Continental spin: How Britain fell in love with cycling

Chris Froome and Bradley Wiggins lead the way in the Tour de France
Chris Froome and Bradley Wiggins head the 2012 Tour de France (Photo: Georges Ménager, Flickr)
"The irony could be that as cycling powers ahead in the UK it may be losing some of its traditional influence in its continental heartlands"
  • | by Sean Davies

The Tour de France is now a major highlight in the calendar of a huge number of UK sports fans, but how, when and why did we embrace life on two unpowered wheels?

Something strange has stanchioned itself in the British psyche in the last decade or so. It's hard to pin down the where, when and why, but the fact is inescapable - we fell in love with cycling.

For some defenders of good old Blighty this is a worrying phenomenon. Despite our traditional love of eccentricity, to don an outlandishly coloured outfit, leap on a bike and hurl one's sweaty hulk at an insane incline has always been regarded as something, well, continental.

This business was not for us. Just like Napoleon's legions and Hitler's panzers, the peloton stopped at La Manche (the Channel).

So what led Britain to embrace Europe's cycling obsession? It's been a long road…

The UK joined the European Union in 1973, and the following year the Tour de France came to England for the first time.

Over the years riders like Tom Simpson, Robert Millar, Chris Boardman and Nicole Cooke occasionally flashed the Tour and road racing across Britain's news agenda, but perhaps it was the now-disgraced Lance Armstrong who did more than anyone to raise the profile of the sport.

On a more inspiring note than Armstrong, the remarkable track performances of the likes of Chris Hoy and Victoria Pendleton helped cycling seep into the consciousness of the nation, before athletes like Mark Cavendish, Bradley Wiggins and Chris Froome saw UK cycling start to conquer the roads, their rise culminating in the historic Tour de France victories of Wiggins (2012) and Froome (2013).

The competitive success was accompanied by a rise in recreational biking and commuting, with movements like Sustrans boosting the appeal of cycling and making it more accessible.

Prominent public figures like David Cameron and Boris Johnson have been eager to stress their love of travelling on two unpowered wheels, plugging in to concerns over the environment, the credit crunch and a health-and-fitness-obsessed media.

These factors have built into the perfect storm, driving forward the cause of muscle-powered transport.

The irony could be, though, that as cycling powers ahead in the UK it may be losing some of its traditional influence in its continental heartlands.

Indeed, the very reason that the Tour de France started in northern England in 2014 can be largely put down to money. In order to compete with other sports like football, cycling has to go global in its search for audience share and the corresponding broadcasting bucks.

In a feature for the BBC, Darach McQuaid - one of the biggest wheels in Irish cycling - said: "There are three reasons for taking a Grand Tour abroad.

"First, they want to share the national event they are very proud of with new tifosi [fans]. Second, and closely related to that, they want to grow their brand. But finally, there is the financial consideration: they can get more money from foreign starts."

As Britain's 'nation of grocers' embraces the glory and romance of the Tour, the country responsible for its inception, heritage and future is increasingly concerned with profit margins.

Vive la difference, as those funny foreign types might say.