I went to the Cycle Show yesterday looking out for the big themes that will help define cycling in 2010. I tend to glaze over in of the forests of identical crabon road bikes and hydraulically-enhanced mountain bikes, so if you want the latest on road and MTB, I’m afraid you’ll need to go elsewhere. Last year’s show proved that the fixed wheel craze had well and truly entered the mainstream with every bike company and their sister coming out with pared down ‘urban fixies’, some bringing the aesthetic of the flamboyant trick bike to the established form of the entry-level Langster and Pista. The fixed wheel bikes are still there this year but in much smaller numbers. What I found most interesting in this year’s show was the rennaissance of the hub gear, with Sturmey Archer leading the way. Continue reading
Today was trade/media day at London’s annual Cycle Show at Earls Court. Among the most talked-about new exhibits was the long-awaited Sturmey Archer three-speed fixed wheel hub, the S3X. In the craze for all things fixed, Sturmey’s ancient ASC, a three-speed fixed hub that went out of production in the mid 1950s, has been selling for enormous sums on Ebay and for a few years now it has been rumoured that Sturmey would bring it back into production. The S3X is now ready to roll. Continue reading
Deputy Leader of the Labour Party and Leader of the House of Commons Harriet Harman is ‘helping police with their enquiries’ about a minor car crash in which it is alleged Ms Harman committed two offences: driving while talking on a mobile phone and leaving the scene of a collision without swapping contact and registration details. Both are serious offences, the latter carrying a potential 6 month prison sentence. Ms Harman has form here. In 2003 she was fined £400 and banned from driving for a week after being convicted of driving at 99 miles per hour on a motorway, 29 mph above the speed limit. In 2007 she received a £60 penalty notice for driving at 50 mph in a 40 mph zone. As The Times reports today, Ministers convicted of traffic offences have traditionally had to resign their ministerial careers, though these days it does seem to take a lot more before ‘honourable’ Members to do the honourable thing. As the row continues to rumble on, perhaps there’s an opportunity to turn it round to her own benefit. Continue reading
An accident of geography means that, official speaking, I’m a Lambeth Cyclist but I’m a Southwark Cyclist at heart, not least because of the dynamic Barry Mason, the quirky Rob Ainsley, the luminous Rebecca Lack and the feisty Ann Warren. I can even see the Southwark-Lambeth ‘county line’ from my doorstep. So I was delighted to be invited to attend their monthly meeting last night at which Transport for London’s project manager for London’s ‘Velib style’ cycle hire scheme gave a talk and answered questions. Continue reading
To: Matthew Parris, The Times, 1 Pennington Street, London E98 1XY
Dear Matthew Parris,
I am writing in response to your article “What’s smug and deserves to be decapitated?” (The Times, 27 December 2007).
Whatever it is you’ve got against people who ride bicycles, to suggest that they deserve decapitation with piano wire is to step far over the often thin line that separates the wittily wicked from the plain nasty. Imagine an article that takes issue with Halloween in which the writer ‘jokes’ about giving trick or treating kids sweets laced with strychnine. Or piece against the war in Iraq that says British and American soldiers blown up by suicide bombers have received their just deserts.
The idea of cyclists meeting violent deaths on the road might make you chuckle, but I find it harder to see the funny side. Maybe it is because I know that every time I get on my bicycle I do face a small though very real risk of meeting a violent death myself. Maybe it is passing the spots where others have been killed, marked by floral tributes, bleached and withered by the sun and the rain. In London, where I live, around a dozen to twenty cyclists are killed each year, mostly in collisions with lorries turning left that have failed to see the cyclist on their inside. Earlier this month a woman by the name of Kate Charles was crushed under the wheels of a Tesco lorry in Brixton. In cases where the driver is found guilty of negligent or reckless driving, the punishment is invariably slight: a few points on the license, perhaps a short ban or a fine of a few hundred pounds. Custodial sentences are rare.
Indifference to the death and serious injury of people riding bicycles is commonplace and spiteful articles such as yours that seek to dehumanize people on bicycles only exacerbate the problem. There is a hidden assumption that people on bicycles are somehow ‘asking for trouble’, just as women rape victims are said to have asked for it if they were wearing a short skirt at the time of the attack. As for your idea that cyclists are all smug, self-righteous, self-satisfied, insolent jerks, I have no idea what your evidence is, since most of the cyclists I know are charming, cheerful and considerate souls (and that extends to not dropping litter, although there will always be a few exceptions). If you think about it, the very act of taking to the road without a two-ton box of steel to protect you means that you are trusting enough to put your life in the hands of others, and you have sufficient faith in humanity to believe that they will not run you down. I am sure your own antipathy an acute case of Freudian projection, with a side order of envy each time a bicycle glides past while you’re stuck in a traffic jam.
Normally I would not write letter like this in response to yet another unthinking newspaper diatribe against people who ride bicycles. Over the year, the best of your writing has been distinguished by its humanity, thoughtfulness and rationality. That’s why this particular column was such a surprise. Perhaps you were short of ideas in the last few days before Christmas and having seen the growing popularity of cycling thought that a bit of low rent contrarian invective would fill some space. Or maybe you just wanted to provoke a reaction.
Having risen to the bait, I’d like to make you a proposal. I present The Bike Show, a weekly radio programme on cycling, art and society that is broadcast on London’s experimental art radio station Resonance 104.4fm. The show features ‘rolling interviews’ with artists, writers, poets, scientists, philosophers and others, all of whom share the belief that, as John F. Kennedy put it, “nothing compares to the simple pleasure of a bike ride”. Someone once said that journalists should write about what they know. In that spirit, may I invite you out on a gentle afternoon ride (town or country) so you can find out what all the fuss is about. I’ll even lend you my spare machine. How about that for turning the other cheek?
The Bike Show
Update – 30 December 2007
I had assumed that piano wire decapitation was pure fantasy on the part of Parris. Turns out that it’s not. Chapeau to Treadly and me for compiling a list of real life incidents that I have reproduced below:
- Cyclist caught in wire road trap
- Bikers warned of tree wire danger
- BMX boy in wire agony
- Wire ‘traps’ set on cycle paths
- Warnings over fishing line trap
- Wire ‘trap’ is laid for cyclists
- Cyclist hurt in park wire crash
- Wire deathtrap injures cyclist (barbed wire in this case—a special Queensland touch there)
- Two teens accused of performing prank that injures motorcyclist
- Vandals’ wire attack
- Cycling injury: woman seriously injured but wire trap for cyclists in park could have decapitated victim
- Grand jury levies charges in terrorism of cyclists case (this bastard faced a maximum ten years in jail on each of two counts, but was sentenced to 600 hours of community service)
- Mountain biker killed by possible booby trap (not a wire, but the same lunatic mindset)
As the Tour de France comes to Britain for the first time ever, what can three books tell us about the meaning of the world’s most demanding athletic contest?
First published in Prospect Magazine, July 2007.
The Beautiful Machine: A Life In Cycling from Tour De France to Cinder Hill by Graeme Fife (Mainstream, £16.99)
Push Yourself a Little Bit More: Backstage at the Tour De France by Johnny Green (Orion, £17.99)
Le Tour: A History of the Tour De France by Geoffrey Wheatcroft (Simon & Schuster, £8.99)
Kicking off on 7th July, this year’s Tour De France will be the first in the event’s 104-year history to start in Britain. Another first is that there will be no reigning champion. Just a week after the American rider Floyd Landis won last year’s yellow jersey, it was announced that he had failed a routine test for use of synthetic testosterone, a prohibited substance used to aid physical recovery (Landis continues to protest his innocence, and has spent close to $1m defending himself).
In the wake of the Landis case, the reputation of professional cycling has sunk to a new low. A series of German riders have made confessions, including 1996 Tour winner Bjarne Riis. The first Tour winner to admit to doping, this May, Riis told a press conference: “My jersey is at home in a cardboard box. They are welcome to come and get it. I have my memories for myself.” In what looks like a plea bargain, the leading Italian rider, Ivan Basso, has admitted “attempted doping.” The German Jan Ullrich, Tour winner in 1997 and five-time runner-up, retired rather than face questions. How does a competition scarred by cheating, lying and hypocrisy retain its huge following in France, in Britain and beyond?
Since the Tour began in 1903, riders have used drugs of one kind or another to dull the pain and to stay alert. However, everything changed with the emergence of red blood cell-boosting hormones and blood transfusion techniques. The main factor limiting a cyclist’s performance is not how much air the lungs can breathe in, nor how much oxygen the muscles in the legs can use; it is how fast the oxygen from the lungs can be transferred to the legs. The body uses red blood cells to do this, and so boosting red blood cell count directly tackles the bottleneck in the system. The effect on performance is pronounced; clean and doped-up riders simply do not compete on level terms. But blood doping is a risky business. Because the extra red cells thicken the blood, there is a danger that the heart will simply stop pumping. In the past few years, a number of young, fit racers have died suddenly in their sleep.
The anti-doping net never closed around Lance Armstrong, the Texan who won a record seven consecutive Tours. Yet suspicions abound. A test for the blood-boosting hormone erythropoietin was not introduced until 2004, but the French sports paper L’Équipe (part of the same media group that runs the Tour) claims to have retested Armstrong’s urine samples from the 1999 Tour and found traces of the drug. Yet the heroic narrative of Armstrong’s success—he won after recovering from life-threatening testicular cancer—has a human appeal far beyond cycling. It also opened the lucrative American market to the Tour and its sponsors.
The Tour’s centenary celebrations in 2003 were accompanied by a clutch of books about the race. This year, the arrival of the Tour in Britain brings several more titles. Unlike in Britain, a French journalist can make a name writing about cycling, and it was France’s stylish and literary sports journalism that first drew Graeme Fife to the Tour (having a French girlfriend also helped). Having previously written a history of the Tour, Fife has now published a memoir, The Beautiful Machine: A Life in Cycling from Tour de France to Cinder Hill. Fife finds the romance of the Tour bewitching, hearing echoes of the Greek epic poems he taught at a public school in Norfolk before turning to writing full-time in his early thirties. Just as the Tour’s organisers take pleasure in sending the riders over rough mountain passes, up into the clouds, the ice and the wind, so he relishes following the same punishing mountain climbs himself, at a fraction of the speed, but with much of the same suffering.
Those who argue it is the brutal demands of today’s Tour that force riders to turn to drugs forget that the Tour was at its most physically demanding in its early days. Its founder, Henri Desgrange, saw a link between physical effort and moral virtue. He wanted to see “a violent effort, prolonged, repeated, sometimes going as far as pain, demanding tenacity and even a certain stoicism.” For Desgrange, a perfect Tour would be so tough that only a single rider would survive to the finishing line. The 482km stage along the Atlantic seaboard from Les Sables to Bayonne began at 2am and the winning time was a shade over 18 hours. In his day, Desgrange turned a blind eye to the various pharmaceutical aids that riders used to prevent them from having to give up. But I suspect he would have seen the new, performance-boosting drugs as illegal outside assistance—like getting a push from a team car.
Desgrange’s successor, Jacques Goddet, was more tolerant of technological innovations. In 1937, Goddet allowed riders to use variable gears (Desgrange had always maintained gears were for the feeble and elderly). Yet Goddet cut an equally eccentric figure. When overseeing the race in the south of France, he wore khaki shorts and shirt, knee-length socks and a pith helmet, an unintentionally comic echo of French colonialism. Much of this entertaining history is recounted in Geoffrey Wheatcroft’s Le Tour: A History of the Tour De France (2003), published in updated form this year. Though Wheatcroft’s year-by-year chronicle can be relentless, he excels in drawing links between the Tour and various conceptions of Frenchness. Wheatcroft reminds us that, like most nation states in Europe, the modern French state was assembled from a patchwork of kingdoms and principalities whose people regarded Parisians as foreigners. La Grande Boucle (as the Tour is known) girdles France, reassuring her citizens and reminding her neighbours of her inviolable borders.
If Wheatcroft efficiently relates the Tour’s history, Johnny Green’s Push Yourself a Little Bit More (Backstage at the Tour De France) brings to life its soul. Green, the Clash’s former road manager, argues that professional cycling is the new rock and roll: the drugs are certainly in evidence, as are the showbiz and the trophy wives—and the scandals too. Green’s inner roadie is awed by the logistics required to stage the three-week race, executed with the Gallic efficiency normally reserved for more utilitarian projects such as high-speed trains and nuclear power stations. Ken Livingstone certainly sees the Tour as the biggest dress rehearsal London will have for the 2012 Olympics.
Unlike the Olympics, the Tour comes to the people. The stadium is an entire landscape. For three weeks each July we see why France is the most visited country in the world: châteaux, vineyards, poplar-lined avenues, high mountain passes and fields full of sunflowers, each turning its head as the peloton passes by, hot rubber hissing on hotter tarmac. The route of this year’s first stage, from London to Canterbury, offers history and legend to match, and the Tour’s organisers are sure to draw our attention to hop fields, cherry orchards and Kentish oast houses as the race passes through “the garden of England.” It is with a spirit of cultural celebration that millions line the roadsides, picnicking in fields as they wait.
With the doping problem running out of control, it seems strange that popular interest in the Tour is undiminished. Such is the determination of riders to win at all costs and so pervasive is their code of silence on doping that things will probably get worse before they get better. The recent trickle of confessions may yet turn into a flood. If the Tour is to clean up its act, it must combine a time-limited amnesty with a new requirement that any witness who fails to report doping can be charged with conspiracy. But even in these dark days, I cannot turn my back on the Tour. The spectacle, the history and the endeavour of the riders are irresistible.
Like many hundreds of London cyclists I went along to critical mass last Friday night. I’d heard about the possible crackdown by the Metropolitan Police under the Government’s new public order legislation and I wanted to express my right to ride. I’ve been riding in Critical Mass rides in London, Oxford and San Francisco for more than a decade and I’ve usually enjoyed the fun and friendship and the amazing feeling of riding along the city streets in large numbers, safely, showing how a bicycle can solve the problems of congestion.
Last Friday’s ride attracted more than 1000 people. It was an impressive show of solidarity, and to give them their due, the Police acted in an overwhelmingly friendly and cooperative way. But by the time the ride had reached Parliament Square and a group of people decided to brandish their bikes aloft and bring the ride to a complete standstill, I had decided enough was enough.
I’m glad I didn’t stay with the ride as it went back towards the West End but I’ve heard from others that people blocked Oxford Street for almost an hour, held up buses and generally caused disruption to everyone. Spare a though for all those shopworkers on minimum wage trying to get home on a dark Friday night. What kind of a message does that send out to people about cycling and cyclists?
Friday’s ride marked a turning point for me. London’s Critical Mass has always quietly tolerated those people who tried to hijack it for their own causes, whether they’re against Shell, McDonalds or the Iraq War. But now it seems that Critical Mass has inverted its own founding creed of being a bike ride not a protest. It is abundantly clear that it is now a protest, not a bike ride. And in doing so, it has become a convenient vehicle for the angry mob who like to be anti-everything.
Over the years Critical Mass has undoubtedly raised the profile of cycling and contributed in its own way to the massive growth of cycling in the capital. Riding a bike is now a perfectly ordinary way of getting around town, and Governments are broadly supportive, although it is always possible for them to do better. I ride my bike in London and see so many other riders around me that it feels like a Critical Mass every day.
A conversation I overheard on Friday sums it up perfectly. It was a bike messenger complaining, in very good humour, that he rode 100 miles a day, every day, and hadn’t had a mechanical failure for months. But he’d come on Critical Mass for the first time in years and been rear-ended by another rider, buckling his back wheel.
Cycling in London has moved on and Critical Mass now does more harm than good. But this doesn’t mean giving up on group riding, far from it. Any day of the month is a good day to get together with bunch of friends or join up with a local group like Southwark Cyclists for one of their regular Thursday night rides. 6.30pm on the South Side of London Bridge. I’ll see you there.