Cycling cultures/cycling politics: 1950s-2011

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Cycling cultures and cycling politics

Riding through the time of the car

Readers of GMCC’s newsletter Pothole will have seen an abridged version of this article, in which local cycle campaigner Dave Barker recalls club cycling in the second half of the twentieth century.

What follows aims to be historical/dynamic, but at the same time is unashamedly autobiographical. It also operates on the assumption that cycling cultures and practices have to be seen in relation to other relevant cultures and practices, particularly those of car drivers. The main argument is that our present cycling cultures are the product of the interaction between historical changes and forces over which we have had little or no control and the adaptations we have, collectively, made to cope with these changes and forces.

Looking back, I now see a paradox at the heart of my experience of motorised road travel. On the one hand, as we now know, there were, relatively speaking, ‘no cars on the road’, so journeys ought to have been largely unaffected by the presence of other traffic. On the other hand my recollection of actual journeys (by coach in our case, since we didn’t have a car until my mid-teens) is that overall they were slow, leisurely affairs where rapid (?40 mph) progress on sections of open road were invariably punctuated by erratic movement, long snarl-ups and traffic jams in villages, towns and built up areas; so Birkenhead to London was an all-day (roughly 9 to 6) experience, which, of course, meant that there had to be built-in coffee/tea breaks, lunch stops etc to enable the punters to survive; Birkenhead to Llanfairfechan on the North Wales coast was pretty unpredictable, depending on how ‘bad’ things were in Conway and all the other bottlenecks along the North Wales coast, but I’m pretty certain that, even with an early-ish morning start, we could not expect to arrive until some time in the afternoon (60 miles). I can’t be certain, but I cannot imagine that doing the same journeys by car would have been hugely different. When we did, eventually, get a car, my Dad scarcely ever exceeded 35, and never on principle went over 40; yet I never remember long tailbacks behind us or the kind of furious reaction such driving would provoke today; so I infer that, while he was probably pretty slow by contemporary standards, he was not exceptionally or ‘pathologically’ slow.

So my reconstruction of  motoring culture and practice at that time is that it was the product of widely shared experiences in which a ‘long’ journey (in terms of distance) would now be seen as a short romp; acceptable speeds were, by present standards, very low; how long the journey would take was very much in the lap of the gods (but it would make sense to err on the side of caution and build in allowances for enforced, unscheduled stops/delays and plan additional stops for food and drink, if the experience was to be bearable); and the attitude to things and people that got in your way was that there were so many of them anyway, that it would make no sense to single out one category (e.g. cyclists) for particular blame or criticism; and, of course, most drivers were or had been cyclists.

The Club and cycling culture into which I was socialised from 1958 reflected all this.  Any cyclist worthy of the name would get to know the local (say 30 miles radius) lanes like the back of his hand, because these were where you sampled the real delights of cycling, and this knowledge distinguished you from the lower breeds like motorists who couldn’t read maps and hadn’t a clue where they were or where they were going except by using road signs and main roads. But at the same time you used the main roads: to get to the area where you really wanted to go; to train; to get in big distances; to link up nice sections in the lanes. So Anfield Club runs regularly used the Chester-Whitchurch road, or the main road from the Wirral to Queensferry and into Wales; Seamons Cycling Club runs in the 70s invariably did Altrincham to Whitchurch on A roads via Middlewich and Nantwich. Club 25s turned in the road (A41) between Broxton and Whitchurch on a Saturday afternoon. My first ‘really’ long ride (160 miles) was getting home to Birkenhead from Oxford. All I needed was an Esso map to clarify which A or B road number I needed to follow. Long distance tours (e.g.100 milesa day for four days round Wales at Easter) were not exercises in the finer arts of navigation. Using the main roads was often less pleasant than using the lanes, but the contrast was not such that you felt the need to avoid them, nor did you infer from the behaviour of most users that, as far as they were concerned, you didn’t really belong there.


I started racing (1961) towards the end of the period when: most competitors rode out to the event (often carrying sprint wheels on sprint carriers); racing and club life were closely integrated, so that, for example, a club run would leave from event HQ when everyone had finished; off your local patch, you booked digs on a Saturday night, rode over on Saturday, raced, then back on Sunday (it was accepted that one of the responsibilities of an event secretary was to book accommodation for visiting riders who sent a deposit along with their entry form) (See, for example, the obituary of Johnny Helms, Cycling Weekly’s veteran and much-loved cartoonist). This gradually changed through the 60s: steadily increasing use of cars to get to events with knock-on effects on the rest of this social behaviour.

Commuting by bike was very similar in the use of main roads, in my case into Manchester from the south-west suburbs using either the A56 (main Chester Road) or the A5103 (Princess Parkway).

It has been interesting to me to find that this kind of experience was shared by top riders whose socialisation took place from the early fifties through to the early 80s (see e.g. autobiographies of Vin Denson and Graeme Obree).

(Obviously there was much more to this culture than routes, roads and navigation, but this is what I want to concentrate on here).

It is difficult to pinpoint how and when this changed, since we’re looking at something that was gradual and insidious, but I would say the late 70s and 80s were decisive. By the 90s things were very different.

Although I was aware in a very general and unsystematic way that our collective behaviour was changing, the contrast was brought home to me very starkly in (I think) 1993 when I tried to replicate what I had done in 1965 (Oxford to Birkenhead with an Esso map), this time to get back to Manchester from the Tour de France in Hampshire in two days via Great Malvern (for a variety of reasons I had not done this kind of riding since the 70s). The 1965 experience was wholly positive and, looking back, quite formative in my subsequent cycling career and identity (in this case becoming a ‘proper’ cyclist – particularly a long-distance one – rather as others became marijuana users or jazz musicians [editor’s note – a reference to the work of the US sociologist Howard Becker, who applied the concept of ‘career’ any identity which requires work and commitment to develop]). 1993 was not an experience I would want to repeat and I began to reflect on the ways in which my significant socialisation experiences were quite simply not available to bike-riders following on thirty years later.

The place to start is probably to consider how being a motorist has changed. The advent of the motorway system and upgraded dual carriageways revolutionised the way in which motorists both behaved and thought. Instead of being a major expedition of highly uncertain duration, the journey from the north-west of England (Merseyside or, where I now live, Manchester) to London became a reasonably predictable 2 ¾ to 3 hour drive; Manchester to Anglesey for a recent Club weekend (bike in back of car) was about one and a half hours (about 50 miles more than Birkenhead-Llanfairfechan, several hours less); indeed this has become the typical currency in which car journeys are discussed: ‘Manchester to Dover is four and a half hours’ etc etc

When the motorways were being built, I remember that some cyclists were optimistic about traffic being diverted off the rest of the road system. With a few possible exceptions (A6 in Lancashire and Cumbria, A50 in Cheshire where A road and motorway shadow each other for an appreciable distance), these hopes have not been fulfilled as traffic levels increased and, with them, average and normal speeds, no doubt heavily influenced by the kind of thinking induced/encouraged by motorway driving.

But not every kind of driving/journey has become faster and more predictable; the most obvious exception has been the typical urban commute. It seems to me that Fred Hirsch’s (Social Limits to Growth) concept of positional goods is particularly useful here. A positional good is one which is consumed only in part because of the intrinsic satisfaction it provides; it is also, indeed it is perhaps primarily, consumed because of the advantages the consumer gains over those who don’t/can’t obtain access to that good. The problem (logically unavoidable as well as empirically predictable) is that these advantages fall away and disappear as more and more consumers strive to acquire this advantage – hence there are social limits to growth. So we want a car at least in part because it enables us to travel further and faster than other people. At first this works; but it works progressively less and less well as more and more people get cars until eventually we get urban gridlock.

Another important factor in the way that motorists have come to see themselves and behave has been the political context in which these changes have taken place. Until very recently (and it is debatable how far this has changed) much political discourse treated public transport as a residual service for unsuccessful losers; and it was widely assumed that those who walked or rode bikes did so because they couldn’t afford a car. The interests of motorists were prioritised in the way resources were distributed,  in the philosophy/ideology/practices of  traffic engineers and town-planners and in the legal system; and individualistic approaches to issues with political and social ramifications (like the decisions we make about whether and how to get from A to B) were celebrated as inherently superior to collective ones (although, as so often happens, while the benefits were enjoyed individually, the costs were socialised).

So: cyclists came to be seen more and more as hindrances which get in the way and slow down a journey which ‘everyone knows’ should take x hours or y minutes and which, on this basis, may well have been scheduled to do precisely this. To make matters worse, groups of cyclists out in the countryside are clearly misusing publicly provided and financed space; ‘everyone knows’ that roads are there for the serious business of getting from A to B and here are these groups chatting, laughing and blatantly enjoying themselves, thus using the roads we have paid for as if they were subsidised playgrounds, and this frivolity is what is holding us up and making us late. (No motorist I have met has actually said this, but many do behave as if this is what they think; and to me, one of the most important aspects of our cycling culture is precisely this radical challenge it lays down to accepted norms concerning the proper use of public space). In urban areas, particularly in the rush hour, cyclists became obvious scapegoats with the build-up of frustrations associated with owning a positional good that conferred fewer and fewer advantages. To make matters worse, in many situations cheap bikes deliver the satisfactions the consumer is seeking better than expensive cars.

The response of cyclists/potential cyclists to all this has varied: many have disappeared and many who would have appeared have not done so (how often have we heard some version of ‘I used to be a cyclist, but you wouldn’t get me out on a bike on these roads. It’s far too dangerous’?). The primary adaptive response of most leisure/club cyclists that I know has been to retreat almost completely from the main roads (except in the mountains) and take to the lanes and (more recently) sections of the National Cycle Network (NCN). One big bonus is that navigational skills have improved significantly. I think I am now a better navigator than my dad was, if only because the cost of getting it wrong is so much greater. (I went back to Oxfordshire a few years back, armed as I always am with an Ordnance Survey (OS) map; I behaved as I now always do and used the map to navigate the lanes; it was astonishing (and at first a bit upsetting) to find myself on routes and in places that I had never been on/to and didn’t know existed. How could I have missed such gems? Then I reflected that at 18 to 22 I had been a completely different sort of bike rider doing what was then my thing in an (almost) totally different world. As I said in an earlier post [editor’s note – see Dave’s comments, dated 26th June 2011, to my post ‘A cultural politics of cycling, part 2’], I didn’t choose to live through the era which forced these changes on us, but I am proud of the adaptations we have made to cope with them).

For many urban cyclists similar adaptations have been necessary on the commute as we have cobbled together safer, quieter, less stressful, and often much more ingenious and interesting routes to work and for other journeys round the urban areas. It is particularly gratifying to me that a crucial bit of contraflow on a pavement (where I was stopped by a policeman in the 80s) and a pedestrian-only bridge that many of us also used illegally are both now part of Manchester’s official cycle network. They all learn in the end, even councillors and traffic engineers. Other adaptations involved collectively choosing to go with the flow. We can’t blame motorists for the fact that virtually no one now rides out to races; racing cyclists have taken full advantage of a road system on which higher speeds and shorter, more predictable journey times are pretty much guaranteed. And just as virtually no one rides out to race, so far fewer club riders go out on all-day club runs. (Johnny Helms racing on a Sunday morning, then going out all day with the Warrington Road Club and typically clocking up 120-150 miles for the day was a product of the 40s and 50s; he had fewer and fewer successors in the 60s;  he and his like were probably extinct by the 70s)

I said earlier that potential cyclists who would have appeared did not appear. Another ‘crisis’ we had to deal with in the Clubs was the almost complete disappearance of junior recruits in the mid-80s. It seemed almost to be the case that one moment the club room and the club run was heaving with juniors, the next there were none to be seen (I was club chairman at the time and got quite a lot of stick from some senior members who seemed to think that it was us – or me – who were/was doing something wrong. Further scrutiny showed that this was a problem that affected all clubs and many other sports). In our case, however, membership numbers stayed high and even increased as we recruited ‘returners’ and others who have taken up the sport in their 20s and 30s (or later). In the last few years we have been getting juniors as well.

The other most obvious feature of  cycling culture in the last 20 years has been its growing heterogeneity, with the mountain bike explosion, triathlons, orienteering-type events, families on the NCN/Sustrans network, sportives etc etc. One of the problems confronting anyone wanting to analyse it is to get a grip on what is going on (and this is just the sport/leisure side).

Cycle forums, cycle campaigning, the green movement and other forms of activism are also arenas in which bike-riders who maybe 30 years ago would have behaved pretty much as atomised individuals are now starting to act collectively and politically. When I taught Social Policy courses, one of the areas we used to discuss was the way in which politically conscious disability groups began to challenge the view that handicap, disadvantage, exclusion etc are inherently and inevitably part and parcel of having, say, a visual or a mobility impairment; rather it is the environment which the rest of us (the able-bodied) create (on the assumption that everyone is able-bodied like us) that disadvantages and discriminates against those who are, in these respects, not like us. To my embarrassment, it was fully 15/20 years after I had started presenting this kind of analysis, that I began to appreciate that it could be adapted and applied much closer to home. Environments are created to suit the interests of powerful, dominant groups (motorists), ignoring the interests of less powerful, subordinate groups (cyclists and pedestrians). And rather as the disabled were invisible because they had to stay at home, so cyclists and pedestrians became more than invisible; quite simply people stopped cycling and walking. What we are now seeing are early signs of raised consciousness and resistance.

When my mates and I started serious cycling as teenagers, one of our ambitions was to be treated and accepted as proper cyclists, which obviously and necessarily included being thought worthy of a wave and an ‘aye, aye’ when we passed those who were clearly ‘proper cyclists’. Because we wore jeans and started off on relatively grotty bikes we didn’t always pass the test and were often ignored; we found that this was much less likely to happen (in fact it virtually never happened) once we acquired better bikes, a pair of Ossie Dover’s plus-twos and garish diamond-patterned knee-length socks (Ossie was Liverpool’s famous tricycling tailor). And then it was our turn to ignore the plebs (after all we had been through, why should we dispense our favours any more liberally?). I have to confess that I remained an arrogant, elitist, condescending prat right through the 60s, 70s and into the 80s. It is hard now to recall when, how and why I started to change, but I am pretty certain that it was as I started to appreciate that, where cyclists are concerned – unlike Britain in 2010/11 –  we really were ‘all in this together’. Now greeting and chatting with a far greater range of people on bikes is a way of expressing solidarity, camaraderie and shared experiences and interests.

This has been a long-winded way of saying that the cycling culture which I grew up in on Merseyside in the late 50s and 60s has undergone fundamental changes, many of which were forced on us by what might loosely be called the motoring culture; I have argued that we have resisted and adapted; and it may well be that what is emerging is stronger, if only because, in rough and ready Darwinian terms, it now contains far greater variability.

This is basically why I view the possible emergence of mass cycling (and a mass cycling culture, whatever that might look like) with a combination of equanimity and enthusiasm. Enthusiasm because this can only be good for public health, the planet, my grandchildren, urban life, and civility and sociability; equanimity because I cannot readily conceive of ways in which lots more people riding bikes in urban areas can have serious detrimental effects on our various cycling subcultures. I take this view mainly because in places where there is mass cycling, this has happened (as far as I can see) pretty well independently of the kind of leisure/sporting/competitive cycling cultures which exist in those cities/countries. My analogy would be that if we also get mass walking/pedestrianism or whatever we might call it, there is really no reason to believe that this will have much effect on the diverse cultures of rambling clubs, athletics clubs, fell-running clubs, long distance walking clubs etc etc. But I also take this view because, compared with what we have been through since the 50s/60s, coping with the consequences of mass cycling will, in all probability, be a bit of a breeze. In the end it will be up to us, or rather you, how we/you adapt to these (and any other, possibly far more momentous) changes which take place over the next, say, 50 years.

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