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Monthly Archives: January 2013

It is a measure of how far we have come that there is a cross party Parliamentary inquiry starting today called ‘Get Britain Cycling’. Even though cycling is still very much the choice of everyday transport of a very small minority, this is a significant improvement from when I first started working as a bicycle messenger in the 80s, when only a vanishingly small minority, a barely noticed few, cycled regularly.  It is no exaggeration to say that I knew everyone that cycled in north and east London by sight.

Cycling, and the concerns of cyclists, is taken much more seriously by everyone, whereas 20 years ago, we were barely even noticed.  Another measure of this is the list of cyclists killed in 2012, published on the Times Cycle Safe campaign page.  Up until relatively recently, the death of a cyclist was not covered by the mainstream media at all, ever.  For instance, the death of Edward Newstead, killed by a left-turning lorry on Oxford Street in 1992, received no attention, despite a press release from the LCC, and a large memorial ride organised by London bicycle messengers

When I started the Moving Target blog in 2005, it was still the case that the majority of cyclists killed passed without comment or even much notice in the media.  This is why I used to receive emails & texts about fatal collisions from witnesses or friends, because it was known that I would publish details, and give some context, particularly if the collision involved a lorry (aka HGV).  Now, if a cyclist is killed, it is reported at the very least in the local media, and often in the national media, as in the case of Dan Harris, killed by a bus near the Olympic Park in the summer.

This is not to suggest that people don’t talk a lot of bollocks about cycling.  I’m thinking of the Times, and its assertion that sensible shoes were important for safe cycling, or the constant chirrupping about whether cyclists should be using MP3 players, or the revolting ‘under the line’ comments that always get posted on media web-sites after the death of a cyclist is reported, sometimes by other cyclists.

Cycling is big news, and big politics, at least in London.  However, even though, depending on how it has been measured, and who measured it, cycling has increased by a factor 2, 3, 4 or 5, we are still only talking about an increase from the barely statistically significant (around 0.5% of all journeys in London in the late 80s) to solidly statistically significant, but cycling rates are still in single figures as a total of all journeys.  So even though there are a lot more people cycling than there were 20 years ago, cycling is still not the choice of the overwhelming majority of the population.

How to get Britain cycling? Well, I wouldn’t start from such a low base, given the choice.  One thing that isn’t often mentioned when we are advised that we need to ‘go Dutch’ or ‘Copenhagenise’, is that both these cities had cycling rates well above of where London is now, probably around 10% of all trips at the time when national & local policy was changed to emphasis and encourage cycling.

To be honest, I get a little fed up with the constant harping on about Copenhagen or Amsterdam.  Both of these cities are much, much smaller than London, and I’m not convinced that you can scale up effectively.  The demographics of Copenhagen in the 60s & 70s, when the push towards cycling started to happen are significantly different to London now.  The topography, geography and distances are different.  Integrated transport, e.g. allowing bikes to be carried on trains, is non-existent in peak times, and, in the case of the train compaines, not likely to change anytime soon.

Whilst there many technical solutions that can be adopted from elsewhere, I am not sure that a simple ‘Go Dutch’ approach is enough.  We need to be looking around for examples from urban areas that more closely match London, where cycling rates are significantly above the current national (or London) rate, but still in a large metropolis.  Fortunately, such a place does exist, and it is in a large metropolis, and hey, they even speak English.  Readers, that place is Hackney, where cycling rates are at around 10%.

If the committee is looking for evidence of how to successfully increase cycling to a significant minority from a statistically insignificant number of journeys, then it could do worse than call for Hackney Cyclists and the London Borough of Hackney.

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liestrongThis bit of levity from tweeter @Marcus___ is very welcome, and, like all good satire, holds a cracked mirror up to a truth.

The Liestrong saga hasn’t been much fun for people like me who were (and still can be) inspired by watching bicycle racing.  The first Tour I watched was Stephen Roche’s win in 1987.  It was as dramatic a sporting event as you could wish for.

As I became more interested in road racing, I read everything I could about bicycle racing, and became well aware of doping, and its place.  In 1988, the winner of the second Tour that I watched, Pedro Delgado, tested positive for Probenacid, a diuretic apparently used to mask the presence of proscribed drugs.  At the time of the test, Probenacid was on the banned list of the International Olympic Committee, but not on the list of the Union Cycliste Internationale, so ‘Perico’ was not sanctioned.

As I read more about the sport, devouring almost every English language book about professional bicycle racing then available, I read of Michel Pollentier’s shameful attempt to cheat the doping control at l’Alpe d’Huez in 1978 (he had concealed a container of clean urine on his person), Tommy Simpson’s death, the famous interview with the Pelissier brothers in 1924, the frank admissions of Fausto Coppi & Jacques Anquetil, and on and on through the books of Paul Kimmage & Freddy Maertens (which I strongly recommend to anyone who hasn’t read it).

I gradually came to realise that, as I wrote elsewhereprofessional bicycle racing is a manifestation of almost unrestrained venality.  But, luckily, or unluckily, I started following cycling during one of its most interesting eras: the post Hinault, pre Indurain dust-up, when almost anything could happen, where the Tour could be turned upside down in a matter of minutes, an era of drama, attacking riding, sudden collapses & ceaseless struggle between the favourites, LeMond, Delgado, Fignon, Mottet, Parra, Roche, Herrara…  I found it entrancing.

The Indurain era, which opened in 1991, and can now be described as the artisanal EPO period, before teams employed medical assistance in a systematic way, was less interesting, which is probably down to EPO.  I suspect that the racing was so crushingly boring partly because EPO levelled the playing field, to use the cliche.  Everyone was at the same level, and it wasn’t a question of counting how many matches you had to burn before the race, and eking them out in attempt to find the right moment to light the fuse and dynamite the race, as before, because you had an electronic lighter that would fire up anytime you wanted it.

It was pretty obvious, if you bothered to think about it, that something was seriously askew when Laurent Jalabert suddenly catapulted from the ranks of the Green jersey hunters into the pack of serious G.C. contenders in a matter of months, eventually winning the polka-dot jersey of ‘King of the Mountains’ twice.  The absurd spectacle of Bjarne Riis, 188cm tall & weighing 72 kilos, dancing away from the leading group in 1996 on Hautacam like he was Frederico Bahamontes probably should have made me switch off right then (Riis had elevated his haemocrit level to 60%, thus giving himself a step up from the levelled playing field).  By the way, every single one of the top 10 finishers on that stage have since been implicated or sanctioned for serious doping offences, bar one.  Guess which one?

The first EPO era came to an end with the Festina scandal of 1998, during which the French police did what the UCI could or would not, and exposed the scale of doping by leading professional cycling teams.  I was stupid enough during this Tour to be completely taken in by Marco Pantani’s performance to win the Tour.  I believed he was clean because he said he was.  More fool me.

1999 was trailed as the Tour of Redemption [or Renewal] by the French.  Oh, how ironic that looks now.  As Robbie McEwen said elsewhere, we all wanted to believe in the story of Lance’s come-back from the dead.  The fact that he had been an impetuous, aggressive rider, constantly trying to shake things up before he was struck down by cancer, made his victory all the more exciting, as it promised a return to the era of attacking racing, rather than the slow strangulation of the opposition as practised by Indurain.

Instead, Lance destroyed the field again and again and again, leaving us all with the same question as in the Indurain era:  who is going to finish on the other two steps of the podium, which was a little dull.  As Lance’s dominance of the Tour continued through the early 2000s, the overwhelming majority of us probably got a little tired of Lance’s posturing, and wary of the way that he ostracised & reviled former team-mates, but I think most people, like me, believed that Lance was clean because as Greg LeMond said in 2001, “if Lance’s story is true, it’s the greatest comeback in the history of sports. If it’s not, it’s the greatest fraud“, i.e. we believed because the alternative was too unpleasant to contemplate.

However, as the decade of systematic medical preparation dragged on, and the anti-doping effort began to catch up with the dopers, the lies of the leading riders grew ever more outrageous, blatant and impossible to believe (and occasionally unintentionally hilarious: ‘the human growth hormone was for my dog’).  I’m not sure exactly when lost all of my illusions, but I think it was probably after Landis’ positive in 2006.  I was completely taken in by his performance that day – I stupidly thought it was a display of attacking riding the like of which hadn’t been seen in the Tour since the 1980s.  After the positive was announced, I was angry, but mostly with myself for having been taken in yet again by a cheating pro bike racer.

I don’t want to comment on Lance’s belated, incomplete, and fundamentally flawed ‘confession’ (is there anyone with even a passing interest in the sport that believes he was 100% clean during his 3rd comeback?) but I will say that we are all (apart from the few on the outside of Lance’s circle who brought his shameless lying & cheating to our attention) like the fellow shown in the picture above. We  did all buy into it.  Let’s not get fooled again.