As the annual cycling spectacle of the Tour De France begins, Mark Perryman argues the case for two wheels good
Who would have guessed it? Karl Marx was clearly a bike mechanic when he wasn’t plotting the downfall of capitalism. ‘Nothing to lose but your chains’ is handy advice when the derailleur slips and furious pedalling propels bike and rider precisely nowhere. Okay, Marx was more interested in liberating the workers of the world than the freedom of the road though with committed cycle-commuter Jeremy Corbyn quite possibly in need of a Downing Street bike rack soon there doesn’t seem a better time to make the case for cycling as the people’s sport.
For those who take an interest in the competitive side, Le Tour will be on the TV for the next three weeks as it weaves its way from the Grand Départ in Germany, through Belgium, a quick detour to Luxembourg and across France to the traditional finish on the Champs Élysées. That’s two boxes ticked straightaway in my case for a people’s sport. Firstly, despite Sky’s sponsorship of the premier British team competing, the race is broadcast on terrestrial TV, live and highlights packages, free to air on ITV4. And secondly, this is a genuinely internationalist event. Fundamentally French of course but shared with all manner of other European countries too in terms of where it may start, the stages too, but never the ending, that will always be Paris. Not quite the proletarian internationalism of our Marxist dreams but not a bad model for a sporting culture beyond borders. And of course lined along the route in their hundreds of thousands the fans, none paying even a cent, or nowadays a Euro, for the privilege. Nor is there any significant infrastructure to waste huge amounts of money in, leaving stadia and other facilities behind never to be filled again. Instead just about the only spend is to improve the road surface, for the benefit of all. For the many, pedestrians, cyclists and car drivers alike.
Of course like previous Tours this one will be mired in an unfolding drugs controversy. Made all the more awkward this year though for British cycling fans by the fact that the spotlight will be mainly on Team Sky, rider and race favourite Chris Froome and Team Sky Principal Dave Brailsford. Allied with both the unresolved drug allegations against Bradley Wiggins and the prolonged furore over sexism and bullying in and around the Olympic Team GB track cycling squad this has all threatened to dim the golden glow of Britain’s single most successful sport over the past decade. Cycling has taken a knock, there’s not much doubt about that. But the roots of its appeal are now so deep all the signs are that it will not only survive but continue to flourish too.
Marx, notwithstanding my spurious claims for his contribution to the art of bicycle maintenance (famously, similar claims have been made for Zen and the art of motorcycle maintenance too) is at least partially responsible for the answer. Cycling, like all sport, is socially constructed. It is a leisure activity we can take part in without scarcely even noticing. What other sport can double up as a means of getting to work, to do the shopping, to pop down the pub? A bike can provide the basis for a family day out too, perhaps best of all it’s a habit we can pick up as children and once we’ve learned not to fall over it’s a skill we never lose.
Of course, at the upper end of cycling culture, particularly men suffering from a midlife cycling crisis, the bikes cost the proverbial arm and a leg. Many observers suggest that this in part explains the decline in golf, middle-aged men who should know better investing in handbuilt carbon frames with all the gear to go with it rather than ever-escalating green fees to tee off at the most expensive 18 holes. Yes the recession hurts even the most well-paid, so there’s almost certainly something in this but the class enemy on two wheels represent only one particular portion of cycling’s growing popularity.
Likewise the impact of the drug, bullying and sexism scandals. Elite success, Wiggins and Froome winning Le Tour, bucketloads of Olympic Cycling Gold medals certainly contributed something to cycling’s appeal. It was a bit like Coe, Ovett, Cram and Elliott’s success on the track coinciding with the late 1970s to early 1980s running boom. A factor, but not the total explanation the media-boosters would like to claim for their coverage.
Green, increasing investment in safer cycling routes and paths, sunnier summers (I know, climate change is devastating but right now while the sun shines plenty are making the most of it), austerity staycation culture, these are at least as important factors, and together add up to a whole lot more. Hence the social construction explaining cycling’s growing and enduring popularity, not to mention to grow some more under a genuinely cyclist socialist PM. There’s a durability to this appeal unlikely to be materially affected by news of dodgy medicinals or bullying coaches.
Sport’s core attraction is always assumed to be competition. Wrong. For most this only applies to the spectators, those who watch but don’t do. Being on the losing side bringing up the rear does more to deter the young from sport than virtually anything else. And once deterred regardless of the presence of compulsory sport lessons hardly anything else proves effective in reconnecting the inactive with participation. This is where cycling is key. ‘ Just do it’? Half the time we don’t even realise we’re doing it, the blurring between means of transport, leisure activity, competitive sport an advantage, most certainly not a disadvantage.
I’ll conclude with just about the most communistic sports event I’ve ever taken part in, the increasingly popular cycling sportive. No, the organisers aren’t planning revolution via long rides through the countryside but to my mind, the format unwittingly subverts the competitive instinct via equalising participation. Staggered starts over varying distances so nobody knows who the winners are, or crucially, the losers either. For some racing against their own individual clock, for all a collective race against the shared distance and terrain. More often than not raising money for a good cause. The same prize wherever you finish. Not that I’ve ever seen Marx on one mind, must be back in his bike shed working on unfettering those chains.
Mark Perryman is a member of both the Labour Party and Momentum. Co-founder of the self-styled ‘sporting outfitters of intellectual distinction’ aka Philosophy Football, he has also edited numerous books on the politics of the Left. The latest is The Corbyn Effect and is published by Lawrence & Wishart in September, available to pre-order here.