Claire Armitstead on cycling

Claire Armitstead: To place too much emphasis on top-level sporting facilities is to miss the point that distinguishes cycling from most other Olympic sports

The following correction was printed in the Guardian's Corrections and clarifications column, Monday September 1 2008

In the article below we quoted a letter from Sustrans, published in the Guardian on August 22, which said that Sweden and Switzerland didn't win any cycling medals in the Olympics. In fact, as we reported elsewhere, Sweden won two silver medals - for the men's individual time trial and the women's road race - and Switzerland won four: gold in the men's individual time trial and bronze in the men's road race, the men's cross country and the women's individual time trial.

The heroes are home and it's back to huffing and puffing for those of us who found ourselves transported by the Olympics to a fantasy world where every cyclist was an uber-athlete. Sporting immortality is all very well, but what's in it for us ordinary mortals?

No sooner had the medals gone back in their boxes than the lobbyists were getting down to work. "I don't see why cycling is not on the school curriculum. If you have swimming, why not cycling?" said the Olympic cycling squad's coach Dave Brailsford - well, he would, wouldn't he, since he needs to train up the next generation of winners.

Not so fast, replied Philip Insall, of the sustainable transport charity Sustrans: the priority has to be investment in infrastucture, because parents are simply not going to let their children loose on bikes unless they are confident that the roads are safe, and they patently aren't at the moment.

One thing is for sure - this sort of clash in priorities is going to become much more cacophanous in the run-up to the 2012 Olympics, as the general health of the nation is weighed against its sporting glory.

A large part of the success of the UK team has been put down to the Manchester Velodrome, built to support the city's unsuccessful bid for the 2000 Olympics. Its fans point out that it not only serves the sporting elite, but offers a community resource for those lucky enough to be within travelling distance. But, since it's one of only two world-class covered velodromes in the UK (the other is in Newport, Wales), those lucky people are only a minute proportion of the cycling population.

The lottery of access to world-class sporting facilities appears even more random in Scotland, where Alex Salmond spent last weekend trying heroically to fudge the fact that his capital city is on the point of demolishing the very velodrome where triple gold medallist Chris Hoy launched his brilliant career.

Built for the 1970 Commonwealth Games Edinburgh's open-air Meadowbank velodrome is due to be flattened by 2011 to make way for luxury houses whose wealthy occupants, if you follow the logic, will not include the next generation's Hoy (he or she will be about to start the new term at a primary school in Glasgow, which is building its own velodrome for the Commonwealth Games in 2014 - thus scotching hopes for a reprieve for Meadowbank.)

But to place too much emphasis on top-level sporting facilities is to miss the point that distinguishes cycling from most other Olympic sports. If you row or high jump or hurdle, there is only one aim - to win. In contrast, a perfectly decent cyclist may fantasise about being Chris Hoy or Tour de France champion Carlos Sastre without ever beating anything faster than the 73 bus. As the bike-fixer general says: "I like cycling, I take an interest in it as a sport and I cycle about 2,500 miles a year, but practically every one of those miles is getting from A to B."

So how in the next four years can anyone hope to reconcile the very different needs of an activity that encompasses sport, leisure and transport? I put the question to two cycle co-op workers based in Manchester and Edinburgh. Both felt that the priority was to build the sort of facilities that will encourage more people to take to the roads. Both

had seen an increase in bike sales over the summer, though Ged Holmyard, of the Edinburgh Bicycle Co-op, pointed out that while the number of bicycles sold had risen, the average price of those bicycles had fallen. Most of the increase was in the £200-£250 range, which suggested that the growth was in commuter and leisure rather than sports cycling.

Still, as Insall said, "We have more obese children and much lower levels of daily cycling than Germany (two cycling medals), Sweden (zero) and Switzerland (zero), countries that give healthy modes of transport much higher priority. The European cities and regions that most successfully promote cycling have invested, systematically, at £5 to £10 per capita per annum: five to 10 times the UK rate."

Everyone agrees that it is a good and important step forward for cycling to have its heroes. But there is a reckoning to be made between the demands of finding and nurturing those heroes and creating a land fit for them to live in: the challenge is to find the imagination and will to do both.


Claire Armitstead

The GuardianTramp

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