It is the greatest annual sporting spectacle in the world, where the fittest athletes on earth test their bodies to the limit on gruelling mountain climbs and then take enormous risks on plunging descents where speeds can reach 100km/h. It is the Tour de France, of course, which, at last seems to be freeing itself of a culture of doping and restoring itself as the ultimate test of human endurance.
Where people are pushing themselves to such extremes there are many accidents. Scarcely a day goes by without some crash or another. Tragically, deaths do occur, the last being in 1995 when Fabio Casartelli died while descending a mountain pass at speed. Over the Tour’s 100 year history two other riders have died while on the road.
In the world’s most difficult and dangerous professional cycle race, three cyclists have died in over 100 years. Contrast that to Lothian where, since 2000, 16 people have died while cycling, the most recent on Monday this week.
Since Monday I have spoken to a lot of people about this and about our collective shock about the latest tragedy. Cycling often is, and remains, the best way to get around our small congested city. Although it is not an option for everyone, the more people who cycle the greater space there is for those who do need to take another form of transport. Among politicians and policy-makers there is broad consensus that cycling needs to grow as a form of transport, although we do vary as to the means of doing so and the degree of emphasis it should get.
In other words, this should be the time for cycling to be flourishing. But we must never lose our instinct to be shocked at how vulnerable cyclists can be when things go wrong. In a transport system which is so dependent on lots of individual judgements being made at speed, cyclists (and pedestrians) always come off worst. And, yes, I know that some cyclists make things difficult for themselves with erratic behaviour but is there really any conduct for which the penalty should be serious injury or worse?
I started cycling as an 11 year old in 1977, going for 20 miles trips in Ayrshire. I cycle to and from work every day. The bike is my most frequent form of transport around the city, although I also use when my car when I need to. On Monday I felt numb with shock at the latest reminder of how fragile cycling can be. But that quickly evolved into an urgent passion to move forward. There are no shortage of people in this city, and further afield, who are also passionate about rethinking what Edinburgh should look like in the future, designed with
the needs of all its citizens in mind. There are heaps of examples, from across the world where cities have taken bold steps. Too often in Edinburgh we have been too timid, too ambivalent about what we were trying to do. That is why I support Green MSP, Alison Johnstone, in her call for a cycling safety summit in the wake of the latest tragedy. Politicians need to be raising the bar of our civic aspirations far more often.
Making things better won’t be quick and it may not be easy but 2012 could be the year when we agree to strike out on a different route.