The heroics of British cyclists in the Olympic velodrome have been widely celebrated – and quite rightly so. Whatever one thinks of organised competitive sport – and I’m the first to admit I’m far from being a fan – what those competitors do (regardless of their nationality) is pretty astonishing.
But one feels that in the prevailing mood of celebrating all things British a rare opportunity has been missed to reflect the authentic British cycling experience. There’s a whole range of events that could be included – for example the team swerve into traffic to avoid the white van parked in the cycle lane, the individual emergency stop to avoid the 4×4 turning left across your bows while the driver is on the phone, the pothole avoidance peleton, avoiding the driver who thinks it’s clever to pass as close to you as possible. The possibilities are vast.
And of course the whole competitive atmosphere could be made far more true to life. Instead of cheering, flag-waving supporters you could fill the velodrome with BMW drivers yelling random abuse. In the case of accidents, instead of medics a team of specially trained magistrates, police officers and journalists could be bussed in to reassure injured cyclists that it was their fault for being on “our” roads. And of course the whole thing could be presided over by a witless exhibitionist Mayor who claims to back cycling, despite his indolent efforts at cosmetic measures to promote cycling having actually made it more dangerous (perhaps we managed that one).
The fact is that outside the two weeks of Olympic competition, cyclists are treated as second-class citizens in Britain’s cities. Cyclists are routinely killed on Britain’s roads – not least by goods vehicles drivers – and the courts routinely deliver no more than a slap on the wrist. And yet – as most continental cities realise – any city that aspires to be clean, liveable and sustainable inevitably places cycling at the heart of its policy mix. Britain, currently facing EU infraction proceedings over its poor air quality record and with its cities choked with traffic, could learn something pretty important from, say, Den Haag or Copenhagen (both cities I know well).
It would be wonderful if the long-term legacy of these Olympics included the political class uniting around a strategy to place cycling, rather than the car, at the heart of urban transport policy. But it requires vision, intelligence and an ability to see beyond the profit motive and beyond the curious psychopathology of our relationship with the private car. No optimism there, then.