Proposed New Cycling Race for the Olympics: the “Commuter Race”

This is something that I wrote some notes on around the London 2012 Olympics, and just sitting here watching the Men’s Road Race on day 1 of Rio 2016, I thought I’d dig it out and finally post it.

Competitors have to ride stock bikes — no fancy superlight frames or custom wheels; just ordinary commuter-type bikes. They can be set up for the individual, but they must have mudguards and lights and EITHER a rack and one pannier OR the competitor must carry a backpack or messenger bag; the bag to hold a weight equivalent to (say) a laptop and a change of clothes.

The race to be a typical commute distances (say 5 miles?) carried out over normal commuting streets, during rush hour, with normal traffic.

Competitors get disqualified for jumping red lights or going the wrong way down a one-way street; and receive time penalties for going on the pavement (maybe disqualification there too, actually). They may receive a time bonus (or at least clock-stoppage) for unreasonable delays, as for example when an articulated lorry is reversing across the road and holding everybody up.

To be run as time trials with say a one-minute separation, so competitors should not be directly racing against each other.

An alternative version would have them use bikes from the city’s bike-hire scheme. They’d have to turn up at a designated pickup point, wait if a bike wasn’t available, and so on. This has the added advantage that it forces host cities to have or introduce such a scheme, and to keep the bikes well maintained.

It’s challenge that normal people — ones who commute by bike, at least — could really identify with.

Proposed New Cycling Race for the Olympics: the “Commuter Race”

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Initial scepticism

Back in 2004, 2005 or so, when London was bidding to host the Olympics, I was against it. My concerns were the cost, the crowding, and the general disruption of it all. I was, I admit, cynical. I recall being annoyed by the fact that the people running the bid published a number to which you could text “yes”, to say you supported the bid; but there was no option to text “no” to say you opposed it.

Looking back to what I wrote at the time, I see that my biggest concern was the effect on the Lower Lee Valley. It turned out that the removal of wilderness didn’t stretch as far as my fears suggested; and of course much of the land that has been used was polluted, abandoned, brownfield industrial sites. Bob Stanley of St Etienne (the band) has an interesting piece in The Guardian about that.

Coming round

But then London won the bid, and I though, “OK, fine, it’ll be interesting at least.” I had enjoyed watching the previous ones, and there was the regeneration for East London that looked promising. And the fact that it would just be down the road for me added to the interest. After all, that would make it easier to get tickets, right? Obviously there would specific tickets made available to to locals.

Hindsight even makes me wonder whether the events of the very next day didn’t make me more supportive: blitz spirit, don’t let the bastards grind you down, “soft power“, and all that.

The intervening years

Worries

In the years since then I’ve gone through various thoughts about the whole thing. Obviously there were the concerns about how long we would be paying for it all. And more recently there were the worries about the security preparations and the expected madness of the precautions. Of course more recently we’ve had the G4S fiasco, and the drafting in of extra soldiers.

More bizarrely we’ve seen the growth of the Olympic “brand police”, the forbidding of certain words and combinations of words (including, ridiculously, things like “summer”, “bronze”, and “2012”).

Cycle-friendly or not?

But closer to home one of the things that has annoyed me is the way they’ve treated our towpath.

The main stadium sits between two branches of the River Lee (or Lea): the river itself, and the Lee Navigation or Cut, which is essentially a canal constructed as a tributary1 of the main river. The towpath of the Navigation is a popular cycling and walking route for us local types. As we watched the construction site form and the massive buildings grow (and in my case moaned about the ugly fencing round it), we were able to keep a close eye on it all by going along the towpath. And indeed, a minor, but pleasing, instance of regeneration has been the resurfacing of the towpath, making it much more pleasant to cycle on.2

Above all, it seemed obvious that we would use the towpath to actually get to the Olympic Park. How else?

Until a few months ago when it became clear that the towpath was going to be closed for the duration of the games. The reason given — of course — was “security”. But what exactly is the security risk of providing access via the towpath?

In all honesty, I had my doubts about its use during the games; but I wasn’t concerned about terrorism. Rather I feared for people’s safety. It’s a towpath, after all: relatively narrow, unfenced, and unlit. And, critically, next to a polluted canal. If thousands — or even only hundreds — of people were trying to leave the park that way all at once — after the opening ceremony, say — then I could see that it would be problematic.

So I begin to wonder whether the “security” excuse was brought out to hide the more mundane, but always-criticised-by-the-tabloids truth: health and safety.

Then we heard that bikes would be among the banned items in the park; but also that there would be cycle parking: it sounded like mixed messages, but we would have to wait and see.

Those pesky tickets and the getting thereof

Ah, the joys of Olympic ticketing. Even as I write, on the third full day of the Games, they don’t seem to have really sorted it all out.

It’s a massively complex task, to allocate and sell tickets for hundreds of events over dozens of venues, all taking place in such a concentrated time period. But it’s not like they’ve never done it before; it’s not even like they haven’t done it in the Internet Age. It should largely be a solved problem, it seems to me.

We had decided to treat the Olympics as our family holiday: we would take a couple of weeks off, buy a load of tickets, and that would be our main summer break. After all, it would be just down the road, a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, etc. So we signed up for the ballot, spent time listing events we might like to see, and so on. When the time came we hit the website and listed a summer holiday’s worth of tickets (hampered slightly by me having a MasterCard, which of course is the black sheep of Olympic ticket-buying).

In the end my beloved was allocated tickets to three events, and I got none (had they detected that invalid-card possession?)

However, that was just the initial ballot; and because I had been unsuccessful there, I was entitled to try to buy tickets in the conventional way in the second round.

On the day I woke up early and grabbed my laptop. The site, inevitably, crumpled. I went back to sleep for a bit. Tried again later.

I don’t recall how long it took, but in the end I managed to get a further three events.

And that was that. Remember when I said up there, “it would just be down the road … that would make it easier to get tickets”? Yeah. Somehow that didn’t happen. The Olympics is clearly not meant for the people who live near it. Or not particularly. I’m not suggesting it should be only for locals; but how hard would it have been to allocate a percentage of tickets to residents of host boroughs — or the whole of London — in a first pass? If they didn’t get bought they would be offered on, of course. The answer is “not very”; the Hackney Weekend festival did exactly that, after all. Glastonbury gives free tickets to residents of the nearby village, I seem to recall.

Anyway, that’s where we are. We later added a Paralympic athletics day, which will finally get us into the main stadium; and a set of Olympic Park passes, so we can go and have a wander round and soak up the atmosphere on Wednesday. But as I write there are still tickets available, even for swimming, even for the main stadium.

If you’re made of money, at least. Hell, you can still go to the closing ceremony if you’ve got £995 or £1500 to spare.

But still…

But I don’t mean to turn all negative. I’m actually really excited about it all, and thoroughly enjoying everything I’ve seen on telly; especially, of course, Danny Boyle’s masterpiece of an opening ceremony. Much has been said about that elsewhere, so I won’t say a lot. Just that it was far better, and a far truer representation of Britain than we could have imagined, or even hoped for. Part of the fun was following along on Twitter, of course (when it wasn’t too distracting to do so). And my favourite comment of all was one that Mitch Benn retweeted from Simon Evans:

It’s not that I’m proud to be British. It’s that I’m grateful.

So true.

And I’ve been enjoying seeing the first few days worth of events on telly. Some thoughts:

  • The tennis is just like Wimbledon, except with colour, and Omega timing instead of IBM. And “London 2012” logos, of course.
  • I normally go from one Wimbledon to the next without watching any sport; now, suddenly, I’m almost fanatical about everything (except boxing and anything with horses; and archery is much more boring than you might expect).
  • Seeing those cyclists in the road races made me want to get on my bike; not for those kind of distances, though.
  • Similarly, badminton & table tennis; maybe there will be a knock-on effect on people doing sport after all.

I should write about legacy (and sustainability3), but I’ve gone on long enough, and anyway, it’s another whole discussion. But I cycled down that way on Saturday; along the part of the towpath that’s still open, across Hackney Marshes (by a new, temporary path) and to the bridge across the river where there is access via Eton Manor Gate. There is a vast cycle park there, and from the gate it’s only supposed to be a few minutes walk to, for example, the Basketball Arena. So it’s all good.4

We visit the park on Wednesday, and start seeing actual events from Friday. I may report back.5


  1. Or really an inverted tributary, as it forks off the main river in a downstream direction. []
  2. There are still a few spots of cobblestones, but we can cope with those. []
  3. Yes, that’s a Twenty Twelve reference; if you haven’t watched it, you should. []
  4. Yes, so was that. []
  5. But under no circumstances will I post photos, OK? []
Olympian Achievements