I’ve been involved with club cycling for several years and every season I’ve observed one unerring trend; a July membership spike. In the first week of July, while the peloton barrels across France and Cav takes his first stage wins, one or two inquiries will drop into the club inbox. In the second week as the riders grind across the Pyrenees the emails steadily pick up. When the onslaught of the Alps begins I’m fulltime emailing while the ITV4 Tour highlights play in the background. I’ve taken to calling this annual phenomenon the Tour de France effect.
The sales teams at Halfords and Wiggle have noticed the effect too. Halfords reports increased in sales in July and have released new Tour branded lines to coincide with the event. Along with Wiggle, they advertise heavily during ITV4’s coverage. Hopefully LBS’s are also sharing in the increased sales.
Neither has ITV4 been slow to recognise the nascent cycling audience. This year their cycling coverage has expanded. Last week, dividends were paid with the Tour highlights topping the channel’s viewing figures, consistently watched by over half a million viewers. Not bad for a supposedly minority sport on a Freeview service. Cycling dominated Eurosport’s top 10 too, but their figures are around a tenth of ITV4’s.
That business and media are getting on the cycling bandwagon should be no surprise. Over the past few years cycling has undergone a huge renaissance and the opportunities to ride organised events have boomed. The sportive and triathlon scenes have exploded; charity rides are a popular fund-raising alternative to fun runs; mass participation Sky rides are spreading to new cities; during July the National Trust are opening up their properties for a festival of cycling.
Then you have the rising cost of motoring. No wonder the tax free cycle2work scheme has proved so popular. The Sunday Times (pay-walled) recently reported in parts of London, Bristol and York, that at peak times cyclists form the majority of commuters. The story was picked up by the Telegraph, Guardian and Daily Mail.
Cycling is being promoted like never before and that is a good thing. But there is, I believe, one crucial element to the growth of cycling as an amateur sport; we have a field of world class competitive cyclists, and in Team Sky, a successful British team that has quickly established its quality.
Watching Cav we’re witnessing the progress of one of cycling’s great legends. Despite his disappointing departure from this year’s Tour, Bradley Wiggins has had his best year on the road to date, winning the Dauphiné Libéré stage race. In Geraint Thomas and Ben Swift, we’ve got two promising rising stars, and maybe even Grand Tour contenders. However impressive the achievements of our men are, they are still behind our women cyclists. Over 10 years, Nicole Cooke has gained an impressive palmeres, unrivalled by our men, including Grand Tour wins, classics victories and the world champion’s rainbow jersey. If only they had the same coverage as the men, perhaps the make-up of our club runs might be a little different?
And it is the grass roots cycling clubs who should be the beneficiaries. In the recent past, my own club, St Neots CC, has known lean times, but with a little effort and organisation we’re growing again. True, we can and will do more, but for now the excitement of the Tour is our single biggest recruiting tool.
The doping scandals of recent years and the ongoing Contador Clenbutarol steaks farce have done little to dent people’s enthusiasm for the simple pleasure of riding a bike. Despite its failings the Tour continues to inspire us with its bandaged warriors, stoic climbers and brash sprinters. When middle aged men start hanging up their golf clubs for a slip of Lycra in Team Sky colours and with no shame, you’re no longer talking about a minority sport. And a few of them will look up their local club and see if it’s for them. Let’s hope it is.
Vive l’effet du Tour!
Oh, and if you’re interested, I rode my first club event in the month of July…