Rebecca Morley speaks to Matt Mallinder, who recently stepped down as Cycling UK’s director of influence and engagement, about what’s changed in cycling over the last 20 years
This piece first appeared in the December edition of BikeBiz magazine – get your free subscription here
How do you condense 20 years in the cycling sector into 20 minutes? That was the question facing Matt Mallinder, who was Cycling UK’s director of influence and engagement before he stepped down last month, in a recent video call with BikeBiz.
Mallinder had been at Cycling UK for the last nine years, rejoining the charity – then called Cyclists’ Touring Club (CTC) – in 2013, having previously worked for the organisation from 2000 to 2008 as commercial manager. In the interim, he was deputy CEO with the London Cycling Campaign and operations manager at the Environmental Transport Association.
“I think the biggest change I’ve seen over that time is cycling’s place and recognition in society,” Mallinder told me. “Cycling was very much the preserve of the white middle class male. Over that time, organisations like Cycling UK and others have really pushed for better equality in cycling, looking at those who weren’t cycling or had a barrier to cycling. We launched things like the 100 Women in Cycling, the Women’s Festival of Cycling, to put a spotlight on the variety of cycling that women were doing, saying look, there’s lots of different cycling and you can be inspired by your peers.”
Mallinder said the Government is also waking up to the fact that cycling, whilst it may previously have been viewed as a bit of an annoyance or something that men did on the weekend, is now being seen as a solution to a lot of society’s problems. “We saw it through the pandemic,” he continued, “lots of people getting bikes back out of the sheds. Again, that’s something Cycling UK has done through things like the Big Bike Revival for years, and thinking about how it works for wellbeing, how it works for the environment, how it’s a viable transport solution for towns now, especially with more congestion and air pollution.
“For a long time, the cycle advocacy space just championed cycling for cycling’s sake and now we can actually have a different dialogue that starts hitting people’s other agendas. I really welcome things like the Active Travel England that’s just about to start, and the Government’s Gear Change document from a couple of years ago, where they really set out some high aspirations for cycling. I think it’s in a good place from where it was, and more importantly, we’re seeing that replicated across all the nations.”
There’s also been quite a lot of tech over that time – both in the bikes themselves getting better and better, but also the innovative use of tech. “The whole ability for tech to be used to inspire people, but also being able to share GPX routes,” said Mallinder. “If you wanted to go on a long distance trip before you had to be an expert on Ordnance Survey maps, and now you can download a GPX file.”
Routes like King Alfred’s Way, an off-road adventure route which connects four of England’s National Trails – North Downs Way, South Downs Way, Ridgeway and Thames Path – are also ways to catalyse news audiences and new enthusiasm, and people like that curated way of cycling, added Mallinder.
“The community of cyclists is probably a lot broader now, both in the types of people but obviously the accessibility to it as well. When I first started cycling, I remember being the only person in my village that cycled and I had to cycle five miles to the cycling club every Sunday morning.”
But looking at it from an industry point of view – how much have bike shops been embracing these changes seen within the cycling sector? “They probably had their eyes opened financially during lockdown,” Mallinder said. “I don’t think they valued the everyday cyclists as much as they did the more enthusiasts, and I think the pandemics probably helped them there.
“The real beneficiary for more people cycling is actually the trade as they’re going to sell more bikes. Generally, I think they’ve been a bit slow to pick up. E-bikes are a really interesting area, I think we were probably a bit snippy as a society at the beginning.
“In Belgium, I think more e-bikes are sold now than regular bikes. Not just old people, which was how it was viewed before, very much people seeing it as a viable alternative transport, commuter type model, or to extend their journeys. I think that’s a really exciting shift, it equalises cycling. Obviously, it’s a good boom for the trade.” Cycling UK also earlier this year launched ‘Making cycling e-asier’, which provides free loans of electric cycles and is funded by Department for Transport.
“We’ve got a pilot in Manchester and we’ll be launching more locations as and when,” said Mallinder. “But again, that’s perhaps normalising e-bikes even further because it’s actually giving bikes to those who potentially are in the groups that wouldn’t necessarily afford them. The price of e-bikes to date has perhaps been a little bit prohibitive for certain people. So the trade could probably do better actually at ceding good credit for bikes in the way that the car industry did back in the 70s – they really pushed finance and that’s how most people buy cars now.”
Mallinder also mentions the Highway Code, which now has the ‘Hierarchy of Road Users’, simplified rules for non-signalised junctions, new rules to tackle dangerous overtaking and ‘close passes’, and the inclusion of the Dutch Reach. “The rules in the Highway Code trickle down to highway design,” said Mallinder. “So junctions will become safer, crossings will become safer, because cycling or walking is a priority over driving there. Those are little things sometimes that we miss – the advocacy works a little bit mysteriously behind the scenes and sometimes it’s actually really boring legislation that we need to change.”
The future looks bright
So what does the future of cycling look like now? “We had two years worth of sales in about six weeks, didn’t we at the beginning of lockdown, obviously that needs to normalise but that would have brought more people in,” Mallinder said. “They’ll want a second bike, they’ll want that bike replaced, they’ll want it fixed.
“From when I started to now, there’s been a few blips along the way but the reality is funding in cycling is at record levels compared to where it has ever been. The future looks bright from governments really investing in it. Obviously, there’ll be times when they have to make cost savings, but I think in terms of the trajectory, I’m very pleased. I’m always blown away by the trade, how they’ve managed to reinvent themselves every couple of years. The touring bike market was dead and then basically they put knobby tyres on it and it’s a gravel bike, and we’ve reinvented something.”
Mallinder continued: “If I have to predict another boom, I do think workplace cycling might become a really important thing for society because it’s a massive contributor to traffic at nine o’clock in the morning and five in the evening. If people see their petrol prices carrying on going up and the cost of living, the employee themselves will be looking at ways of how could they make this cheaper, quicker, especially the sitting in traffic jams.
“The employer themselves, for the Government to hit their net zero targets in the future, they’ll probably look at big contributors to transport which is obviously a key contributor to greenhouse gases. They’ll be looking to push work employers to think about how they move their staff around.
“Workplaces can facilitate things like cycle to work schemes and making it easier for people to get bikes. Things like our Cycle Friendly Employer scheme, which started about five years ago now, that kind of model of really helping workplaces become cycle friendly is really important.”