Monday to Friday, 9 to 5 I work as the regional co-ordinator for cycle training and projects in the London Borough of Harrow. I came into the job after a stint as an Associate Lecturer in Cultural Theory at Southampton Solent University and freelancing as a cycling instructor. I think colleagues at the University were a little baffled by my side step into community sport, but to me it made perfect sense.
Every week for two years I stood at the front of a lecture theatre or facilitated seminars with journalism students discussing the role that popular culture plays in constructing our society – our relationships with each other, with ourselves, and the relationships we aspire to have or, in some cases, aspire to sever. I discussed fashion (design, value, appropriation), bodies (race, ethnicity, gender, sexuality, disability, age, health, beauty), cultures of celebrity (stardom and fandom) and cultures of consumption (capitalism, commodification, cultural canon). I described the way the world worked in depth, but in abstract. I explained the barriers people face in their everyday lives, but didn’t remove them. Hell, I didn’t even poke them. I talked and taught and teased ideas out of the young people I worked with, I saw many eyes open, but ultimately I felt impotent. My work only had an impact on those privileged enough to attend university and it only had an impact on the world beyond those classrooms when my students felt inspired and informed by my lessons.
In stark contrast, when teaching people to ride a bike I saw their eyes open to a world of possibilities. Barriers that society had erected around them – a lack of affluence and access to a bike as a child, lack of access to open space in an urban environment, a lack of time for those working long hours or raising families – or barriers that culture had cultivated – conservative upbringings that frowned upon sport for girls, a world that shames fat bodies and scares people from being seen exercising in public, a world that celebrates success to the detriment of those that want to try their hand at a new activity, a world that sexualises women to the extent that we fear being seen in scruffy clothes with no make-up.
Teaching people to ride a bike or teaching people to run was for many a very tangible experience of raising their middle finger up to all the myths that have surrounded them and told them they couldn’t. It is a liberating experience for many, and, as some have told me, a life changing one too. Breaking down one barrier can have a domino effect on that individual and becomes a constant point of reference for them when facing other barriers in their everyday lives.
Working as a cycling instructor gave me a far greater and more accurate insight into contemporary society’s attitudes towards our bodies and towards our environment than I could ever get from standing in a lecture theatre or pouring over psychogeography papers in an office. I was meeting real people, who described their real experiences of the world and watched them confront real barriers. Furthermore, they were people I would likely never cross paths with otherwise – different ages, different levels of physical activity, different ethnicities. My own perceptions were being challenged with each trainee I met.
To me, my side step into community sport and increasing participation was a no brainer.
In December 2013 an old friend and relatively new colleague, Louise Gold, got in touch. She worked for Cycle Experience and wanted to set up a women’s cycling group in Harrow, the borough she was working in at the time. We put together a project brief for a club that would target women cyclists – beginners, returning cyclists, nervous riders, women wanting to practice, women simply wanting to exercise – it was a broad spec, but gave us great scope to suss out exactly what was stopping women in the area from cycling and the kind of support they needed. We secured funding, the club took off, Louise left the post to take up a job with Sustrans, and I was taken on as her replacement.
Since taking up the helm at Cycle Experience in Harrow I have worked hard to build a strong relationship with our partners in the local council and have continued to build our beginner women’s club, while also launching a commuter cycling club, develop a Bikeability programme for SEN pupils in local special schools, overhaul children’s cycling activities during school holidays and oversee an enormous project teaching children aged 3-11 to cycle.
12 months after taking up the post I submitted a proposal for Harrow’s first cycling festival, the Tour de Harrow. I wanted to show off and showcase all the incredible work our team has carried out in the last year, teaching over a thousand children to cycle, encouraging a couple of hundred women to start riding regularly, and teaching children and adults how to be safer when cycling on the roads. The Tour de Harrow isn’t just a celebration of Cycle Experience’s work in Harrow though. It’s also a celebration of the incredible Harrow residents that have supported our work by taking part. It’s a celebration of their open-mindedness and sense of adventure, and a celebration of the shifting culture in the borough towards cycling.
I have found Harrow to be a truly inspiring place to work. It is a borough dominated by cars, which ferry children to school and haul groceries back from the supermarkets. Its narrow roads are clogged by cars, but in an area popular with young families and London commuters that isn’t surprising. Our challenge has been and continues to be demonstrating the versatility of bicycles and the possibility of cycling as a real alternative for everyday transportation.
The Tour de Harrow takes place on Harrow Recreation Ground during the May half term holidays, 25th-29th May 2015. More information about the event, including the range of activities taking place, please visit our website: www.cycleexperience.com/tourdeharrow