As Le Grand Départ turns into Le Grand Au Revoir and the Tour de France cyclists and their huge accompanying caravan return to France, the predictable self-congratulation from politicians and sporting organisations has begun. They claim that the Tour will provide a fantastic boost for cycling in the UK that will be felt for years.
Sadly they are wrong. There is no evidence that the triumphs of the British cycling team at the 2012 Olympics or the Tour’s visit to London seven years ago have done anything to increase interest in cycling as a means of transport rather than as a sport.
The Tour has almost no impact on non-sporting cycling in France. In Paris cycling has a 3 per cent “modal share” (the percentage of travellers using a particular type of transport), better than London’s 2 per cent but way behind Amsterdam’s 38 per cent or Copenhagen’s 26 — and both growing. It suggests that three weeks of Tour mania topped by a finish on the capital’s streets does little to promote bikes as an alternative to driving or taking the bus.
At a Franco-British Council conference on ways to get more people into the saddle, held in London last week, French campaigners for better cycling facilities were not just sceptical about the Tour, but downright hostile. As one put it: “The Tour is accompanied by more vehicles than there are competitors and when they ask hosting towns to make arrangements for their arrival, they are only interested in creating facilities for cars and lorries.” He added that there is never any improvement in cycling facilities in the towns and cities visited by the Tour.
The French do not even have a word for recreational or commuter cycling. Cyclisme means cycle-racing. The culture of competitive cycling runs far deeper than in the UK, as can be seen by the hordes of yellow jerseys seen on country roads on any French Sunday morning. But these riders would no more think of using their bikes rather than their Peugeots to get to work than they would eat corn flakes rather than a croissant for breakfast.
Rather than seeing an annual race as the way to boost cycle use, we need political leadership, long-term investment and a healthy budget. It may sound pedestrian but that, rather than the glitz of a big sporting event, is the way to achieve change.