by Chris Smith
Sport is an integral part of life in Britain. Historically England's national sport is cricket, although football is the most popular by some way. Yet it is cycling that has united Great Britain as a whole, and is arguably Britain's most successful sport at the moment, whilst growing in popularity every year.
Some of Britain's greatest current sporting heroes come from the world of elite cycling, Sir Chris Hoy and Sir Bradley Wiggins spring to mind. Since the Beijing Olympics in 2008 it is fair to say cycling has hit new heights in the UK. Beijing was an incredible success for team GB, and arguably the start of GB's consistent domination in the sport, while the success at the London Olympics in 2012 took cycling to another level. It is not just the elite s ide of the sport that has taken the UK by storm however, cycling as a whole is now more popular than ever and the pinnacle for the Olympic Legacy in getting more people active.
So how did British cycling suddenly hit the peak of its sport? A decision by the Labour Government in 2008 resulted in £120m of Sport England lottery and exchequer funding a year into the grassroots via governing bodies. The lottery funding, turned on in 1997, has allowed Great British cycling the chance to succeed at the highest of levels, and they have not disappointed. This funding has resulted in cycling becoming talismanic for the Government as it searches for evidence of London 2012 doing something previously unachieved by any Olympic Games, to achieve and inspire more people to take up sport. GB's success in recent Olympics has obviously helped achieve this feat.
The Athens Olympics in 2004 was the start of GB dominance, coming third in the cycling medals table and kick-starting the period that would see British cycling become almost unstoppable. From 2004-2009 Team GB ranked first in the medals rankings in three of the six UCI Track Cycling World Championships, with notable names coming into prominence such as Victoria Pendleton, Sir Chris Hoy and Rebecca Romero. Included in that period was the 2008 Track World Championships, where GB won nine of eighteen Gold medals available.
The London Olympics followed a successful Beijing Olympics and once more, British cycling took all the plaudits, finishing top of the medals table with twelve - double the amount of second placed Germany. These results put cycling in the headlines and created a media storm in the UK. Athletes such as Laura Trott, Jason Kenny, Sir Chris Hoy, Sir Bradley Wiggins, Victoria Pendleton, Ed Clancy, Joanna Rows ell and Danielle King were suddenly thrust in the limelight of success, and rightly so, with all mentioning walking away from the Olympics with at least one Gold medal to their name. Incredibly, GB were the only team to win more than one Gold medal in cycling, finishing with a remarkable eight.
British cycling doesn’t stop on the track either. Great success has continued in road racing and the biggest cycling race in the world has helped propel cycling to further heights. I am, of course, talking about the Tour de France. The now iconic Sir Bradley Wiggins became the first British cyclist to win the TDF in 2012, cycling for British Team Sky. Chris Froome then became the second Brit to win the following year, once more for the British Team Sky. Noteworthy performances in road racing from Mark Cavendish, Lizzie Armitstead and Nicole Cooke (particularly in the Olympics road race) have helped elevate the status once more. It is fair to say that Great Britain have a wealth of top cyclists.
Cycling's raised profile became evident with British Cycling helping to organise the Tour of Britain - a five-day race finishing in London - in 2004. Following this Britain hosted part of the 2007 Tour de France, with significantly increased spectatorship evidence of improving popularity. Yet, the latest Tour de France 2014, which began in Yorkshire, signified just how popular cycling had become. Being described as 'the best ever' by race director Christian Prudhomme, the stages in Britain were watched by approximately 2.5m people - evidence of the affection for cycling in the UK.
Away from elite cycling, increasing amounts of the British public are getting involved on a more social level. The significant financial and health benefits have been strongly promoted and active advocates such as Boris Johnson continue to help cycling thrive in the UK. London is leading the way in increasing participation in cycling and events such as the Prudential Ride London have been a great success in the capital. The Cycle to Work Scheme also encourages the public to begin cycling and is part of the Government's Green Transport plan.
There is still progress to be made on cycling nationwide. Compared to some European countries - Belgium, Holland and Germany lead the way - cycle paths are still diluted and of low quality in the UK. England also needs to catch up with some European countries by making physically active forms of transport the norm for everyday journeys, which would help lower obesity rates and improve general health - as well as help combat environmental issues.
"Without guaranteed investment, local roads and pavements could crumble beneath our wheels and our feet," Martin Key, Campaigns Manager of British Cycling, said.
On a European scale, the EuroVelo scheme will see fourteen dedicated cycle routes connect areas from all corners of the continent and is yet another indication of the growing popularity and focus on cycling, not just in the UK. These routes aim to be complete by 20203 and include some incredible scenery including cycling the length of the Rhine River in Germany, and the North Sea Route, taking in the sights of seven different countries including the UK and Norway.
Unlike other governing bodies, who's elite side of the sport remains disconnected from the grassroots, British Cycling appears to genuinely integrate both. As can be seen below, cycling continues to receive one of the highest amounts of Olympic funding for Rio 2016 from UK Sport, a testament of its success, both professionally and socially.
Chris Smith is the Managing Director at Vivi Nation