Speed sells – but the real benefit of cycling is quickness

At the close of the Rio Olympics the president of British Cycling heaped praise on Manchester’s oval-shaped “medal factory”, and said his 138-year old organisation wanted to represent all cyclists not just those with golden ambitions. Bob Howden pledged that British Cycling would “continue to campaign for stronger political leadership, smart investment and better infrastructure.”

This focus on the non-sporting side of cycling is, of course, a challenge to organisations such as Cycling UK and Sustrans, which also compete for government cash. But while pivoting towards demands for cycling infrastructure is something relatively new for British Cycling it doesn’t always wash with some cycle campaigners, many of whom bridle at the conflation of sport cycling and transport cycling.

Personally, I think all cycling is great – the more the merrier! – but, to some campaigners, the world of competitive cycling has to be shunned because, it is sometimes claimed, images of fast folks in Lycra wearing polystyrene lids and riding lightweight carbon bikes sends out the “wrong” image of cycling.

In fact, it’s just one image of cycling, and there are many to choose from because cycling is such a broad church, but what campaigners mean is that the takeway message is that to cycle you have to have special equipment, which discourages newbies. Bike shops quite like selling this “special equipment” – such as helmets, clippy shoes, hi-vis jackets and the like – but campaigners frequently point out that people on bikes in the Netherlands look exactly the same as people walking or people in cars: they wear the same sort of clothes, civvies not battle fatigues. And to grow the market for cycles in the UK we have to “normalise” cycling. (I don’t disagree.)

A common argument, sometimes expressed by cycling-is-transportation campaigners, is that sport driving does nothing to encourage everyday driving. The claim is that Formula One racing isn’t used to encourage driving to work because nobody would want to commute in fire-retardant suits, neck restraints and full-face helmets. But if the promotion of motor-sport didn’t lead to more everyday driving why would so many car companies sponsor motor-sport? Pirelli doesn’t equip F1 teams with its tyres in order to sell tyres to other teams. Mercedes doesn’t pay millions to Lewis Hamilton to sell one-off cars to other Monaco-domiciled millionaires. Mobil and Esso don’t want to sell their F1-developed lubes just to Nascar teams. All of these auto companies are looking for the fairy-dust to rub off on normal, everyday driving: “if it’s good enough for Sebastian Vettel’s 200mph Ferrari it must be good enough for my 70mph Nissan Juke.”*

And where did auto companies get this idea? From bike companies, of course. In the 1890s Raleigh sponsored the American sprinter A.A. ‘Zimmy’ Zimmerman, and did so to sell its everyday bikes. A famous poster of Zimmerman shows him astride his bike, watched by two cyclists in everyday clothing. (Zimmerman was the Sir Chris Hoy of his day, one of the first athletes to license his name: there were Zimmy cycling shoes, Zimmy toe-clips and Zimmy cycling clothes.)

Frank Bowden, Raleigh’s then owner recognised that to sell bicycles to the masses, you have to stress speed. And Raleigh was still stressing speed in 1932, even when selling utility bikes to women.

One of cycling’s key advertised advantages, from the 1890s to today, is the ability to go door to door, swiftly.

Dutch roadsters can be pedalled fast, and so can Boris Bikes. Any well-serviced bike with correctly inflated tyres – even, shudder, dual-suss BSOs – can reach giddy speeds, especially downhill. For some people, bicycles may be aids to walking but if bikes travelled no faster than pedestrians, why cycle at all?

A survey of Copenhagen bicycle users found that the number one reason people cycle is because it’s faster than any other mode of transport. 

But this isn’t just about raw athletic speed it’s about quickness. Those who cycle in the city are fleet of foot, nimble, able to take short-cuts on a whim. 

So, when pushing for more transport cycling we must always bear in mind that today, as in the past, speed has always gone hand in hand with convenience. Yes, cycling doesn’t have to be a sweat-fest but equate it as “slow” and it loses a big part of its appeal. There’s nothing to be afraid of a photograph of Laura Trott in Lycra.


Thanks to Jim Stanton for a heads-up on the quickness front.


* To those who say car advertising is more about brand differentiation than promoting driving I say this: the government curtails tobacco advertising because it promotes smoking, not becase it wants to stop smokers choosing between brands.

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