Giro fever has swept the Province – but for how long?
As the country prepares for this weekend’s mammoth cycling event, LAURA MCMULLAN talks to Sustrans director Gordon Clarke about the legacy of the occasion, and his hopes for how it will shape Northern Ireland’s future
For someone like Gordon Clarke, getting the opportunity to spend a Friday evening watching some of the world’s fastest cyclists speed by just miles from his home is surely the stuff of dreams.
Because in both his personal and his professional life, cycling, thinking about cycling, and promoting and talking about cycling, occupies a sizeable chunk of his time.
The Dundonald man, who is something of a self-confessed sports fanatic, took up cycling as a pastime 25 years ago and “hasn’t looked back.” He cycles in to the city centre every day, even in the most unpleasant of weather conditions, and enjoys the sport at the weekend too, tackling various cycle routes, and stopping off for coffee with his friends and wife.
And from nine to five - and beyond when the need arises - he busies himself in his role as national director of Sustrans in Northern Ireland and the Republic, an organisation which is well known for its advocacy and promotion of sustainable transport, such as walking and cycling.
So needless to say this weekend’s opening stages of the Giro d’Italia - set to take place in Northern Ireland - holds a fair bit of excitement for Gordon. But as he impresses upon me, what is most important of all is the legacy of the event, and what it means for the future of people living in this country, and how we all preserve the valuable contribution of the Giro, and ensure it has a lasting and positive effect.
“Giro is a great moment to focus on cycling, but there may be only one spectator or young kid who will become an Olympic cyclist or compete in the Giro - but it’s his 20 mates who will get active,” he points out.
Gordon took up the director’s post a year ago, having been a voluntary trustee for Sustrans - which employs 640 staff across the UK - for four years previously.
“This opportunity came up and I jumped at it,” he says. “I love cycling and active travel. It’s good exercise, and mentally, a lot of people will tell you that it helps your ability to think clearly and to think things through. I think a lot of people with mental health problems have found it incredibly helpful. There’s just something about being outside and getting fresh air and exercise.”
He goes on to list the other benefits of choosing the trusty old bicyle over the car: “It’s convenient, it’s quick, it’s reliable - and it’s good for the environment. When you add it all up, it has pluses for the person who’s cycling and pluses for every other person in society, and I think people have just got it, that it’s a good thing to do. The price of petrol, the city centre traffic - all those things are contributory factors which lead people to say, ‘well, actually there is a different way’.
As for those people who are wary about being cyclists, Gordon reveals their reasons are fourfold: “One is people not having a bike, two is safety, three is weather, which actually isn’t as big a factor as people make out, and four is image - people think they should be kitted out in lycra and high vis jackets, whereas on the Continent, people just put on their ordinary clothes and cycle.”
Making individuals, organisations and indeed governments realise how cycling and other kinds of sustainable transport can make the world we live in a better place is the main role of Sustrans, and they are well known for and successful at their lobbying.
Having been formed in Bristol almost 20 years ago, its “big leap forward”, as Gordon explains, came in 1996 when it got a huge injection of funding to develop the National Cycle Network throughout the UK. It went on to secure Big Lottery Funding and has gone on to focus on not just improving infrastructure, but “working with people to oversee behavioural change”.
This has included work with governments to oversee initiatives such as schools’ programmes to encourage more students to take up walking or cycling, and appealing to politicians for help in getting a similar message across to adults - a task that has not been particularly difficult, Gordon says, because most of the political support has been “amazing”, because, he adds, “not only do they think it’s a good thing to do, but actually down the line they recognise that the National Health Service will not be able to look after everyone. This is a really big item on the agenda, so prevention is better than cure. The figures clearly demonstrate that if you get active your health improves, your absenteeism from work improves and you are less of a strain on the NHS”.
Needless to say, the arrival of the Giro d’Italia in the Province this summer has sparked a massive increase in interest in cyling and the cycling scene as a whole. This can only be a good thing - but Gordon stresses that its impact needs to be maximised.
That’s why a special Legacy Committee has been set up, and Sustrans have been asked to sit on it, as well as two others, a schools’ committee and a cycling/sport committee.
Gordon says that in terms of Sustrans’ contribution to the legacy of the Giro, one aspect they are keen to see come to fruition is the expansion of their schools’ programme, and this includes a push for primary school children to take their cycling proficiency test not within the confines of the playground, but on the road. He says this move would be “an investment” in both those young people who want to continue to use cycling as their main form of transport, and others who choose instead to be car drivers, because at least they have gained a better insight into the challenges those who do cycle face on the road.
“So we are saying that every P6 pupil should have on road cycle training and it should be available for adults as well. So that would be a major legacy project.
“The other aspect is disadvantaged communities where there is high social deprivation. There are some communities that (the Giro) might not reach - it’s just not them. We’ve been doing some work out in east Belfast with men’s groups, and we have a group who have started cycling and working with bikes. One of the issues is that cycling and bikes are expensive, and this group is doing work to fix bikes. What we want to see is that develop into the recycling of bikes so we would therefore be finding a way of getting bikes back into the communities that might not otherwise have a bike.”
Gordon says that the legacy of the Giro needs to also address such communities in terms of allowing them to use sustainable transport as a means of accessing jobs.
“They are very often the people who don’t have cars and find transport is expensive. So the whole idea is that they can get on their bike, literally, and connect with employment, and people, for example, living in east Belfast can get jobs in the Titanic Quarter.
“The third aspect to our hopes for the legacy is the rural context. The National Cycle Net work is celebrating its 20th anniversary next year, so we would look to invest more in it, develop these routes, and see how we can extend the Network, have better maps and information.”