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Cycling: a sport, a mode of transport, and a marketing phenomenon

Cycling has always been a global activity, and in the 21st century a marketing phenomenon. At its simplest, the bicycle is a functional form of transport that was invented sometime in the early 19th century, although attribution to a single inventor is not possible as there appear to have been a number of prototypes developed throughout Europe. However, for many, cycling is a sport first and a mode of transport second. The Tour de France, the most famous and prestigious bike race, began in 1903 as a marketing promotion for the French magazine L’Auto, and in its present form consists of some 200 of the best cyclists racing across 21 stages and covering well over 2,000 miles.

Perhaps the most famous country for bicycles as everyday transport is China, once reported to have as many as 9 million cycles on the road. But as affluence and car ownership doubled, bicycle ownership declined dramatically, by as much as 35% between 1995 and 2005. Bicycles were also blamed for congestion and road accidents with Shanghai actually banning them from some roads in 2004. But just like a cycle wheel, what goes round comes round and since 2011, as air quality has deteriorated and traffic jams are a daily nightmare for Chinese commuters, the bicycle has been brought back into favour with bike share programmes.

Another country renowned for bicycles is Amsterdam, a town designated by its cycle routes and when crossing the road you need to be very aware of both the bike and vehicle traffic. Amsterdam is completely flat and with 4,000 kilometres of bike paths it should be a cyclists dream, but you have to know how to cycle like a Dutch person and never leave your bike unlocked (55,000 cycles go missing every year). Dutch cyclists own the road and they decide whether they will cycle fast or slow – many engage in other activities while cycling, on their mobile phones, talking to pedestrians, but they are always in the right. Few cyclists in Amsterdam wear helmets – it would probably be wiser for the pedestrians to wear them!

Another bike friendly city is Copenhagen, where most inhabitants bike to work; half of Danish households don’t own a car. Back in the 19th century bikes were considered so good for Danish society that cycling unions developed with political goals. Although, like other western cities, the introduction of the car led to a reduction in cycling, in the early 1960s Copenhagen began reducing city centre traffic converting the main Street Stroget in 1962 to a pedestrian promenade. The energy crisis of the 1970s hit Denmark hard and car free Sundays were introduced to save fuel. People also protested by painting white crosses on roads where cyclists had been killed, and with such pressure the cycle track network was rebuilt in the 1980s and expanded as fatalities and injuries fell.

Cyclists bicycles riders by skeeze. Public domain via Pixabay.
Cyclists bicycles riders by skeeze. Public domain via Pixabay.

However, whilst the bicycle as a mode of transport is very popular in China, Holland, and Denmark, none of those countries have been particularly successful in cycle racing in recent history. The last Danish winner of the Tour de France was Bjarne Riis in 1996 (who later admitted to doping during the 1996 Tour), for Holland it was Joop Zoetemelk in 1980, and for China, well there has never been a Chinese winner of the Tour de France.

In Britain, few people would disagree that cycling is seen as a sport first and a mode of transport second. This is in no small part down to Britain’s recent success both on the track and on the road, including three Tour de France wins in the last five years (Bradley Wiggins in 2012 and Chris Froome in 2013 and 2015) and sixteen gold medals at the last two Olympic Games. Cycling is no longer a niche sport and has moved into the mainstream. However, as well as using the bicycle as a mode of transport, we use it as a recreational and fitness tool, taking to the roads on a Saturday morning to ride out of London and into Richmond Park or the Surrey Hills, and during the week the bicycle stays at home and we take the train, bus, or car to work.

As a sporting activity, we look for the newest technology and the best kit, and you do not have to walk far in London to find a bike shop selling it. We want the latest wireless electronic gears and to wear the best and most fashionable clothes, which in the case of upmarket brands such as Rapha, can be very expensive. Simon Mottram actually started Rapha back in 2004 with the objective of designing clothing that would offer excellent performance. While some criticise the price – in January its latest Shadow collection included shorts priced at £260, – its offering of clothing which is both high performance and fashionable is unmatched in the market. And this is where Rapha as a marketing phenomenon becomes even more interesting. Having sponsored Team Sky over two Tour de France wins, Mottram announced a parting of the ways following the 2016 season. Already Rapha has announced sponsorship of CANYON//SRAM Racing, a newly formed UCI Women’s World Tour professional cycling team. Clearly Rapha is looking for growth markets now it has established itself as the outstanding brand for men. As Mottram says: “Our average customer is a man in his mid-30s,” he says. “Yet at the same time, our fastest-growing customer section is female road bikers.”

In London, cycling as a mode of transport is still not easy, and unlike Copenhagen and Amsterdam, most cyclists other than the occasional ‘Boris Bike’ tourist will be wearing a helmet. Nevertheless Transport for London has taken the initiative to build The East-West Cycle Superhighway which will run from Tower Hill to Lancaster Gate due to be completed by the end of 2016.

Cycling is definitely here to stay and with it, there are not only business opportunities but chances for cities to become safer and better places to live in. What we are seeing, especially in London, is significant investment in cycling infrastructure as a result of the increased popularity of cycling as a sport in Britain, but which will benefit those people who want to use the bicycle as a mode of transport first and as a recreational tool second.

Featured image credit: bicycle derailleur wheel by kaboompics. Public domain via Pixabay.

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