21 July 2009

Surprisingly Positive

It's safe to say that the bicycle has been back on the media radar in many countries for a year or so. Invariably this simple transport form is subject to endless whippings due to misconceptions. Safety fanatics babble on, wishing we were all just as afraid as they are. Motorists rant about cyclists in letters to the editors and in comment columns. You often get the feeling that cycling is the nigga' of the transport world in many peoples eyes. Four decades of oppression... let my people go...

Generally, the journalists who write about the bicycle don't appear to have a clue what they're writing about, choosing often to portray the bicycle as the domain of "enthusiasts" or "hobby cyclists", because that's what they're used to seeing when they look out their windows. The growing numbers of regular citizens using the bicycle to get around their cities are often referred to as 'newbies' or 'amateurs'.

How condescending. How ridiculous. It's just riding a bicycle. The fine athletes riding in the Tour de France these days are no better at riding a bicycle than you or I. They're better at propelling them at speed in race conditions, sure, but I can't see how they're better at the simple act of riding a bike.

We're all equal. I used to see former racing cyclist, Brian Holm, every day. His son attended the same kindergarten as my boy and he would either roll up on the family's Nihola cargo bike or on his own basic city bike when delivering his son. Although he did drive the boy quite often, too. Anyway, Brian Holm is now the director for Team Columbia, currently enjoying success in the Tour.

I'd lose a race against a former pro if we were on racing bikes :-) but that's about it. On the bike lanes or streets we're equals. We can all watch out for traffic, assess risk, turn left and right. It's not a competition, it's interaction with our city. Although a pro may not fare so well in a 'urban bike transport competition' against a Copenhagen supermum - cycling with kid on the back seat, two bags of groceries dangling on the handlebars and dressed in heels and a mini-skirt.

I love watching cycle sport and a summer without the Tour on the telly is unimaginable. I had posters of Bernard Hinault and Laurent Fignon on my walls as a boy and tried to emulate them when I was racing. The Tour is the world's hardest sports event and the athleticism and drama are awe-inspiring. But it's not about the bicycle, it's the sportsmen. A carpenter with crappy tools can build just as fantastic a house than one with a full arsenal of expensive tools. The Tour is human drama.

Everyday cycling is human, too. It is public domain. It belongs to each and every one of us. Just as the cities in which we live do. Encouraging people to ride bicycles in the city, to work or the supermarket, should be a priority.

Funny thing is, it's not all about the bicycle, to be honest. The gearheads wish it were, but it's not. The bicycle - and bicycle infrastructure - is merely a fantastic tool for creating more liveable cities.

If you put in bicycle lanes, the number of pedestrians increases along that stretch. The lanes not only benefit those citizens who wish to cycle but they act as traffic calming. More cyclists and pedestrians on a stretch of street increase the attractiveness of the stretch. Property values rise. Businesses flourish. What a fantastic tool indeed.

I wasn't actually planning to write all this. The point was that after reading negative or uninformed media coverage about the bicycle for over a year it was refreshing, shocking, amazing to read this piece in The Irish Times by John Gibbons:

Cyclists Unite - You have nothing to lose but your chains.

It was such a suprising piece that I had to re-read it twice to make sure there wasn't any of the usual negativity. There wasn't.

"The seemingly irreversible long-term decline of the bicycle may at last have been arrested.

Minister for Transport Noel Dempsey clearly thinks so. His department published the first ever National Cycle Framework Policy (NCFP) earlier this year. Dempsey aims to have 10 per cent of all commuting done by bike in 2020. What’s equally clear is that a multiplicity of factors killed off the bike, and only what the NCFP calls “strong interventions” can reverse these.

A major roadblock is the persistent notion that cycling is dangerous. The British Medical Association calculates that its health benefits far outweigh any hazards cyclists face on the road.

A Danish study found 40 per cent lower premature mortality rates among adult cyclists than their car-bound counterparts.

Read it for yourself. It's refreshing. It's true. It's the way forward.