The sport of cycling has never been more popular in Britain. There are many people who have been turned on to the sport in recent weeks thanks to the success and widespread media coverage of British riders at the Tour de France and at the Olympic Games.

They have heard the names of Wiggins, Armitstead, Pooley and Cavendish and they know that they pedal quickly and may or may not have ginger sideburns. However, the subtleties of road racing are lost even on some long-term cycling fans, let alone those recently joining in the fun.

This has led to widespread confusion over exactly what was going on during the weekend’s Olympic road races, perhaps not helped by the inadequate information passed on during live television broadcasts of the events.

Mark Cavendish ‘lost’ the road race despite being BBC Sports Personality of the Year 2011 and bestowed with an almost unbearable sense of expectation of having a dinner-plate sized gold disc hanging around his neck on The Mall. After the race, the Mail on Sunday bluntly termed Cavendish ‘Nowhere Man’ having lost out to ‘unknown’ Alexandre Vinokourov.

Perhaps the general confusion of why Cavendish didn’t win gold hinges on the peculiarity of road racing: it’s largely a team sport with an individual winner.

This is a very hard concept to grasp, and when explaining cycling tactics to a non-cycling fan you usually have to end up using a football analogy. The uphill struggle that Team GB faced in the men’s road race wasn’t the nine ascents of Box Hill, it was the equivalent of turning up for the World Cup final only to be faced by Spain, Italy, France, Germany and every other team, all of them constantly tackling, passing and wearing you down. The winner of the road race may be the ultimate ‘goal scorer’, but someone had to pass the ball in the first place, even if it was a fluffed pass from the opposition.

During one of Cycling Weekly’s live text commentaries on the Tour de France, where readers are encouraged to join in with their own comments, a thread of conversation cropped up where several readers said they were genuinely dismayed that ‘their sport’ had turned mainstream. It was likened to having a favourite underground band, who everyone else suddenly discovered ten years after you did. Or a coachload of people turning up and occupying your living room, and probably breaking wind in the hallway and not wiping their feet on the way in.

This just seems plain wrong. Why shouldn’t everyone find out just how good cycling is?

We, as cycling fans – fanatics, even – have a duty not to shut out our new-found friends but welcome them and help them understand the sport as best we can. The fascinating team tactics, the commitment, the terminology, the history, the equipment, the unrivalled sporting backdrop of beautiful countryside. At last we have the opportunity to spread the word and swell the ranks of cycling fans.

And just be thankful that the Madison is no longer on the Olympic menu. Cycling’s equivalent of explaining the off-side rule.


Related links

London 2012 Olympic Games: Coverage index

  • Ken Evans

    Some of the spectators around the Olympic TT weren’t too pleasant !
    There was a level of ignorance you don’t get in mainland Europe.

    Most of them only were interested in a GB performance,
    and the only name they knew was Wiggins.

    None of the mass media in the UK really helps cycling,
    by making it seem “different” and “special”,
    in Europe bikes aren’t seen as so weird, but normal and everyday.

    Sometimes cycles races are made to seem more complicated and involved than they really are.

    Bunch races involve a certain amount of randomness and chance,
    especially if race-radios aren’t used.

    It is the unpredictability of sport that makes it interesting.

    Stupid judging doesn’t help anyone,
    and makes the UCI look ridiculous.

  • Trevor

    Very late on this thread I guess, bu there goes: The last two paragraphs are very important – clubs and cyclists in general should not waste this opportunity to welcome people and boost their ranks. Open your arms, say hello, and don’t judge people by their lack of knowledge or age of their bike. Welcome them!

  • Ernie Haton

    As a relative newcomer to viewing track racing would you explain why the GB women’s sprint team was effectively disqualifed from their heat, and the event, whilst the Chinese team, after committing the same offence, get a siver medal. Surely if you break a rule you are out!

  • Jim Yeoman

    I’ve spent the last few weeks at work trying to explain to people why Cav didn’t win le Tour this year and now I am attempting to explain how a single day race works.

    I agree with Jules that cycling clubs and bike shops that organise weekend ride outs need to try and embrace and encourage these new fans to try and keep them interested After all the more of us on the roads the better the chance of government, local authorities, police and courts changing their attitudes and policies towards cyclists.

    Heres to a brave new world where the streets and lans of Britain are filled with bikes

  • roginoz

    para 7 yes Ten Years After were a great underground band played at Woodstock ….oh was that a coincidental use of words in your part ?!! cycling always needs new blood . nimbys should find something else . olympics should celebrate all participants and medalists from whatever country . it s called sport .

  • Jules W

    I wonder how many clubs have thought about how to harness all the new Olympic interest from people fired up by the games. If there is no policy in place these people will drift away or remain as solo riders. But do clubs look inward at themselves and assess what they offer?

    When I started cycling in my late teens Cycling Weekly had lots of pages devoted to results of various Time Trials around the country. That didn’t interest me. I was fired up by images of Tour de France and Kellogg’s City Centre Cycling. I didn’t want to know about some effort (no matter how impressive) by a man riding some strange bike. And, from my vague recollection, it didn’t help me improve my cycling or spread much knowledge about cycling. When I first tried Alpe d’Huez in mid 80s I could find nothing to guide me on gear choices and was horribly over-geared.

    Now Cycling Weekly is much more focused on Sportives and more importantly how to improve your cycling. It has become more relevant to a broader range of cyclists. The Time Trial results do not have to be printed each week because the internet allows them to be accessed much more quickly.

    But I feel many clubs lag behind. Too many clubs in my experience think that a cycling club is all about time trials. Sportives are what people do who are not good enough to time trial or are not serious cycling. So they focus on competition and less about the joy of cycling. The social aspects of cycling are over looked which is a great pity as the bicycle was a great social innovation when it came about. I looked at several clubs Facebook pages on the day of the Road race and there was barely a flicker of interest. Just a few terse or sarcastic comments like ‘That went well’ then back to the parochial interests of the next time trial the following day.

    Now there are a good many clubs out there which have reached sufficient size that they can focus on new members and have different shades of club ride each week. But the smaller clubs need to look at why they are small and perhaps follow the lead of Cycling Weekly all those years ago. It worked well for CW. Do what you do now but better but look at what else you can do.

  • Rachael Carroll

    As a cycling fan for many years I get fed up with the media’s negative comments_pg_Inspire.Why do we expect Cav to win all the races he enters and write him off when he doesn’t, football players don’t score goals every time they play but that’s Ok, We should be proud of our British cyclists and all they have achieved, Will the Mail be demanding that Chris Hoy relinquishes his knighthood if he doesn’t deliver? !!!

  • George Edwards

    Is no one else picking up on the David bond story on this? Blog secretly edited, you tube version of his Saturday report blocked, copy of his report removed off BBC streaming media, 400 comments and numerous complaints to the BBC?

  • Neil

    @tim Senior – We did design a Cav Friendly course.

  • paul

    “what about the mens race, poor show wasn’t it” Cant tell you how many times I’ve heard this. Its getting really annoying. The BBC and all the other media haven’t done British Cycling any favours. Most of us cycling fans new that was a longshot for Cav and if the other nations played their cards right, that he wouldn’t get a chance to win it. I honestly think it would have been better to have a eurosport style presentation where an amount of understanding is presumed would have been better, then maybe people wouldn’t be so quick to comment on something that they plainly know nothing about.
    Get out, ride your bikes, you’ll soon learn how difficult it is riding on the front all day!

  • Robert

    If these ‘new fans’ were genuine fans of cycling it wouldn’t take a home winner to get them interested in the sport.

    Unfortunately the biggest change that has come with the influx of these new ‘fans’ appears to be the spread of narrow-minded nationalism. Cycling fans seem to be becoming as tribal as football fans, with any action on the part of the ‘home side’ being defended no matter how questionable and any suggestion that, given the history of the sport, it might be advisable to keep an open mind with regards the possibility of doping being met with outright hostility unless, of course, the rider in question is a foreigner. Even Robert Garbutt has joined in this unsavoury trend writing ‘Britain has won the Tour de France.’ No, Bradley Wiggins won the Tour.

    To my mind things were much better when Brits did well just to finish a race like the Tour and fans generally followed a rider because of their personal qualities, regardless of their nationality, rather then because they offered an opportunity to indulge in a bit of flag-waving or the thrill of seeing a Brit ‘get one over’ those foreign types.

    OK, so Brits, and especially British cyclists, probably crave something positive to focus on as the country goes down the toilet, but they should not allow all the flag waving to divert them from the realities of what is going on in the country, as with the mass arrest and detention of 200 cyclists the other day for daring to take part in a Critical Mass ride on the run up to the Olympic opening ceremony. And you can bet that it won’t be long before the Daily Mail and its ilk get back to ‘business as usual’, attacking cyclist as ‘lycra louts’ and so on, never mind dismissing Cavendish as being a ‘nowhere man’.

  • Amy Taylor

    I’m a brand new cycling fan who’s been completely enthralled over the past month. I do feel a bit like I’ve gate-crashed a private party and didn’t understand any of the lingo to begin with but I’ve read (and learnt) a lot, and it’s exactly the complexities that make it so fascinating. That and the riders who give interviews at once honest and intelligent, which is pretty rare in sportsmen. I’ll definitely be sticking with it, already looking forward to the Vuelta. Thanks for bearing with us newbies (stagiaires?!)

  • Fred Johnson

    Totally agree, let’s get thousands more into cycling the more the better, I knew little about cycling when I started more years ago than I would like to remember. It’s only now after a lifetime I come to realise I still don’t have the answers. Lets welcome them all if they stick with our great sport they will learn even if like me not everything.

  • Jake Elkin

    Explaining a road race is pretty difficult to the un-initiated.

    We spent the day on The Mall hoping to see the Manx Missile in full flight, and over the course of the day were stood along side people from different nations, and different levels of knowledge, one couple stood near us asked if we thought Cav or Wiggo would win, then of course had to explain why it was unlikely Brad would get anything!!

    But of course we all start somewhere, the more we take the time to educate those taking an interest in ‘our’ sport, the more we might stand a chance of not being seen as a bunch of nutters in lycra, and hopefully teh roads will be a little safer for it!!

    Here’s looking forward to Wednesday!

  • Brian Stephens

    I’m with you on bringing more fans to cycling. Sure it takes a while to understand in depth, but what sport doesn’t. It is just frustrating that the news and sports media do nothing to help new cycling fans. When they say that Cav “lost” or that Vino is “unknown” they hurt the sport. I’m in the U.S. and it’s the same here. The Olympic broadcast on NBC had good broadcasters (Paul Sherwen was there) but the pop up graphics were terrible. They showed elapsed time for most of the race, which is useless to fans. Only occasionally, they showed the time gap between the breakaway and the peleton. The broadcasters couldn’t talk fast enough to explain everything…how many in the breakaway, the gap, any chase groups, etc. We need to get the media on board to the sport and that should help the new fans.

  • Tim Senior

    Whilst not strictly relevant to the article, I would be interested to know what the criteria are for an Olympic road race (if any). I wonder why they chose 9 laps of Box Hill and 250KM ? Would it not have been possible to make the route more Cavendish/sprinter friendly given that at least 3 years ago it could have been anticipated that we had a world class sprinter with a chance of Gold. Home advantage could perhaps have been employed to make it less likely that a break would succeed as happened in both races. Have we tried to be fair to all nations at the expense of our own team ……………or doesn’t it work like that ? Given the opportunity I’m sure that other Olympic host nations would design a course to suit their home riders ?

  • Kevin Turner

    ‘Or a coachload of people turning up and occupying your living room, and probably breaking wind in the hallway and not wiping their feet on the way in.’ – great line and a perfectly captured sentiment on the popular media coverage…..sweet as it maybe that the masses are looking at road racing now, there are just too many ‘ wrong uns’ adding all kinds of critiques. For example, Why didn’t Cav just attack from the get-go? The game plan was obvious week’s before the event, make sure that GB do not get the opportunity to have a sprint finish – Cav from 300m was only ever going to provide the winner we all craved, 130+ riders all made sure that didn’t happen.