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Nothing to lose but our chains: cycling is the people’s sport

As the annual cycling spectacle of the Tour De France begins, are two wheels good?

Tour de France. Tejvan Pettinger/Flickr. Some rights reserved.Who would have guessed it? Karl Marx was clearly a bike mechanic when he wasn’t plotting the downfall of capitalism. ‘Nothing to lose but your chains’ is  handy advice when the derailleur slips and furious pedalling propels bike and rider precisely nowhere. Ok – Marx was more interested in liberating the workers of the world than the freedom of the road... though, with committed cyclist-commuter Jeremy Corbyn, it’s quite possible there will soon be need of a Downing Street bike rack – so perhaps now is a good time to make the case for cycling as the people’s sport. 

For those who take an interest in cycling’s competitive side, Le Tour will be on the TV for the next three weeks as it weaves its way from the Grand Départ in Germany, through Belgium, a quick detour to Luxembourg  and across France to the traditional finish on the Champs Élysées. That’s two boxes ticked straightaway in my case for a people’s sport. 

Firstly, despite Sky’s sponsorship of the premier British team competing, the race is broadcast on terrestrial TV, played live and with highlights packages, and airs for free on ITV4. Secondly, it is a genuinely internationalist event. 

The Tour is of course fundamentally French, but it is shared with other European countries too, in terms of where it starts, and its stages (but never the ending – that will always be Paris). Not quite the proletarian internationalism of our Marxist dreams – but not a bad model for a sporting culture beyond borders, then. And of course it is lined along the route by fans in their hundreds of thousands, none paying even a cent, or nowadays a Euro, for the privilege. Nor is there any significant infrastructure in which to waste huge amounts of money, leaving stadia never to be filled again. About the Tour’s only spend is on improving the road’s surface, for the benefit of all. For benefit, indeed, of the many: pedestrians, cyclists and car-drivers alike. 

Like previous Tours this one will be mired in an unfolding drugs controversy, made all the more awkward this year for British cycling fans by the fact that the spotlight will be mainly on Team Sky, rider and race favourite Chris Froome and Team Sky Principal Dave Brailsford. With the unresolved drug allegations against Bradley Wiggins, and the prolonged furore over sexism and bullying in the Olympic track cycling squad, this threatens to dim the golden glow of Britain’s single most successful sport over the past decade.  Cycling has taken a knock, there’s no doubt about that. But the roots of its appeal are now so deep that all signs tell of its not only surviving but continuing to flourish. 

Marx, notwithstanding my spurious claims about his valiant contribution to the art of bicycle maintenance (similar claims have famously been made for Zen and the art of motorcycle maintenance) is at least partially responsible for the answer. Cycling, like all sports, is socially constructed. It is a leisure activity we can take part but scarcely notice. What other sport can double up as a means of getting to work, to do the shopping, to pop down the pub? A bike can provide the basis for a family day out too. Perhaps best of all, it’s a habit we can pick up as children and – once we’ve learned not to fall over – it’s a skill we never lose.   

What other sport can double up as a means of getting to work, to do the shopping, to pop down the pub? 

Of course at the upper end of cycling culture, particularly among men suffering from a midlife cycling crisis, bikes cost a proverbial arm and a leg. Many observers suggest this in part explains the decline in golf: middle aged men who should know better invest in handbuilt carbon frames and all the gear, instead of the ever-escalating green fees to tee off at the most expensive 18 holes. The recession may hurt even the most well-paid, but the class enemy on two wheels represents only a portion of cycling’s growing popularity.   

Likewise, elite success, Wiggins and Froome winning Le Tour, and bucketloads of Olympic Cycling Gold medals have certainly contributed something to cycling’s appeal. It was a bit like Coe, Ovett, Cram and Elliott’s success on the track coinciding with the late 1970s to early 1980s running boom – a factor, but not the total explanation the media-boosters would like to claim for their coverage. 

Cycling is green and leads to increasing investment in safer cycling routes. When cycling you can make use of sunnier summers, austerity staycation culture – these are all important factors, and add up to a whole lot more.  Hence cycling’s growing and enduring popularity, which would only grow under a genuinely cyclist socialist PM. There’s a durability to this appeal unlikely to be destroyed by news of dodgy medicinals or bullying coaches.

Sport’s core attraction is always assumed to be competition. This is wrong. For most, this only applies to the spectators – those who watch but don’t do. Being on the losing side bringing up the rear does more to deter the young from sport than virtually anything else. And once deterred, regardless of compulsory sport lessons, little else proves effective in reconnecting with the inactive. This is where cycling is key: just do it. Half the time we don’t even realise we’re doing it, for the way it blends identities, one moment a means of transport, the next a leisure activity.   

The Tour is about the most communistic sports event I’ve ever taken part in, the increasingly popular cycling sportive. No, the organisers aren’t planning revolution via long rides through the countryside – but to my mind the format unwittingly subverts competitive instincts via equalising participation. Staggered starts over varying distances mean that nobody knows who the winners are – nor, crucially, the losers. Some are racing against their own individual clock, but for all it is a collective race against the shared distance and terrain, more often than not raising money for a good cause along the way, winning the same prize wherever you finish. Bikes are great. Not that I’ve ever seen Marx on one, mind... must be back in his bike shed working on unfettering those chains.

Credit: Hugh Tisdale.The ‘Nothing to Lose but Your Chains’ cycling t-shirt is now available from Philosophy Football.

About the author

Mark Perryman is a research fellow in sport and leisure culture at the University of Brighton and a regular media commentator on the politics of sport. He has also written widely on Englishness and national identity including editing the collection Breaking Up Britain: Four Nations after a Union. Mark is the co-founder of the self-styled ‘sporting outfitters of intellectual distinction’ aka Philosophy Football.


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