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The surge in cycling popularity in the UK was only temporary and may not continue due to a lack of support from institutions, according to sports journalist Jonathan Liew.
Cycling Sport

The surge in cycling popularity in the UK was only temporary and may not continue due to a lack of support from institutions, according to sports journalist Jonathan Liew.

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“The increase in popularity of cycling is a permanent change,” stated Ian Drake, the CEO of British Cycling, with pride in 2014. It may seem too soon to reminisce about the 2010s, as the decade still feels like a mixture of various themes and visuals rather than a coherent cultural story. I’m reminded of the viral video of a woman singing Despacito while taking her cat to a brunch with endless drinks. I’m also reminded of a Buzzfeed quiz titled “Choose Your Favorite Food Bank and We’ll Guess Your Age.”

In this nation, it was the era of biking. It was the time when the marriage of Laura Trott and Jason Kenny was featured on the front page of OK! magazine (pushing “Princess Charlotte’s First Royal Tour” to a smaller image). It was the decade of “G” and “Cav”, of Wiggo’s distinctive sideburns and the commentary of Hugh Porter, of leisurely summer afternoons spent at the Rapha café while someone in Lotto-Soudal attire droned on about echelons. Dave Brailsford was seen as a genius, and the British Empire seemed invincible.

The popularity of cycling did not last. Ten years after the massive turnout in Yorkshire for the start of the Tour de France, it was announced that British Cycling had to intervene to rescue the Tour of Britain. The previous organizer had gone bankrupt last month, putting the event in jeopardy. The Women’s Tour was canceled last year due to insufficient funding, and this year’s race will be smaller in scale. The Tour de Yorkshire disappeared during the Covid pandemic and has not made a comeback.

In the meantime, British Cycling has been experiencing a decrease in sponsorship revenue and a decline in membership numbers, resulting in job cuts. This decline in membership can be attributed in part to the backlash over their partnership with oil company Shell last year. Smaller teams like AT85 Pro Cycling, Madison Genesis, and JLT-Condor have gone out of business. Despite a rise in sales during the pandemic, bike shops have also been closing in large numbers. Tao Geoghegan Hart, a former Giro d’Italia winner, commented that the state of cycling in the UK is currently at its lowest point in his experience.

At which point we run into a paradox. Because by many measures cycling in this country is still in a relatively healthy place. Jim Ratcliffe’s Ineos may not dominate the sport as its predecessor Team Sky once did, and Brailsford himself has decamped to Manchester United, but this country still boasts plenty of top-end talent: Geoghegan Hart, Lizzie Deignan, Tom Pidcock, Hugh Carthy and Pfeiffer Georgi on the road, the likes of Emma Finucane and the Barker sisters on the track.

Last year’s world championships were advertised as the largest cycling event to date, drawing in a million onlookers in Glasgow. The Tour of Britain consistently garners impressive crowds. Informally, it appears that the local cycling scene is thriving. Furthermore, if one were to walk through numerous British cities currently, they would encounter networks of bike paths that would have been unimaginable twenty years ago. It is evident that there is still an interest in this sport. So why does it seem like participation is dwindling?

Britain’s Elinor Barker (left) and Neah Evans celebrate winning gold in the women’s madison during last year’s World Championships in Glasgow.

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In order to find the solution, it is important to look at Ian Drake’s statements from ten years ago. Despite the celebratory reactions, there was also a subtle cautionary message. He stated, “Merely receiving medals and having role models cannot single-handedly turn Britain into a nation of cyclists.” He emphasized the need for a diverse range of financial and support resources from various sectors, including private, public, and voluntary.

Great Britain has continued to excel in both the Olympics and world championships, with a strong presence on the medal table. The enthusiasm for cycling has remained, as demonstrated by the consistent turnout of volunteers every weekend. However, what has diminished over time is the crucial aspect of institutional support for the sport – a lack of genuine investment from the public sector in cycling as a concept, rather than simply for prestige or financial gain.

Unfortunately, organizers are experiencing increased expenses and are also met with resistance from local authorities who are unable to provide funding for bike races due to budget cuts. The complications caused by Brexit have also hindered the ability to attract international riders and teams, as they are now required to navigate through bureaucratic processes to transport their equipment across the Channel. Additionally, the current Conservative government seems to be promoting an anti-cyclist sentiment as part of their “pro-motorist” agenda, led by a prime minister who may be surprised to learn about the existence of a moving bicycle.

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And really, this is a shift of tone as much as policy or polity. Perhaps this is just the nostalgia talking, but for all the weird cultish energy of Team GB and the annoying new-age blitheness of Team Sky, somehow the cycling boom also expressed some of the optimism of the age. A chance to live healthier and greener lives. A bold experiment in remaking an entire nation’s sporting culture. Perhaps even an attempt to dream ourselves a little more European.

Biking will persist in this location as there will always be individuals who support it. However, this country is now in a worse economic state, with a more selfish and focused mindset on financial gain. Despite Britain’s achievements, it seems that they have never truly understood the essence of cycling – a sport that thrives on teamwork and selflessness, where spectators can attend for free and there is no option for selling out a stadium or offering debentures. The advantages of cycling are not immediate and can only be seen over time, making it a fitting symbol for the past decade.

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Source: theguardian.com