Harnessing the cycling boom

With so many new cyclists on the road since lockdown, how can we make sure we keep new or returning cyclists choosing active travel beyond the pandemic.

Like most regular cyclists, I have enjoyed riding my bike during the pandemic, although with caution and care. Even if you haven’t been cycling, but have been outside going about your daily business, you can’t have failed to notice the huge increase in cyclists on the road.

All types of cyclists, adults, kids and families. It’s been fantastic to see so many people either dust off their bikes in the garage or buy new to find a healthy and safe way to get about during the pandemic and also to enjoy the beautiful weather we have been having in the UK. Of course, a lot of families have also taken up cycling because they’ve had something new to help their renaissance with the bike, home schooling, Mum and Dad working from home and virtually traffic free streets.

Those of us that have been campaigning and encouraging for more cycling for health, wellbeing and the environment may have thought we were having a beautiful dream.

As the days of the lockdown ticked by, it seemed like everywhere I went, people were riding bikes! It gave me a warm glow inside to see so many fledgling cyclists taking to the local roads, parks and open spaces. My joy was tinged with a little bewildernment: “what, it takes a pandemic to get you onto a bike?” Slowly as the roads became more and more full of cyclists, I began to realise we were now in the middle of a cycling boom.

If you are a regular cyclist and you have found yourself experiencing mixed feelings about this proliferation of new riders, you’re not alone. It’s only natural to have a sense of proprietorship over something you’ve been working at for a long time, and cycling is no exception. Also, while the bicycle is an amazing tool, at times it can be frustrating to share the roads, parks, trails, and paths with people who navigate it less expertly than you think they should or you do yourself.

Although it’s perfectly normal to experience reflexive feelings of smug superiority, it’s also essential that once you recognize these feelings, you proceed to get over yourself immediately. This could be a once-in-a-generation chance to bolster our ranks by sharing the joy of cycling – something we’ve always wanted right ? The last thing we need is to send these new riders back to their cars.

The first step in welcoming new riders is learning something called “patience.” You won’t find a metric for that on your Garmin, so you’re going to have to go by feel. Here’s a good patience threshold test: On a beautiful day, head out onto the local bike path, which is probably now busier than you’ve ever seen it. Do you find yourself huffing with irritation as you weave through all these cyclists? Are you silently cursing them for not “holding their lines?” If so, sit up and downshift immediately. What’s your hurry, anyway? All the big rides and races have been cancelled, you have not got any big events imminently to train for. Now, take a deep breath and look at all those grown-ups and kids basking in one of life’s greatest pleasures: riding a bicycle. That unfamiliar feeling in the corners of your mouth is called a smile. Don’t worry, it’s just your emotional power meter registering happiness, and you don’t even have to pay a monthly subscription fee to use its full range of features. Don’t forget you were a new cyclist once !

Now has never been a better time to use your cycling experience for the benefit of others. And while a mid-ride flat or minor mechanical is little more than a mild inconvenience to the experienced rider, it can be a scary proposition for the stranded novice, so lend your spare tube, your pump, and your know-how if you encounter a fellow rider in distress or simply call out to check they are ok.

Remember, a lot of new cyclists haven’t quite worked out the nuances of their multi-gear drivetrains, so you should refrain from dispensing unsolicited lectures on the importance of maintaining the optimal cadence at all times – you don’t want to put them off ! Anyway, there’s no such thing as the “wrong” gear; any gear that’s moving you forward is the right one. The rest is merely a matter of refinement which will come naturally with practice and experience.
Fortunately for these new riders, they’re starting out with motor vehicle traffic at an unprecedented low, and are less likely to experience the discouraging encounters that can come with hostile motorists which scare so many people away from bikes. However, this also means that long-time riders like us will play an outsized role in informing their experience if we want them to stick around. These new riders will become the friends we meet at group rides, the advocates who stand up for cyclists at community meetings, and even the competitors that we may meet in races. Most importantly, they will become regular people on bikes. The bike boom may have set them in motion, but it’s up to the rest of us to help guide them on their journey. Don’t be a cycle snob – let us all join together as one big Rider Retention Department and inch towards what we have all always wanted – more people on bikes.