From Tour de France to urban cool: how cycling became so popular

What is it that will attract two million people on to the hills and greens of Yorkshire for the Tour de France this weekend, and has made cycling take off across Britain? By Simon O’Hagan

Sadly I won’t be in Yorkshire this weekend when God’s Own County plays host to the opening stages of the Tour de France. It’s expected to be gripped by levels of excitement not seen since the Wars of the Roses.

No, instead I’ll be out on my bike, riding up and down the steepest hill in north London – a Saturday morning training ritual I’ve observed with a friend for the past decade. If that’s not being in the Dales in spirit, I don’t know what is.

When people talk about the cycling revolution that’s unfolded over roughly the same period of time that I’ve been making my tragi-comic bid to be King of the Highgate Mountains, they mean lots of different things, of which MAMILs like me (Middle-Aged Men in Lycra) is just one small element.

Surge in road bike sales

There’s been a surge in urban commuter cycling, and with it a surge in bike sales. There’s the Boris bike, now an icon on the London scene. There’s the sportive phenomenon which sees ever-growing numbers of amateurs take on long-distance mountain challenges. There are our Olympic and Tour de France triumphs, and the rise to household-name status of Wiggins, Froome, Hoy, Cavendish and Pendleton.

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Curiously, cycling hasn’t lost its element of the arcane, of ‘weirdness’

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There’s the trendification of cycling, as embodied in the stylish bikewear pioneered by Rapha. There is media interest like never before, and cycling books pour from the presses.

Yet, curiously, cycling hasn’t lost its element of the arcane, of ‘weirdness’. It’s a pursuit that puzzles people as much as it enthrals them, its outsider status hard to truly shift.

How else do we explain the item on the Today programme this week in which John Humphrys asked an interviewee to explain what the Tour’s yellow jersey was all about. After the education in cycling that Britain has received over many years now, isn’t that something we can assume people know? Clearly not.

The sporting specatacle of the Tour

So what IS it about cycling that is going to draw two million people on to the hills and valleys, highways and byways, grass verges and village greens of Yorkshire this weekend, and inspire significant numbers of them to saddle up and pedal away into the alternative universe that is life on two wheels?

Obviously there’s the Tour factor itself, the whole Technicolor cavalcade that is the greatest and most logistically awesome free sporting show on earth. The sheer sight of a 200-strong peloton set against the backdrop of a spectacular natural landscape is truly dazzling.

And there’s the incongruity of an event so quintessentially French pitching up in a location so quintessentially English, forging cultural links, spreading the gospel, embracing new members of the cycling family.

But there’s also the mystery and the magic and the sense of escape that cycling offers and which speaks to something deep in the soul. Cycling manages to be simultaneously so simple and yet so wondrous.

The one other time that the Tour started in the UK was 2007 in London. That showed a recognition of London’s burgeoning role as a cycling city and the new-found success of our pro riders. The honour was long overdue given how often the Tour had started beyond French borders in the previous 100-plus years of the race’s existence, and with the 2012 Olympics on the horizon, the capital saw it as a kind of hors d’oeuvre and tucked in.

Yet seven years on – with British cycling success piled on British cycling success, and more and more of us taking to our bikes – Yorkshire feels completely different again. Truly it has taken the Tour to its heart, and it’ll be the same all the way from Cambridgeshire to London on day three.

I guess the one disappointment is that Sir Bradley Wiggins, the first Briton to win the Tour, won’t be taking part. He was dropped from the Sky team because for tactical reasons he can’t be accommodated alongside its new leader Chris Froome, the man who in 2013 made it two British Tour wins in successive years.

The London cycling boom

But then nothing stays the same for ever, and the extent to which cycling remains on an upward curve is proof of that. I sometimes think that the cycling boom is a bit like the London property boom, that surely it can’t last, that the bubble must burst but that unlike the London property boom it would be a shame if it did.

Then again, why would it burst? There’s so much more progress to be made. As a nation we are still light years away from, say, the Netherlands, where 30 per cent of journeys are made by bike compared with three per cent in the UK.

And London is not the safest cycling city in the world by any means, something that was brought home by that spate of fatalities last year. And there is loads more that Boris Johnson could do, and which he says he wants to.

Cycling’s fair wind is still blowing. It needs to make the most of it. And with luck it’ll help blow me up Highgate Hill this weekend.