Sunday, September 16, 2012

Ride London

Ride London is the latest post-Games legacy wheeze from Boris Johnson. He enthuses, "I urge every Londoner and cycle fanatics from all over the country, if not the world, to mark the weekend of 3 August 2013 in their diaries for what I believe will become one of the world’s number one cycling events.”

Other bloggers have questioned the value of such an event. It is true that two days of limited traffic-free routes a year is no substitute for proper infrastructure. However I'm quite confident that sport-cycling does convert into commuting and utility cycling (and vice-versa), helps rescue cycling from a "wierdy-beardy knit-your-own-hummus" image and ultimately helps generate favourable political winds for cycling. However, a festival such as Ride London needs to get it right.

Ride London consists of four events. The first is the "Freecycle". This is basically indistinguishable from what was known as the Skyride and before that Hovis Freeride. (They'll run out of names soon.) It's a short circuit in central London, free of motor traffic, but absolutely chock-a-block with cyclists. If you're unlucky and the weather is fine, it's ridiculously busy. Iit is painfully slow, but also quite dangerous, as there are lots of kids weaving around. If you've been on one, this will sound familiar. It's nice to experience London free of motor traffic, but that apart, it's one of the least pleasant rides I've ever been on. Also, no roads are closed apart from the central circuit, so to get there and back you'll be going through less lovely experiences like Victoria or the Vauxhall Gyratory or the Millbank Roundabout, just to give a contrast and remind you what cycling in London is really like. This is the Disneyfication of cycling: an enclosed, controlled area in which there are crowds of happy kids, crowds of less happy parents, nothing is real, the rides aren't too scary, and you're reminded that (feel free to sing along)
somewhere over the rainbow there's a land that I heard of once in a video:
where bike safety counts for more than traffic flow.

The second Ride London event is the Ride London 100. This is a Sportive-style event on a 100km closed-road circuit. Sounds great eh? There are just three catches. The first is the event is limited to 20,000 riders. "It is anticipated that the event will be over-subscribed and that a ballot will be held to allocate places in the event," says the website. The second is the £48 entry fee although you may get a free entry if you raise minimum sponsorship for a charity. Now there is nothing wrong with charity fundraising, but why, in an event that should be encouraging more people to ride bikes, are these barriers to entry being put up? For less than £48 you could join a club like Kingston Wheelers or London Dynamo and get a year's cycling, instead of just a day's. And you won't  be queueing up behind 20,000 other cyclists at every hill. Unless I miss my guess, 20,000 sounds far too many for a sportive, and it risks turning into something like the London to Brighton. But if it's a cycling carnival rather than an endurance challenge, why charge £48 and why restrict the numbers at all?
The third catch is: you may have to start the event at 6:00AM - which for a lot of people will mean getting up at 4:00AM. This is only necessary because they are trying to cram the Ride London Classic race on the same course on the same day.

To complete the Ride London programme, there is a 'Classic' professional one-day race run on the same circuit as the Ride London 100, and in addition criterium racing which will "showcase the Olympic cyclists of the future at a series of junior events, celebrate the capital’s Paralympic legacy with hand-cycle racing and offer a superb opportunity to witness and support professional women’s cycle racing". Sounds great - although the problem with a 1.3-mile criterium circuit is it won't have much room for spectators.

In summary, it is certainly a lot better than nothing, and it's more ambitious than the old Skyride. I'm sure it will attract lots of people and be a success. But  it could be a whole lot better. It is more like preaching to the converted than evangelising. That's because Freecycle needs to address the problems of actually getting to the centre of London: most parents will be wary of letting their kids make the journey into town even with a led ride. The solution (of course) is to have permanent low-traffic/segregated routes that could be used by commuters as well as for a once-yearly event. Also the Freecycle circuit needs to be a lot bigger than it is, to reduce the sardine-tin feel. To that extent, it would make more sense to open the Ride London 100 route to all cyclists.


  1. While an admirable selection for the hobbyiata, its still hardly anything that can be adequately called an enduring legacy for those of us who want to fit cycling into our lives as commuters etc.

    "Is that it?" was my response when Boris announced that this was his answer to capitalising on the success of Team GB.

  2. “I'm quite confident that sport-cycling does convert into commuting and utility cycling (and vice-versa), helps rescue cycling from a "wierdy-beardy knit-your-own-hummus" image and ultimately helps generate favourable political winds for cycling.”

    Yeah, I think you’re right there – the direction of causality in human behaviour is often unclear and can operate in both directions.

    You’re kind of implying that ‘every little helps’ - we don’t really know how much the glamour of sport-cycling might lead to feeling positive about utility cycling, but hey, it can’t do any harm and might do real good.

    (Re: “weirdy-beardy”. Cough.I do hope you’re not implying that I need to shave my whiskers off to be a credible active travel advocate ...)

  3. "I'm quite confident that sport-cycling does convert into commuting and utility cycling (and vice-versa)"

    I'm not convinced.

    At the weekend, following weeks of training, over 50,000 people ran 13.1 miles from Newcastle to South Shields. I live about 15 miles from the route and haven't seen a single person jogging to work or the shops since.