No, this isn’t really about sexism. But sexism shines a light on what this article is really about.
Schumacher: a curious trigger
Few people will have missed the mainstream story of Formula 1’s most successful driver in history, Michael Schumacher, suffering a severe head injury whilst skiing in France. To my mind, that isn’t relevant to the stuff I normally write about. But, of course, even while Schumacher remains critical and in an induced coma, people – notably Beverley Turner – who do consider it relevant have seized the moment and already written articles calling for people to wear helmets on bikes, and for people to be mandated to do so.
A bit of background
This event, and the commentary it has triggered, is in some ways a confluence of multiple threads of my life. I’ve been an avid F1 watcher for the last 30 years; I’ve dabbled in motorsport; I’ve been skiing and snowboarding; I’ve dabbled in bicycle racing; I’ve ridden bikes off-piste on the steep, rocky slopes of the Alps and Pyrenées… and so on.
And equally I’ve driven a car to work and to the shops, ridden a bicycle to work and to the shops, and traversed snow and ice to get to work and to the shops.
All of these things are clearly related, but clearly different.
Driving is not driving, and cycling is not cycling
When I’ve driven to work along a dual carriageway in the morning with a 3-second gap to the car in front, it’s been clearly different to when I’ve driven a kart at 80mph just inches away from another kart in a fight to arrive at the next corner first. Both involve a motor vehicle, both involve me controlling it in a similar way, and both involve a dependency on the people around me not to do anything especially stupid.
Most, perhaps all, observers will be able to note the differences between those two types of driving; those differences being the reason I wear a helmet for one and not the other (granted, I’m not allowed on a racing track without a helmet, but believe me I’d have one anyway).
Equally, when I’ve ridden the short distance along a traffic-free path on my route to work, it’s been clearly different to when I’ve ridden through the night on particularly long rides or when I’ve been out trying to make my legs burn with pain. (Or indeed when I’ve piloted a bicycle bucking bronco-style down some precipitous rocky gorges in the high mountains.) Both involve a bicycle, both involve me controlling it in a similar way, and both involve a dependency on the people around me not to do anything especially stupid.
But few people see much of a difference between me riding to work or to the shops and me going out for a recreational ride (recreation, fitness, leisure, sport, call it what you will), despite the fact that I approach them in very different ways.
In may people’s eyes, for cycling, sport blurs into transport. Yet it needn’t.
Sexism and its hidden truth
Some of the criticisms I’ve seen of Turner’s article point out the vein of generalisation and sexism that runs through it: she talks of “macho twits … without a thought for the mothers and girlfriends who will pick up their pieces“, and signs off with “[Schumacher] wore a helmet. A good man does that for his family as much as for himself.“
The Telegraph itself compounds that generalisation by publishing Turner’s article, and indeed every cycling-related article I’ve ever seen on their site, under an organisational hierarchy of “Men’s – Active – Recreational cycling”. Cycling is seen as recreation, and it’s the domain of the male.
But as arguably unpleasant as the generalisation is, it does highlight an important truth of cycling in Britain.
The root problem: infrastructure
The important thing to note is that this is all set in place by the current infrastructure in the UK. Almost all utility cycling must be undertaken by battling with imposing, frightening and often aggressive motor traffic. It’s a pressurised environment which is capable of supporting few users beyond committed enthusiasts and assertive, athletic riders, who do often tend to be male.
These are the people for whom sport does blur into transport. I’m one of them: mostly my cycle commute is short and goes via traffic-free roads and train stations, but on some days I choose the full 30-mile ride. I’m a reasonably fit male in my 30s and I’m an enthusiast. I love bikes, I love cycling – not just as a means of daily transport but also for the freedom, the challenge and sometimes the thrill. If you want some sort of insight then maybe read “Why I Love Cycling” by Turner’s husband, James Cracknell. Of course, I can relate to it. Ever since I started riding recreationally on the road I’ve tried to challenge myself with longer and longer distances. And there’s no shame in that, just as there’s no shame in the fact that whilst I drive remarkably sedately on the road, you’ll never see me as fired up as when I’m racing karts.
But the blurred boundary in cycling of competition, self-challenge and mere utility is harder for many to see because of the inevitable culture in Britain.
A pressured environment
To feel safe on the road I feel I need to travel at 20mph in traffic. I need to assertively claim road space prior to manoeuvres and hazards. And I need to shrug off the unnecessarily close or badly-timed passes that endanger me. In other words: I need fitness, confidence, and a tolerance of personal risk. I also (fortunately rarely, where I mostly ride) need to put up with people who shout verbal abuse simply because I’m on a bicycle. (Still, it could be worse.)
This infrastructure and this culture therefore skews things. It skews the risks that people face (such as, in James Cracknell’s case, being hit by a truck’s mirror) by imposing others’ actions and others’ vehicles on riders.
It skews the risks that people take, by ensuring that the population is artificially high in amateur athletes who are more likely to be speed-focused.
It skews the attitudes that people who ride bikes tend to have, because not only do they need to be robust to deal with the abuse, they are roughened by a constant lack of care and a certain level of malicious abuse from those around them.
And it skews the support that exists within the currently-cycling population for helmets, by again ensuring that the population is artificially high in people who are willing to accept physical endangerment of both their own making and others’, and who will therefore be more inclined both to want and to benefit from a helmet.
Change the environment
To ram home that point, I implore you to read (I say “read”; it’s mostly pictures) Mark Treasure’s final flourish of 2013, his article entitled “Not Dangerous“, and see if you can spot any “macho twits” in any of the many pictures.
You can’t, because – although The Netherlands doubtless has its fair share of macho twits – given the right infrastructure, “cyclists” turn out to be simply representative of the population as a whole.
It’s not cycling that makes “cyclists” what they are in the UK. It’s the infrastructure. It largely filters out those without the machismo, the bravado, the fitness, the thick skin and the ability to give as good as they get.
And the reason for that is that it largely removes the ability of people to ride in a calm, relaxed and perfectly safe manner.
The people in the photo above are cycling in the country with the safest cycling record in the world, where – despite only 1 in 1000 riders choosing to wear a helmet – it takes 90 lifetimes to suffer a head injury.
All that’s needed is to provide an environment in which people like this are willing to cycle, and the whole tableau of skewing – the injury statistics, the attitudes, the gender split – is removed, and we see that cyclists are people and that cycling is safe.