Mark Cavendish’s victory in yesterday’s world road race championships put him - partially - on the front covers of the Guardian, the Telegraph and the Times. And the BBC asked Could cycling become the UK’s second-favourite sport, after football. Were he to follow up his Copenhagen sprint with a similar burst of speed at the London Olympics his place in the pantheon of British mainstream sporting greats will be for ever secure.
In 1893, an American sprinter was lauded for the same talent: A.A. ‘Zimmy’ Zimmerman had an explosive kick that saw off his rivals for most of his short career (1889-1896). He won the first ever ‘official’ road world championships and did so upon a Raleigh bicycle.
Zimmerman was one of the earliest professional sports stars. When he started riding for Raleigh, he wasn’t a pro, as - technically - this wasn’t allowed; he was a “maker’s amateur”, which amounted to the same thing. Raleigh owner Frank Bowden paid Zimmerman in diamonds, complained the National Cyclists’ Union, a racing organisation opposed to the payment of riders. Zimmerman had a huge following in the US and Europe. By 1894 he was openly a professional for Raleigh, was paid a fortune and made even more money from prizes and appearance fees. He also became one of the first athletes to license his name: there were Zimmy cycling shoes, Zimmy toe-clips and Zimmy clothes.
Raleigh sponsored him because speed sells. A famous poster of Zimmerman shows him astride his bike, in front of a sign listing his career wins to date, and watched by two cyclists in the touring garb of the day.
Frank Bowden - like Pope Manufacturing’s Colonel Albert A. Pope in the US - recognised that to sell bicycles to the masses, you have to stress speed.
Raleigh was still stressing speed in 1932, even when selling utility bikes to women.
Speed is still important. But not in the sweat-fest sort of way, all head down and Lycra. One of cycling’s key advertised advantages, from the 1890s to today, is the ability to go door to door, swiftly. Cycle routes which steer away from the fastest A to B routes may direct cyclists away from busy, motorised traffic but it’s not just sport cyclists who want to follow ‘desire lines’, the shortest and more desirable routes.
In the UK, dedicated cycle routes are often circuitous, interrupted by junctions where cyclists do not have priority. They can add precious time to journeys. For cycle paths to be effective, they must be not only made safe for hesitant cyclists, they must be made fast. By fast, read direct.
Copenhagen does this well. Traffic lights propel cyclists on a ‘Green wave’: pedal at 20kmh and you hit green for much of your journey. The green wave is set to work best towards the city centre in the morning rush hour; and away from the city centre at 12 to 6pm.
Those who use their bikes to get to work want to arrive in the least time possible. If bike paths are provided, they need to be very wide, and well designed. In 1996, the Proceedings of the Institution of Civil Engineers, writing about bike paths, said:
“The fast cycle commuter must not be driven off the highway onto a route that is designed for a 12-year-old or a novice on a leisure trip, because if that happens, the whole attempt to enlarge the use of the bicycle will have failed.”
The ‘fast cycle commuter’ does not just mean a sports cyclist on a carbon road bike. Dutch roadsters can be pedalled fast, and so can Boris Bikes. Any well serviced bike with correctly inflated tyres - even dual-suss Bicycle Shaped Objects – can reach giddy speeds, especially downhill. For some people, bicycles may be ‘aids to walking’ but if bikes travelled no faster than pedestrians, why cycle at all?
At Interbike, I met up with Joe Breeze, one of the founding fathers of mountain biking. We talked about cycling and speed. He may have built the first designed-for-the-job clunker (it was Gary Fisher who helped popularise the name ‘mountain bike’) but Breeze got into the bike biz to spread his love of utility cycling, cycling from town to town. His father built race cars in California, but rode to work on a bicycle. Breeze Jnr started racing bikes to prove what Bowden, Pope, Zimmerman and others had been promoting: that bicycles are fast.
“In the 1970s, I saw road racing as a stepping stone. Bicycles in America were seen as a children’s sidewalk toy, for riding round your neighbourhood only. I saw cycling, through my father, as a way to get somewhere. And through racing you could show people how quickly you can get from A to B. Maybe there’d be a little squib in the newspaper about it the next day and people would go ‘oh, you can get from A to B in a short amount of time.’”
In ‘The Art and Pastime of Cycling’ of 1893, journalists R.J. Mecredy and A.J. Wilson wrote:
“The faculty for enjoying rapid locomotion is one which is implanted in the human breast from earliest childhood, and the fact of one’s unaided efforts being the active cause of this locomotion enhances the pleasures derived from it.”
In 1878, Gerard Cobb, president of the Bicycle Union and a Fellow of Trinity College, Cambridge, wrote that cycling was “primarily of commercial importance” but was also of practical benefit:
“…the ease with which a bicycle can be driven, the distance it enables its riders to cover, its speed…added to its durability and comparative cheapness, render it by far the best form of road-locomotion for all to whom economy, whether of time or money, is object. As such its use is daily extending among professional men of all classes [and] working men are getting more and more to use them for their daily transit to and from work.”
Speed - to and from work - remains important. A survey of Copenhagen bicycle users found that the number one reason people ride is because it’s faster than any other mode of transport. Fifty-five percent of Copenhagen riders said they bike because it’s fast. Only 9 percent of Copenhagen bicycle users ride because it’s deemed good for the environment.
So, when pushing for dedicated bicycle infrastructure we must always bear in mind that today, and in the past, speed has always gone hand in hand with convenience. Make cycling slow and it loses a big part of its appeal.
I have certainly borne this in mind with the latest version of the Bike To Work Book (112 pages of bicycling goodness, available below or for iPads, free). This has lots of advice on why cycling doesn’t have to be a sweaty affair and to beat cars in major cities you don’t have to get hot under the collar: cars often crawl along, whereas bikes sail past the jams. The section on commuter challenges points out you don’t have to stress out to beat cars in town. Speediness does not equate to excessive perspiration (sweating is cited by many people as a reason not to cycle).
But I beefed up the cover lines, adding: “You can get around town QUICKER by bike.”
Click on the page to read in full-screen, and hit left or right arrows to navigate through the book.