17 April 2008


I was in Antwerp for the day earlier this week - family reasons, long and sad story that I shan't explain here. It was interesting to notice though both how widespread cycling is as a form of transport over there... and how different the cycling culture is to ours in the UK. I have not been to the Netherlands (really) but I imagine it must be similar over there.

First of all, in Antwerp lots of people -lots- cycle. Bikes are everywhere, either chained to lamposts or simply propped up against them. Second, the 'system' bears them in mind - roads, traffic lights, pedestrian crossings all seem to have made provisions for the folk in two wheels. Third, cycling there seems just a part of life, not the self-conscious 'cause' we seem to make it in the UK. Most bicycles are of the sort designed for comfort and ease of use, and most people ride them without any special clothing - and positively no helmets. Panniers? Yes. Gears? Yes. Lycra pants and special pedals or shoes? Nope. Rather, men in suits, lasses in high-heels, riding upright, no rush, on bikes not built for speed. I sometimes wonder if in the UK, while we are a diverse lot for sure, the 'competitive' end of the spectrum has pulled us all into a mindset where we all hope to exert ourselves, to perform to some degree, favouring an approach that regards cycling as a sport, a self-contained activity. We don't just 'cycle to work' - we use the journey to work as an opportunity to cycle - or even, to train, ie to improve our performance, perhaps with some arbitrary challenge (the C2C ride?) in mind.

Which is all very well of course - but which we should bear in mind when we moan about how marginalised cycling is in the UK, and look towards 'Europe' (esp. Northern Europe) with envy. If we want to make cycling mainstream we have to separate bicycle-based sports from cycling as a mere form of transport - something routine and boring that everybody can do.

Incidentally, I visited Stockholm last July. Thinking about it now, I get the sense - perhaps wrongly - that cycling over there is sort of half-way between the 'continental' and 'uk' styles, ie I saw as many 'urban' cyclists on 'comfort' bikes as I saw hybrid bikes and chaps in lycra pants. And the odd helmet.

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