Over the past few years cycling has become a global phenomenon – and one with a growing social divide, writes Steve Thomas.
Steve Thomas

Cycling Central
3 Sep 2017 - 10:19 AM  UPDATED 3 Sep 2017 - 11:34 AM

A number of issues are guaranteed to raise eyebrows and ire, but one in particular is social class and the perceived ever-growing divide between the rich and the poor. Sure, social and financial divides have always existed, and while many have struggled up that slippery social ladder, the rungs in the middle seem to be spaced ever further apart these days.

Within cycling today, is it any different?  

Cycling as a sport - especially racing - for the most part was always seen as 'working class', especially in nations without a great depth of cycling history and culture to fortify and give it credibility, like the UK and Australia.

In the UK especially, cycling was an underground sport where those of a middle class standing rarely ventured. When they did, they were rarely welcomed as openly as they could, or should have by a rough and tough scene. 

Cycling was often seen as something that required inherent hardship and a hunger to survive, and those with a more privileged background were thought to simply not be tough enough. Many of the great riders of the past came from humble or tough backgrounds, fighting against huge odds to make their way – much as the majority of the Colombian riders still do today.

Fast-forward to somewhere around 2008 and things changed in the UK, largely down to the Olympic success in the velodrome. Four years on and against overwhelming cultural odds cycling had hit the big time on the island, and everybody was suddenly a cyclist and an expert on the subject.

It really did happen virtually overnight, and in no small part down to the achievements of Bradley Wiggins, ironically a devout working class hero who appealed to the masses and all social classes.

Cycling became the new golf; its social status raised higher than the clubhouse roof with one huge birdie racking putt, changing the very foundations of cycling forever globally.

The days of hand-me-down bikes and hand-crafted kit were long gone. It was $250 shorts and $10,000 bikes all the way. Cycling became an expensive buy-in sport, and one that was pushed way beyond the financial means of many. Now, naturally this has its benefits – we all like plush shorts, designer shoes and fast bikes, but we can’t all afford them.

From working class to middle class in the blink of a yellow jersey and a bag full of Olympic bling, the wedge was hammered through the social structure of the established cycling world.

Yes, this rapid turnaround is largely MAMIL and MAWIL driven, and who knows how long it will last, or what has been the cost to the health of the sport in general?

With cycling far more highly equipment driven than it once was this boom has escalated technological growth, leaning very much towards the upper end of the financial scale. Clearly most recent bikes and gear are aimed at the prime end of the market, and who can blame manufacturers for that? Make a new version every year and its bingo at the factory.

The obvious downside is the rapidly increasing cost factor of cycling causing a gaping divide within the sport, deterring many riders from taking it up. This impacts directly on the numbers lining up every weekend to race, perhaps the very riders the sport needs to survive in the not so long term.

There’s no way to turn the clocks back, and few of us would want to go back to the days of woollen shorts and hand me down and over-sized steel frames.

But surely, at the grassroots the playing field does need to be levelled a little before that grass simply fades away?

You can’t really put a price restriction on racing gear for newer riders, but somewhere in there some form of balance needs to be found to allow things to flourish on a more even footing.

There needs to be a base level where a regular kid or older person can turn up, ride, race and have a crack at the whip without that huge financial buy-in and maintenance factor.

They don’t have to be of Olympic calibre, most of us aren’t - the sport would be so much richer for the narrowing of that divide.