as well.

  • Greg Tingey

    A vivid demostration – only too common, of why cycling isn’t popular – & I cycle quite a lot – but only locally, now!