When I first commuted by bike in London 20 years ago, people in my office thought I was, at best, odd. My route went through Hyde Park. I knew the names of all the other cyclists who habitually rode down Rotten Row at the same time each morning – that’s how few there were of us. Ten years ago, I moved to the Brecon Beacons in Wales and had another eye-opener in the cultural perception of the bicycle. In the capital, there was at least, by then, a growing body of people who acknowledged the health and transport benefits of cycling. In the countryside, you rode a bike only if something was wrong. The locals watched me pedal in and out of Abergavenny every day with suspicion.
Five months after moving, I was in the local pub, high on a hillside, on a Friday night. An old boy I knew only by the name of his farm cupped my elbow and led me gently to a corner of the bar, fixing me with a stern gaze. “I see you on the bike, boy,” he said. “How long you lost your licence for then?”
And now, well, everything is bicycle, it seems. In the UK, an estimated nine million people use their bike on a weekly basis. Some 3.7 million bicycles were sold in 2010, up 28 per cent on 2009. There are half a million bike journeys a day in London – a rise of some 150 per cent since 2000, and up 15 per cent on 2010. On some Thames bridges and certain streets in the City, bikes now outnumber cars during rush hour. Membership of both British Cycling and the Cyclists’ Touring Club are at record high levels. Taking track cycling, road racing, BMX riding and mountain biking together, we are one of the leading competitive cycling nations.
Bradley Wiggins, and what he now looks set to achieve in Paris tomorrow afternoon, is both a cause and an effect of our increased participation in cycling. Sky wouldn’t pump millions into the sport (and follow it up by investing in grassroots, recreational cycling schemes) unless the nation was determinedly getting back in the saddle. Perhaps they sense, as I do, that we might just be at the dawn of a new golden age of the bicycle.
The first great golden age was the 1890s, when the bicycle became the utilitarian form of transport for the masses. Then, people wondered how something so simple could have remained unknown for so long. Today, I regularly meet people who have just taken up cycling again: they wonder how they could have overlooked something so simple for so long. For most of us, it is the simplicity and the accessibility of the bicycle that is so compelling.
Professional cycle racing, on the other hand, is anything but accessible. If I had a pound for every time I’ve tried to explain this week how the Tour de France’s “general classification” works, I could have bought a new carbon bottle cage. The next question on the lips of every initiate is: “Why has it taken so long for a Brit to do well in the Tour?”
From the start, the sport of bicycle racing was strangled by the convention of Victorian rule-makers in Britain. For us, the sport largely consisted of “time trials”, codified in the 1890s by Frederick Thomas Bidlake, a man with a peculiarly British passion for timekeeping. Competitors set off at intervals and ride alone, against the clock, up and down a wind-slapped A-road. In Europe, massed-start rides like the Tour de France were much more popular. These races entailed breakaways and sprint finishes, chases and crashes, suffering and solidarity, tactics and alliances, co-operation and competition, vanity and honour. Massed-start road racing is underpinned by the unwritten etiquette of the peloton, something so complex that not even a Victorian Englishman could codify it into a booklet of rules. As the French say of cycle racing: Courir c’est mourir un peu.
In fairness to Bidlake, cycling in Britain never had the backing of the hegemony. Time trialling was a compromise, a way to use the roads for sport without drawing too much attention. Ironically, the first ever organised road race was won by another Englishman with a passion for “mutton chops”, James Moore. On a cold, wet day in November 1869, more than 100 cyclists, including a handful of women, gathered beneath the Arc de Triomphe in Paris before a crowd of thousands. At 7.30am, a flag was waved and the riders set off for the city of Rouen, 125km to the north-west.
The staging of the Paris-Rouen race was disrupted in 1870 by the outbreak of war between France and Prussia, but it was used as the model for all the classic European road races that were to follow, and which endure today. Each new race – Bordeaux-Paris, a 560km night-day event inaugurated in 1891, Paris-Brest-Paris also in 1891, Liège-Bastogne-Liège in 1892, Paris-Roubaix in 1896 and the Tour de France in 1903, to name a few – all seemed to try to outdo their antecedents. But Paris-Rouen set the first marker in the enduring relationship between bicycle racing and human suffering. Moore is reputed to have said before the race: “I will get there first, or they will find my body in the road.”
Bicycles are currently fashionable. That might not last, but it’s indicative of how health concerns, transport issues, the environment and the price of oil are driving the bicycle back to the centre of public consciousness and making it a viable form of transport for more and more people. In Britain, the hegemony is riding bicycles for the first time since the 19th century: to have the Mayor of London, senior politicians, newspaper editors, media moguls, fashion gurus and a host of leading businessmen all riding and advocating bicycles would have been unthinkable 20 years ago.
The bicycle is one of mankind’s greatest inventions – it’s up there with the printing press, the electric motor, the telephone, penicillin and the World Wide Web. Our ancestors thought it was one of their greatest achievements. That idea is slowly coming back as more and more of us appreciate the simplicity and the utility of the machine.
If you’ve ever experienced a moment of awe or freedom on a bicycle; if you’ve ever taken flight from sadness to the rhythm of two spinning wheels, or felt the resurgence of hope pedalling to the top of a hill with the dew of effort on your forehead; if you’ve ever wondered, swooping bird-like down a long hill on a bicycle, if the world was standing still; if you have ever, just once, sat on a bicycle with a singing heart and felt like an ordinary man touching the gods, then you share something fundamental with Bradley Wiggins, and you have reason to cheer him down the Champs-Elysées tomorrow.
Rob Penn is the author of ‘It’s All About the Bike’, published by Penguin, and a director of Bikecation (www.bikecation.co.uk)