Media watch - Cyclists: heroes, victims, or villains

A look at cycling in the media in the last seven days…

by Tony Farrelly   October 27, 2008 news

Scanning the media for references to cycling is part of the daily routine here at and after a while doing it you quickly get the impression that for most hacks an association test on the subject of cycling would go somelthing like this:

"Chris Hoy,…Olympic Gold… Victoria Pendleton… Lycra… Lycra louts… red lights… menace… danger!"

Dunno if you'd noticed this, but the media do have a tendency to over dramatise, they have papers to shift and adverts to sell after all. So bad news is better than good news, unless it's really good news - like winning a sackful of Olympic Gold medals. They also like to be able to give groups handy labels – so the Olympic track team are heroes… and the rest of us…Well their not quite sure whether we're victims or villains. Either way we're bad news, which is good news cos it sells!

Nobody who rides on Britain's roads would pretend that they are any sort of utopian cycling paradise, and they certainly aren't as safe as they could but if you believed what you read in some quarters you would never go out on your bike – particularly in the North West. 

A piece in last Friday's Lancashire Evening Post talks about the shocking number of cyclists killed and injured on the county's roads in the past two years, while there's a new article on the Enjoy Cycling website that reveals the most dangerous cycle routes in Manchester – not a bad idea.

Cycling in the North-west is a grim and dangerous activity, then? Well it's not that grim and it isn't any more dangerous than anywhere else*.

"Shocking figures on the level of casualties among cyclists show more than 260 people have suffered injuries or been killed since 2006 - more than 120 of them children," says the Lancashire Evening Post story.

It also quotes Stuart Bullen, of New Longton as saying, "I have cycled from Land's End to John O'Groats a few times and it is quite obvious when you hit Stockton Heath until you get north of Lancaster those are the worst roads in the country for cyclists to be on."

Of course, the statistics are shocking in that any cycling casualty is one too many, and we wholeheartedly agree with any article that highlights problems and calls for improvements... but we can't help feeling that we need to get some balance here. Cycling - even cycling in heavy traffic - just isn't inherently dangerous and the statistics say that the North-west isn't a particularly dangerous area to ride. We know that’s not what these articles are saying but, if we’re not careful, that’s the impression we can give to the non-cycling public.

According to the Department for Transport (DfT), the number of cyclists killed on British roads fell by 7% last year and riding is actually safer than walking for the same distance travelled. And although the bike accident figures for Lancashire aren't great, they're far from the worst out there, while for Greater Manchester they're actually pretty good.

For the record, according to the DfT's 2007 report on road casualties that was released last month, the counties with the most cyclists killed or seriously injured compared to their total populations are Humberside, Nottinghamshire and Oxfordshire. Not that this is particularly meaningful, though, because it doesn't take into account the amount of cycling that's done in any of those areas. Lancashire is worse than average, but Greater Manchester is considerably better.

And don't get us wrong, we're not having a pop at anyone for drawing people's attention to the fact that casualties occur, there are problems with the cycling infrastructure, and there's loads more that needs to be done to improve the cyclist's lot. Oh yes, we're there 100% on that. But if we want more bums on saddles, and in the interest of telling the truth, we need to emphasise that cycling isn't all about danger too.

So that's cyclists as victims (we'll do cyclists as whingers soon), but here's a cracking example of  cyclists being set up in their normal role as media villains from BBC Radio 5 Live: home of the lazy assumption, and the even lazier researcher it would seem… Click the link, move the slider along to 1:51.08 (the end of the show, just before the happy Hull fan) and enjoy this exchange from the Weekend News show on Saturday evening between Lesley Ashmall and Peter Lipton from Sustrans in which they discuss BAD cyclists supposedly not stopping at zebra crossings and that hardy perennial: road tax for bicycles. One of them knows what they are talking about, the other doesn't, can you guess which it is?

 * Alright it's more dangerous than the counties with fewest serious bike accidents per head of population: Cornwall and the Isles of Scilly, Devon and Staffordshire. 


2 user comments

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We're going to have to get used to being cast as villains, at least for a while. Average drivers feel very put-upon what with gridlock, petrol prices and nowhere to park. Someone has to get the blame and if they perceive a sudden increase in bicycles getting in their way it must be the bloomin' inconsiderate, light-dodging, Lycra-wearing cyclists causing all the mayhem, not to mention the general break down in society-as-we-know-it, right?

I once had a distinctly miserable job of trying to help start a bicycle manufacturing company here in the UK and didn't make much headway until someone suggested trying Holland. There in one day I met a bank manager, a lawyer and a mayor who all cycled to work. They were dead chuffed that the company for which I worked would want to base in their town and the deal was done.

Until it's considered normal to ride a bike, I'm afraid we're all going to have to lobby, cajole, persuade and otherwise provide a good example so that eventually even our beloved Daily Mail readers get it. Better watch out in the meantime, though, eh?

NickInBath's picture

posted by NickInBath [41 posts]
27th October 2008 - 23:59


 You're right Nick, this is all part of the journey towards acceptance and at least we've moved beyond the stage where cyclists were simply ignored.

Tony Farrelly's picture

posted by Tony Farrelly [4201 posts]
28th October 2008 - 11:19

1 Like