Is Britain a great cycling nation?


The mission to become a truly cycle-friendly country

Ali Foster, Head of Event Marketing

On Sunday May 12, 2019, 17,000 riders lined up in the centre of Birmingham ready to take part in Vélo Birmingham & Midlands, a 100-mile closed road cycling event and the second biggest event of its kind in the UK.

The sight of wave upon wave of riders crossing the start line was one to behold and served as unequivocal evidence of the boom in cycling participation within the UK since 2012. It’s absolutely undeniable – cycling is fast becoming a national addiction…and it’s showing no signs of going into rehab.

There’s a catch, though. Whilst we’ve been celebrating the proliferation of participation, we have somewhat overlooked the fact the rest of society hasn’t quite caught up with us yet. Some of our European counterparts have had over 100 years for cycling to ingrain itself as a core part of their culture and identity, whereas Britain has had to fast-track this process in the space of about 10 years.

Take France, for example. Their towns and villages and completely set-up in every way imaginable to make themselves attractive to cyclists. Their roads are smooth, their cafés are welcoming and most importantly, motorists are very patient and considerate. Local councils, businesses and residents know that the ability to attract cyclists can be transformative to their local economy and have become adept at making themselves an appealing proposition, both to recreational riders and indeed the organisers of the Tour de France!

Given the fast-tracked nature of our love-affair with cycling, it’s no wonder cycling has become somewhat of a Brexit-esque, binary opinion poll – you’re either pro-cycling or anti-cycling. In London this divide is particularly intense, with cyclists seen by many to be ‘pests in lycra’ who ‘get in the way’ and ‘don’t even pay road tax’* (take a look at Jeremy Vine’s Twitter profile if you don’t believe me!) Sadly, as organisers of Vélo Birmingham & Midlands, we have also been at the sharp end of such sentiments and unfortunately had to deal with some unsavoury incidents from members of the public on the day of the event.

Whilst we do not share their views (nor condone their behaviour), we do accept that more needs to be done from both sides to remove the ‘us and them’ narrative. In order for cycling to truly flourish within the UK, society needs to be better educated as to the advantages of embracing the sport, both as a sustainable mode of transport and as a powerful tool to combat the inactivity and obesity epidemic which is currently costing the taxpayer in excess of £7 billion per year. At the same time, cyclists need to understand that every time they ride their bike they are ambassadors of the sport and should ride in a responsible and roadworthy manner.  

The good news is that the tide is turning and the public’s perceptions towards cycling are improving. Tens of thousands of spectators came out to cheer Vélo riders on Sunday and councils are increasingly giving the green light to host major, closed road sportives (see also: Vélo North & Vélo South). On top of this, cycling infrastructure within cities is improving considerably and Local Authorities are making cycling core aspects of their long-term transport strategies.

So, in answer to the question – is Britain truly a great cycling nation? The answer is yes, but we still have some work to do if we want to transition our ‘love-affair’ from a fling to a marriage.  

*Road tax’ doesn’t actually exist as the maintenance and improvement of roads are funded through local council taxes, fees, and central government grants. What many motor vehicles pay is Vehicle Excise Duty (VED), which is calculated according to how many emissions their vehicle releases.