I went to school in a small Westcountry market town — Shaftesbury, in Dorset. Built on a chalk hillside, Shaftesbury’s claim to fame is a steep cobbled street of simple picturesque cottages, a street you might recognise from one of the most memorable adverts in British history:
Last Sunday saw the inaugural “Shaftesbury Cycle Revival“. I was going to pitch something to the local paper that would riff off the event in order to communicate some of our cycling themes to an outside audience. But in the end it pissed it down all day so I stayed in, and I think it would be unfair to review an event I didn’t actually attend. But I don’t mind dumping my thoughts crudely on the blog, with the disclaimer that the event could always have been completely different to how I imagined it.
The point I was intending to make, of course, is that in the classic Hovis advert a boy pushes a sturdy steel delivery bicycle, with sensible mud-guards and stylish fixtures. And the name of the event and publicity around it implies that it was intended to be a “revival” of that scene — a “revival”, I assumed, in the sense of a play or an act. And yet, what we got (at least, what the website implies we got) was a bunch of lycra-clad athletes on racing bikes and kids on mountain bikes racing each other.
If that’s a “revival” of the Hovis advert, then a family visit to the Budleigh Salterton Donkey Sanctuary is a revival of A Midsummer Night’s Dream.
The event is an excellent illustration of all that is wrong with mainstream British thinking about cycling. As Dave Horton explains, on the rare occasion when it is not just dismissed as a children’s toy, the bicycle is typically seen only as a sport done by dedicated sportsmen or a hobby practiced by weird hobbyists. And it is not sport cycling that is in need of a revival in this country. Racing is as popular as it has ever been in this country and it’s one of the few sports that earns the nation medals. And mountainbiking has come from nothing to be a popular and generally quite well provided for activity in less time than has elapsed since the Hovis advert aired.
What does desperately need a revival at a time when the people of Shaftesbury are complaining of fuel costs, insufficient town-centre parking, and a narrow and car-clogged High Street, is a cheap and simple alternative way to make the short journey into town — the bicycle. We know exactly why the sensible sturdy bicycle transport of the Hovis advert faded almost to nothing (it has nothing to do with hills), we know that there is latent demand for cheap and simple transport, and we know the interventions which would successfully unleash that latent demand. I think we’ve probably rehearsed those arguments and the evidence-base for them enough times on the blog, but it would have been nice to have the excuse to give them an outing in a new venue.
None of this is to denigrate racing cycling and mountain biking and the people who enjoy those activities.* I am merely indifferent to them, just as the average car driver has no interest in formula one, and the average pedestrian would guess that “bagging a munro” has something to do with the waste products of canine digestion. Only with bicycles do you get magazines that put a feature about olympic athletes next to a news item about commuter infrastructure. And that’s all part of the problem.
* except all the mountain bikers who were making their way over Rannoch Moor to Fort William two weekends ago, bikes strapped to the back of their camper vans. Not impressed with their skills…