Italian sports daily La Gazzetta dello Sport yesterday hosted a debate in Milan on 'Cycling and road safety in the city' with speakers including Kaya Burgess of The Times, which last month launched its Cities fit for Cycling campaign. The debate is one of a series of events organised ahead of today’s Milan-Sanremo race.
The initiative from the British newspaper followed the serious injuries sustained by journalist Mary Bowers as she rode to work in Wapping last November. Its appeal to politicians and others involved in transport policy has been picked up by media worldwide, but it is Italy that has most fully embraced it.
That may in part be because like their counterparts at The Times, staff at La Gazzetta dello Sport have experienced at first hand the pain of a colleague becoming a cycling casualty; Bowers has spent the past four months in a coma, while a member of staff on the Italian paper, 52-year-old journalist Pier Luigi Todosco was killed in Milan last October. His widow was one of the guests of honour among around 100 people present at the debate.
Speaking to road.cc afterwards, Burgess said of Bowers, his friend as well as colleague: "She's making very, very slow progress. It is still progress, which is good to see, but there's really no way of telling how far she'll get. She's still not really aware of anything particularly, and she's still got a very long way to go."
Earlier this week, he was at the House of Commons at the launch of the Summer of Cycling initiative, which together with his presence at the debate in Milan was something that he agrees seemed improbable when Cities fit for Cyclists was launched six weeks ago.
"We've done some good campaigns recently with The Times which have been successful on things like family courts and adoption, but this is so much more wide ranging and so goes from infrastructural funding topics to changing entire attitudes of transport systems,” he explained.
"We didn't really dream of getting such fantastic support - internationally, cross-party within parliament," he went on.
Burgess acknowledged that The Times was building on work already conducted by cycle campaigners, bloggers, and others.
"We haven't created this out of nothing at The Times, there have been so many groups campaigning on these things for years that we tried to distill and amplify it, and almost facilitate the experts - who aren't us - being able to be in the same room as the policymakers and the planners,” he said, adding: “I think that's something that we hoped for but didn't expect, but it's fantastic."
One criticism levelled at the campaign, particularly in its early days, was that it overemphasised the perceived dangers of cycling while not making enough of its benefits. Burgess said that the focus on the negatives was unavoidable.
"The thing people need to recognise is that if you're a national newspaper, it's defined by news, and obviously the overriding theme of the whole campaign, and not just in cities, is to make roads much more pleasant for everybody to share.
"It's very difficult to launch a campaign under the kind of umbrella term of 'let's make everything lovely for everyone,' and if you're going to get politicians to take notice, you have to remind them that cycling isn't an extreme sport, it is a safe thing to do, but it could be an awful lot safer,” he went on.
"There are so many people I know who would be on their bikes if casualty rates were lower, so it's a sense of saying, 'cycling is amazing and great fun and it's good for you and far more likely to lengthen your life through the health benefits than it is to cut it short through an accident, but let's make things safe and get more people out there.”
However, now that the Cities fit for Cycling campaign is up and running and raising the profile of the issues concerned, The Times is turning its attention to the positive aspects of cycling, as Burgess explains.
"In the next month or so we're going to be launching something called 'I love my bike,' which is essentially getting readers to feed in with pictures of themselves with their bikes and some stories that can feed into the coverage.”
The journalist himself is a cyclist although – at least until The Times initiative campaign began – just one of the thousands of riders who use their bike to get from A to B without becoming involved in campaigning.
"I cycle into work almost every day when it allows, it's seven miles across London and back, I always cycled as a student in Oxford. I wouldn't have called myself a bike fanatic particularly but I've always loved my bike, and I've always gone to work on it, and as a student with a job in the summer holidays, I cycled there.
"So I've always cycled everywhere. But when it came to researching the campaign, it was worth talking to people who knew a lot more than I did, I had my own sense of what could be done better.
"Even our editor, James Harding, is a cyclist, if he has to get driven to an important engagement he'll often have his bike in the back of the car and cycle home afterwards. So there's a real culture of it at The Times.”
Since he’s in the city, Burgess will be watching Milan-Sanremo tomorrow, and says cycling is “one of my favourite events in terms of watching at the velodrome at the Olympics and watching the Tour de France. I couldn't call myself an avid fan, but I've got much more into it these days."
Earlier, addressing the audience through an interpreter, Burgess outlined the background to the campaign, which his editor had set in motion shortly after Bowers suffered her horrendous injuries.
On the screen behind him, pictures appeared of just a few of the cyclists who have lost their lives on British roads, including Deep Lee, killed at King's Cross last October, while the video showing a Bristol bus driver deliberately aiming his vehicle at at a cyclist and knocking him off his bike was met with shocked gasps.
Other speakers at the debate, which was compered by Gazzetta dello Sport editor in chief Pier Bergonzi, included cycle campaigners such as blogger Paolo Pinzuti, who insisted that he merely represented the many others campaigning for cycle safety, and TV presenter Filippa Lagerback, who began campaigning against air pollution after becoming a mother, leading to her being awarded the rather fetching nickname of 'Mamma Smog.'
Also present was Michele Acquarone, who last year succeeded Angelo Zomegnan as director of RCS Sport, responsible for organising races such as the Giro d'Italia and, of course, today's Milan-Sanremo - the latter being his home town - plus 91-year-old Giro d’Italia stage winner Alfredo Martini and former Amstel Gold winner, Stefano Zanini.
Simon joined road.cc as news editor in 2009 and is now the site’s community editor, acting as a link between the team producing the content and our readers. A law and languages graduate, published translator and former retail analyst, he has reported on issues as diverse as cycling-related court cases, anti-doping investigations, the latest developments in the bike industry and the sport’s biggest races. Now back in London full-time after 15 years living in Oxford and Cambridge, he loves cycling along the Thames but misses having his former riding buddy, Elodie the miniature schnauzer, in the basket in front of him.