Monday, June 16, 2008

Column, July 17, 2007

THERE is a strange contradiction in this country.
On July 7 when the Tour de France set off from London for the first time in its history, four million people turned up to watch as it wound its way through the capital and the through the lanes of Kent.
And this year we in Wales had a hero to cheer on in the peloton in the shape of Cardiff’s Geraint Thomas. Perhaps not a contender for the yellow jersey – well at 160th out of 170 when I last checked it’s not the maillot jaune he covets, but the red lantern that he’s trying to avoid.
But hey, even being in there is a towering achievement for any cyclist.
I wonder whether the next day any of those four million cursed as a cyclist got in their way as they drove to work.
Perhaps not, maybe the four million motivated enough to go to see the fantastic spectacle of the Tour’s ‘Grand Depart’ would not be the sort to lean on their horn should a cyclist have the temerity to ride on any part of the road other than the gutter.
I suspect that while many will be cycling devotees themselves, or at least more tolerant of cyclists, a good few of the four million will not be able to see the connection between the superhuman athletes of the Tour and the wobbling commuters on bikes the next day.
On the face of it there might not be much. After all there is world of difference in ability and athleticism between someone who pootles into work on a sit-up-and-beg bike and a Tour cyclist who takes on the lung-bursting mountain climbs aboard a carbon fibre piece of cycling wizardry.
But they’re all cyclists, and outside the marshalled safety of the Tour, the professional cyclist is as vulnerable on the road as the fun cyclist out for pleasure.
And this is where attitudes diverge either side of the Channel. In some European cities up to a quarter of the highways budget is spent on promoting cycling, with understandably positive results in the numbers of people taking up cycling.
Here a fraction of those amounts is spent and, little wonder, in lots of authority areas the take-up of cycling is very small.
Part of that might well be down to lack of demand, but then its chicken and egg scenario, unless the facilities are invested in, would-be cyclists will not venture out on two wheels.
Another problem is the contradictory nature of public attitudes. For many parents one of the landmark moments is buying your child’s first bike and then teaching him or her to ride, eventually without stabilisers.
What then turns such loving parents into cycle-hating demons when confronted with an adult cyclist making their way along the road without the aid of stabilisers?
And what happens to stop a child who is inseparable from their bike in childhood continuing to use it as a teenager and young adult? Something makes them abandon the bike as a plaything of childhood and not a serious mode of transport.
And yet the benefits of continuing the childhood habit of cycling into adulthood are obvious. A healthier population and a drop in the massive cost of caring for people who have had strokes and heart attacks brought on by an unhealthy lifestyle.
When it comes to reducing your carbon footprint there are few bigger things you can do than foregoing the car and replacing it with a bike.
But it’s all very well individuals taking action, but without co-ordinated support from government at a local and national level it is hopeless.
For example, how did the Government, which wants us to get out of our car, manage to sell of rail franchises to operators, some of whom make virtually no provision for bikes on their services. How is that a ‘joined-up’ transport policy?
And then you get authorities like those in Llandudno deciding that a ‘safe’ route through the town for cyclists to take their chance in the traffic instead of sending them along the promenade. Yes, so safe another cyclist has been knocked down and seriously injured again this week.
So, no, sadly, I don’t think the Tour’s start in the UK will mark any sea-change in our perverse attitude to cycling. Instead we have to rely on the sheer bloody-mindedness of the likes of Ken Livingstone who are determined to save their cities from the blight of car congestion.
Where London goes first, perhaps one day Llandudno will follow, but I suspect a lot of cyclists will have to risk their lives before they do.

I THINK only an idiot, or a BNP supporter (and perhaps that is a tautology), could ever have doubted that Nick Bourne would be cleared of improper conduct in calling the BNP “nasty, mean, distasteful and grubby bunch of sub-human flotsam and jetsam.”
But what was interesting was the BNP’s response to the Assembly opposition leader’s remarks on his blog. They were, they said, delighted, because it showed he was afraid to debate their arguments.
Oh really, well I’m sure that the 180 people who had the time and motivation to make a complaint were not BNP supporters at all. Because BNP supporters must all have shared the leadership’s delight at being called a “nasty, mean, distasteful and grubby bunch of sub-human flotsam and jetsam.”
In fact Mr Bourne has done them a favour, after all, political parties can spend a lot on re-branding nowadays.
So instead of spending money on red-socked advertising dandies to come up with a slogan for the BNP, Mr Bourne’s got the job done, free of charge.
As election slogans go it might break new ground in its pithy honesty, but given their pathetic performance in Wales thus far, it might be worth giving it a try.

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