At the Rio Olympics, the multiple medal-winning performances of Laura Trott, Jason Kenny and Abergavenny’s Becky James have once again put British cycling at the forefront of the world’s media. The medals are the result of a combination of raw talent, determination, incredibly dedicated training and huge investment; cycling was funded to the tune of £30.3 million over the four years leading to Rio – 11 per cent of the total funding for UK sport over that time and more than for any other activity apart from rowing.
Earlier this year, Chris Froome achieved a third win in the legendary Tour de France, giving British Cycling four wins in the last five years, an extraordinary result in the face of the French national obsession (although a Frenchman last won the competition in 1985).
All this success has had an impact back in the UK, and Sport England report that more than 2 million people cycle regularly, an increase of 100,000 between 2012 and 2015. In Wales alone, it is estimated that more than 30 million cycle trips take place each year, and there has been a dramatic growth in participation in events such as the Velothon, which saw more than 15,000 riders take part in the 140km closed-road race around South Wales in 2016. Increasing numbers of people are taking advantage of facilities for mountain biking on the many specialist trails around the country and sales of bicycles have boomed.
However, we still see cycling as predominately a leisure pursuit, and our track record on daily bicycle use is poor compared with many EU nations. In 2009, 26 per cent of all trips in the Netherlands [Cycling in the Netherlands”, Fietsberaad, 2009] were made by bicycle, whilst in Great Britain, the proportion was only 2 per cent. Things have not improved much since then, and Welsh towns and cities lag behind many other parts of the UK in their cycling infrastructure, despite the introduction of the Active Travel Act 2013, which places a mandatory duty on local authorities to map cycle routes and plan new ones to create a joined-up network. It has been shown elsewhere that investment in infrastructure is more effective in reducing causalities than mitigation measures (such as the wearing of helmets), as it can create the critical mass of cyclist numbers required to make them a force equal to cars on the streets.
Cycling can contribute to the achievement of Well-being of Future Generations Act indicators such as healthy lifestyle behaviours, levels of NO2 in the air, mental well-being, the percentage taking part in sporting activities and emissions of greenhouse gases. According to EU statistics, an adult who cycles regularly will typically have a level of fitness equivalent to being 10 years younger and a life-expectancy two years above average. In the UK, the health benefits of commuting outweigh the risks of accident by 20:1, and the air breathed by cyclists – even in busy towns – is likely to contain half of the carbon monoxide of that experienced inside a car.
Statistics for Wales shows a long-term decline in cycle casualties, although there was a short-term increase in 2014. It is not clear, however, if this increase relates to a growth in the number of journeys taken.
Welsh Government has set aside £14 million to promote safe walking and cycling infrastructure, Key documents such as the National Transport Finance Plan, however, include cycling infrastructure as part of packaged improvements to road and rail schemes, such as the M4 corridor or S Wales Metro, rather than as part of a dedicated cycling strategy. What is really needed is a change of culture – one where we leave the Lycra behind and start to see the bicycle as a viable, clean, and healthy means of everyday transport. Such a cultural change might encourage others to take the plunge and realise the benefits. At the time of writing, 23,207 people have pledged to cycle commute on September 14th as part of Cycle to Work Day – there is still time to join them and reclaim the streets.