Where sports cycling is the mother of bicycle transport.

A few nights ago on twitter, I saw the “go-Dutch” bike advocacy cheer squad all retweeting a pithy claim that went something like this: “promoting sports cycling does nothing at all to promote bicycle transport”. “Bravo”, “hoorah”, and “ata boy” they all cheered. Sometimes I wonder if following klan men on twitter would not be more intellectual. I guess the Twitter format does not permit nuanced discussion. Plato’s academy, Twitter is not.

In many cities, mobilising an existing sports cycling culture would surely be a useful step toward increasing something like work trips by bike. I feel this way, because I myself came to transport cycling, from sports cycling, that I came to from transport cycling… mine is something of a chicken and egg story, I have to confess. Like many people, I started hobbling around on a mountain bike when student poverty put driving beyond my means. I pimped my Deore equipped Kuwahara with slicker and slicker tires, until finally trading her for a race worthy bike, capable of covering my whole sprawling city. That led me to try racing, that I found I enjoyed, and racing kept me cycling for transport, just to stay race fit. I commuted by bike from the early 1990s, until about 4 years ago, for one standout reason, and that was to win races. Saving money, green cred, being at one with my city: none of those reasons meant diddly swat. Would you believe I commuted on racing bikes for 15 years, unaware my backside was being wet from spray off my rear tire? It simply never occurred to me to fit a rear mud guard. All I knew was road racing.

It was only because an expensive car I had bought, soon rusted to nothing in the salt air outside my house, that I ever looked into bakfiets, hub generators, or indeed gear racks. Even then, from my lycra-lout mindset, I saw bikes like these as medicine balls, secret strength training weapons, and ways to train without being spotted out on the road by my weekend rivals. Even now that I use transport and utility bikes for transport and utilitarian riding, I still pedal them with race day in mind.

I will race bikes until age or infirmity make it impossible, and then I’ll be a handicapper. I have moved to live in Launceston, not because this city is leading the world with bike infrastructure, but because it is a bike racing hot spot. My blog is read mainly by bike lane advocates, whose mission I have thrown my weight behind, because I have children. But I have moved to Launceston, not Copenhagen. Life choices speak louder than words. I would holiday in Italy or France, sooner than Denmark or Holland. And I would take a bike with drop bars and a derailleur.

What pulses in my veins, pulses in the veins of this city, and many others. The wonder of Portland is not that Roger Geller copied some road markings from Dutch traffic engineers, but that fitness oriented cyclists recognised the elegance of getting their workout going to work. If asked which of their bikes was their “first” bike, or “main” bike, my hunch is most people in Portland would point to something worthy of competition. Most of the people riding to work there, in my observation, have images of sports cycling percolating in their delusional minds, which are no better or worse that the visions of Holland we float on when we (English, Americans, Australians, French, etc) ride Dutch bikes in suits in our hilly cities.

This is a blog, which means I can put theses out there, without any proof. Suck on this then, for a working hypothesis. With fitness as individuals’ main motivation, and greenways provided to let those people go for long fast rides to the office, Portland has achieved (I’m guessing) a ten-fold increase in trips by bike from their all-time pitiful lows in the 70s. In that same time time, Copenhagen has only achieved a four fold increase in the gross numbers entering the city by bike. That’s what you get when urban mobility is the main driver and your bike infrastructure does not allow for much of a workout.

Okay, so I’ve framed that proposition in a deliberately provocative way. A roused up ideologue is an ideologue who will email studies and reports to me, to convince me I’m wrong, and save me time finding those studies myself (darn, just blew my own cover!)

Launceston Fashion

Having just voted with my feet, to move to a sports cycling hotspot, where hardly any kids cycle to school and everyone hoons up hills in V8 cars to their houses, I’m naturally disappointed to leave the Dutch bike craze going on back there in Newcastle and Sydney. The latest craze in Tasmania, is the fluro jersey by Netti worn over a MAMIL.

But there is an incredible sports cycling scene here in Launceston. Night and day, groups of men, women and children gather to ride dirt trails on their mountain bikes, with million-watt lamps on their heads. There are dozens of bunch rides, with names like “Dad’s Army” and “Foxes and Hounds”, who ride two-abreast, chatting and puffing. Half of my co-workers ride bikes to work roughly half of the time. In Newcastle, only one person, me, did all the riding for the whole office.

I contend that in sprawling or hilly cities, sports cycling is the mother of bicycle transport.


  1. Luke says:

    It’s not just sprawling or hilly cities where sports cycling is the start point – it’s also wet cities. Obviously I’ve done no research to prove this, but I’ve seen Drugstore Cowboy, so I know it rains all the time in Portland. And I’ve seen a pretentious Rapha film set in Tasmania, so I know it rains all the time in Launceston. Ditto Bristol – about the hilliest and wettest city in England.

  2. Colin says:

    The problem is that sports cycling is not a particularly fecund mother.

    Also, I’m not sure it even is the mother. There’s a lot of newbie cyclists rolling around with upright-ish bikes with baskets and handbags and ordinary clothes – they clearly haven’t been inspired by sports cycling.

    So mother is perhaps the wrong analogy – maybe Chinese foot binding is more accurate. Sports cycling restricts the natural growth of cycling by wrapping it up in the physical discomfort of low handlebars and the social discomfort of lycra.

    • Steven says:

      You’ve worked that analogy to perfection, I love it!
      In sports cycling cities, newbies reacting against the image of sports cycling with baskets etc, need sports cycling as their foil, just as I need you as my heckler.

    • Colin says:

      Glad I could play some role…

      But it’s not just newbies reacting, unless 20 years counts as newbie.

    • Steven says:

      should I be discouraging sports cyclists from using their bikes for transport?

    • Colin says:

      No, encourage away. Their riding for transport is as good as anybody else’s riding for transport. Fast or slow. It’s all good.

      What I would discourage is using sports cycling as the model for cycling in general. I’m making an argument about marketing – I don’t think sports cyclists are a productive base upon which to create a genuinely widespread cycling culture. I’m not down on people who actually *do* sports cycling – they’re fine people, as I’m sure you’d agree. But their emphasis and their assumptions about cycling are way off the mark of what non-cyclists are interested in. Though there are exceptions on both sides of course.

    • Steven says:

      I generally agree, but it’s not a case of either/or. It should be yes/and. I don’t agree when people say one image can crowd out another. Problems only emerge when road rules or planning guidelines only see one style of cyclist, and forget we are plural. Australia’s laws have been made with fast fearless cyclists in mind, forgetting the silent majority who are rightfully scared of what has resulted. But we need to be wary of a knee jerk Dutch-centric reaction, that doesn’t acknowledge sprawl, the existence of strong sporting cultures that can be mobilised, or many average folks’ interest in getting sweaty. A lot of our cities would benefit with high profile secure bike parking stations with showers etc., built with government subsidy.

  3. Lucy says:

    Well, the problem with most housing in Australia is: if you want to ride your bike somewhere useful, you better be fit. If you want to get there in a useful period of time, get a bike that rides fast. So i think sport cyclists are simply the only ones considering it as an option, which is probably why the bike stats are not that crash hot here! As we are unlikely to bulldoze the built environment created in last forty or fifty years, we may as well try to promote sports cycling as a mode of transport! I am sure those who will take it up will find some benefit in so doing, as long as they survive their fellow road users.
    I just choose not to live in one of the houses that would require me to be fit and my bike to be fast. Personal choice.

    • Steven says:

      Good choice! Vote with your feet. Near on the flat, near a bike path, and give preference to amenities near that bike path as well. There’s a lot to be said too for equipping your practical (non-racing) bike with an e-assist motor, for longer trips, or visiting people who insist on living on top of mountains.

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