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Tour de France in London: Has Mayor Ken Got it Wrong?
By Staff
Date: 7/4/2007
Tour de France in London: Has Mayor Ken Got it Wrong?

Tour de France in London: Has Mayor Ken Got it Wrong?
But I have a confession - I am probably the only cycling reporter in London who doesn’t believe the Tour de France will make a scrap of difference to the status of cycling in London.

By Mark Sharon

In just 48 hours London will host the Tour de France, and like every other cycling fan I am overjoyed. For once the taxis, buses, and white van will be elbowed to one side in favour the cyclist. As a chance for Londoners to see one of the most world’s spectacular sporting events it is worth every penny – pound for pound far better value for money than the Olympics, and cheaper too.

It has been trumpeted by Mayor Ken Livingstone as significant step towards advancing the status of cycling in London - a step towards the green utopia he craves.

But I have a confession - I am probably the only cycling reporter in London who doesn’t believe the Tour de France will make a scrap of difference to the status of cycling in London. I certainly don’t hold with Ken Livingstone’s assertion that it will be the making of cycle commuting  in London.

I know I am probably alone in my doubts, because the consensus amongst my friends and colleagues is that the Tour de France will do some real good for cycling in London - so, why am I yet unconvinced?

For me two things are working hard against the Tour de France having the effect Livingstone would like. The first is the naïve, and frankly quite grubby, image that Livingstone, patron of the Tour de France in London, pushes forward about cycling, which includes the impression that the Tour de France is remotely environmentally friendly and socially inclusive - an image that will forever hamstring cycling’s acceptability amongst the London masses.

The second is the deep-rooted almost pathological contempt the British en masse, Londoners included, have for cyclists, especially from behind the wheel. It is so deeply ingrained in the British psyche that even those like Ken and The Evening Standard (London’s only daily newspaper) who despite campaigning for cycling, can’t resist making the odd “lycra-clad lout” headline. It’s almost as if there is a separation between “cycling” and “cyclist” – cycling is good, healthy, environmentally friendly, but cyclists are rude, loutish, law-breakers, who must be kept in the cycle-lane.

The attitude of Ken and his colleagues can be summed up by the little film he played at the launch of the Tour de France in Paris last October. The Tour had just shown its own film, which included a high-speed montage of race footage, full of drama, speed, and heart-stopping crashes. When it came to Ken’s turn, we were subjected to a little red balloon bobbing around politically corrected scenes of London – cycling was reduced to an afterthought at the end. It certainly bore no resemblance to the fast-paced, manic, cultural melee that I cycle round. More than anything though it convinced me that Ken and I do not inhabit the same planet and this extends to his understanding of cycling and the Tour de France.

For a start, the Tour de France I know is no paragon of environmentalism. It’s laughable. The Tour de France is almost the anti-Christ of environmentalism – the FA Cup Final is greener, the Boat Race even more so. While there are some 200 riders in the race, there are ten times as many vehicles – more than 2000 of them. Each team has two team cars, a mechanics truck and a team bus. Then there are all the official vehicles, the police outriders, press and television trucks (plus helicopters and a plane), as well as the army of support vehicles which transport the entire paraphernalia of the Tour. Finally, there is the massive publicity cavalcade which precedes the race distributing a mountain of giveaways.

While there is increasing use of hybrid cars and other measures to reduce consumption, all told the Tour de France vehicles will cover 10 million kilometres and consume a million litres of fuel. While the race will leave the live audience awe-struck, it will not provide an advertisement for the green lobby by any means.

The Tour de France is also the antipathy of the place of cyclists on British roads. The massive circus dominates its surroundings - closing down roads for hours before the race. Parked cars are cleared from the street - nothing, not even a pigeon will be allowed to come to rest in front of the peloton.

As for reaching out to those who really need to be convinced cycling is both acceptable and viable it will do nothing of the sort. Of course there will be massive crowds - made up of three types. Foremost will be the cycling fan - from racer to die-hard commuter, for whom the Tour de France is the high-church of cycle-sport, a mobile Mecca or Vatican City. No amount of “scandal” will put them off - because most know that while nothing can condone the drug-taking, there is a tacit understanding the cycling is really that hard some will succumb to the temptation to ease the pain.

The second group is the general sports fan who appreciates a good show, and probably knows the technical terms - peloton, yellow jersey. Many though are of the type who avidly watches the Boat Race but whose closest association to the water is walking across a bridge.

The last is the general public, the great mass of Londoners whose lives will be disrupted for a few hours as the race powers through their neighbourhood - at least they’ll be able to tell their grand children and work colleagues they saw the race, but as for changing their lives forever - not a chance!

Livingstone may dream of turning London in to Shanghai-on-Thames, but cycling in London is a white, middle class activity - recreationally and for commuting. Forget the kids - kids have bikes because it gives them a level of freedom and mobility, but it is just a stepping stone to the car, possibly via a motor-scooter. Take any group of teenagers and suggest they take up bike-racing and they’ll look at you as if you were mad. For cycling to become universally practicable those groups who make up the majority of Londoners need to be reached - the poor, the ethnic minorities, women, and blue-collar males have to be persuaded out of their cars and vans - or at least made to accept cyclists as fellow human beings. These are the groups that the Tour de France will not reach in a scant three days.

If Ken Livingstone wants to raise the status of cycling in London then he has to do the unimaginable: he has to tell everyone over and over again that cyclists matter, that cyclists are important - that cyclists have priority over not just cars, but vans, buses and especially taxis. Cyclists must be given privileges; even simple ones like being able to cross with pedestrians on green.

Cyclists have to be freed from the shackles of the bike lane, and those noddy blue-signposted routes through the back roads. It also means Livingstone biting his tongue when he is tempted to stereotype cyclists as “lycra-clad louts” and suggesting ridiculous ideas like license plates. You can’t convince the populace that cycling is good, if you can’t keep from denigrating and taming it at every opportunity. More than anything he has to stop lumping it in with policies on recycling and race-relations – the stuff that turns everyone off.

However, arguably the most powerful way to promote cycling, especially amongst the young, is to make it sexy - and sport is sexy. Introduce cycle sport to London. Close roads off on Sunday mornings and summer evenings and organise “criteriums” - fast, lap-based events with plenty of action, each accompanied by a funfair. It’s no use relying on the Tour of Britain and the occasional visit from the Tour de France to do the job – it’s down to publications like the Evening Standard and the other London institutions to champion cycling 24/7 – a safe cyclist is a respected one.

So if Livingstone wants to recoup his investment in the Tour de France then he has to let it do what it does best, and that’s being the greatest public sporting event on the planet.

It is fortunate then for the spectators that Ken is not in charge of organizing it. No, the organizers ASO will ensure that the Tour de France delivers one of the most spectacular sporting events to hit London. For that reason too, perhaps the lasting value won’t be on the streets of London, but as a valuable lesson to the organizers of the 2012 Olympics, who while enjoying their canapés will be advised to watch closely how ASO run the show. The Tour de France simply does not have problems - every detail is planned to the nth degree in a way that only the French with their devotion to protocol and form can deliver.

In fact, this could be where I am proven wrong - if the Tour de France can manage to do one thing it is this. It is to dispel the image of cycling many have as an activity for children and oddballs, and replace it with the one Europe has - a noisy, colourful, high tech sport which tests the human body and spirit to the limit – that, Ken, will make a difference!

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