Roads closed through central London. Professionals and amateurs racing along the same course. Celebrity competitors, good causes, hours of coverage on the BBC, even the occasional fancy-dress outfit. Sound familiar?
“RideLondon is a two-wheeled version of the London Marathon,” says Chris Boardman, the former pro-racer turned cycling champion. He will be among 24,000 amateurs taking part in Prudential RideLondon, a two-day festival of cycling featuring a mass race followed by 150 of the best riders in the world going wheel-to- wheel through the city’s streets.
“You have elite sportspeople like David Millar and Philippe Gilbert competing alongside somebody on their shopping bike with a basket on the front,” says Boardman. “It showcases what cycling is, what it can be, and who it is for, all in one event.”
The 120-mile route begins in the Olympic Park, streaming out into rural Surrey along much of the 2012 Road Race route before returning for a sprint finish down the Mall. Last year even Boris Johnson got on his bike and puffed round the course, proof that the ride really is for everyone. “He was bottling it with a week to go,” Boardman chuckles. “A hundred miles and he’s a big unit. But it has to be a bit scary to make it worth doing.”
It’s not just the scale of the field that is surprising, but the amount of coverage devoted to it. Cycling is pedalling through the television schedules like never before. The main race will be throughout Sunday afternoon on BBC1, with a women’s race on Sunday on BBC2.
Anyone who remembers Channel 4’s late-night juggling of its Tour de France highlights will be amazed at the transformation. “When I was riding, it just wasn’t part of our national consciousness,” says Boardman, the first Brit to wear the yellow jersey for multiple stages.
“Twenty years ago people might have watched bits and pieces of the Tour de France, but there was nothing else available and interest faded away. Now there are more events covered to feed the appetite. The Commonwealth Games were a bonus, and RideLondon offers another home event to tune in to. That’s a huge difference.”
Two and a half million people waited by the roadside in Yorkshire to catch a glimpse of the opening stages of this year’s Tour de France. And 10.7 million more television viewers were estimated to have watched at least 15 minutes of the Tour on its opening weekend.
Add to that the fact that three out of the past six winners of Sports Personality of the Year – Bradley Wiggins, Mark Cavendish and Chris Hoy – have been cyclists. You have to go all the way back to 1965 and Tommy Simpson to find cycling’s only other SPOTY winner.
Television audiences, as much as medals won, bikes sold or journeys travelled, are an indicator of Britain’s cycling revolution. Former England rugby captain Martin Johnson, who will also be riding in the race this year, admits he has become hooked on cycling since retiring from his sport as a World Cup winner.
“Everyone watches success,” he says. “Think about it: 20 million people watched Torvill and Dean in 1984, but how many people watch ice dancing nowadays? Success brings viewers.” Boardman agrees: “Because we’ve had sustained success since 2010, it’s constantly got a presence in the media. It has a higher profile now than it ever has.”
For Boardman, winning the TV audience is only part of the battle. As policy advisor for British Cycling, he is agitator-in-chief when it comes to challenging the government to do more to promote cycling.
“It’s the sporting success that’s created this interest, but my priority is trying to make people see cycling as a means of transport. That’s the thing I’m most passionate about.
“Seeing something on the scale of RideLondon is an impetus for change. It puts pressure on politicians to make cycling more accessible. It infuriates me that it’s so hard to get the government to fund and prioritise something that has no downsides. Instead we’re building more roads while car traffic’s dropping. It’s ridiculous.”
Closing roads in central London for a week- end is one thing; making cycling safe for families round Britain quite another. But Boardman has some suggestions.
“The logical thing is to make cycling and walking your preferred transport. You make sure that streets prioritise people over vehicles. You legislate and fund accordingly. Walking, cycling, public transport, taxis, private cars. In that order. At the moment it’s almost totally the other way round. It’s not logical or sustainable.”