by Alan Osborn
Contributor to the Daily Telegraph
Not many people automatically think of the British as a cycling people. The Dutch, certainly. The Scandinavians, yes. The Germans, increasingly so.
In continental Europe, the spectacle of children cycling to school, of workers arriving at the office on two wheels and of families pedalling off together at weekends is so commonplace as to pass without comment.
Not so in Britain, where cycling has for many years had a quaint old-fashioned image at least among adults. Country vicars, village policemen and maiden aunts cycle. Half a century ago most workers got to the factory or office on a bike - nowadays they use cars. The British, you might conclude, are not really a nation of riders.
Prepare to think again. Britain's National Bike Week - held in June 1995 - surprised those who think of the UK as a car- besotted nation, Over 800 events throughout the country celebrated cycling as the healthiest, most environment-friendly and cheapest form of transport for rich and poor alike. It was the biggest happening of its kind in Europe.
And this year British cyclists really have something of major importance to celebrate. Last autumn the Millennium Fund, set up to sponsor events for the year 2000, announced a grant of 42.5 million from the National Lottery towards the cost of a 10,460-kilometre (6500-mile) nationwide network of cycle paths. It's been the most popular millennium award so far and stands as an impressive tribute to the charity , Sustrans (Sustainable transport), that pioneered the concept of a national route and that has already constructed 300 miles (482 km) of dedicated track.
The entire scheme will not be completed until 2005 but over half of it, including a 1000-mile (1609-km) prestige track down the spine of Britain from Inverness to Dover, will be open to
cyclists when the century turns. The tracks will be well landscaped to form what Sustrans calls "linear parks" - grassy lanes reaching into cities, many of them decorated with path-side sculptures and traditional way markings.
Sustrans, founded by a civil engineer, John Grimshaw, some 12 years ago, takes over disused railway lines, canal and river paths and forest trails and converts them to use by cyclists and pedestrians. Where no such tracks exist, the planned network will use existing minor roads, modified to reduce motor traffic hazards.
The total cost of the network is put at around 250 million and Sustrans still has to raise a large proportion of that itself. But help is already promised from the Government and more is expected from councils, the cycle industry and possibly the European Commission. What the millennium grant has done is turn the project from a dream to a probability.
British cyclists now await with keen anticipation the announcement of the Government's National Cycling Strategy this summer. The document, which has been worked on over the past year by the Department of Transport, local authorities, the cycle industry and numerous cycling organisations, is expected to set a target of more than doubling the present proportion of journeys made by bicycle in Britain to 5% within five years.
This would still be modest in European terms : 9 . 8% of journeys in Germany are made by bicycle, 18.4% in Denmark and 27.3% in the Netherlands. But it would mark a revolutionary
The British start from a low base, but there's no doubt that cycling is rapidly gaining ground. Health is one reason. The British Medical Association said in 1994 that regular cyclists
(doing 20 minutes a day or 20 miles [32 km3 a week) were as healthy as non-cyclists 10 years younger and that cycling 20 miles a week reduced the risk of heart disease by half.
Comments like these have given the cycle a new following among the health-conscious but they leave unanswered the question of road safety. In 1971 more than 80% of youngsters cycled to school - by 1990 that was down to less than 10% and increased motor traffic was the reason. Cycling organisations blame successive governments for favouring motorists above other road users and spending only a tiny fraction of the new roads' money they have to build cycle-ways. But, hopefully, that is now firmly in the past.
Many commentators agree with Mr Grimshaw that the Sustrans route will create an impetus for cycling that will spur local authorities into creating inner-city and commuter routes. Early signs are that this is already happening.
Another reason for optimism lies in the enthusiasm of the new Transport Secretary, Sir George Young known as "the bicycling baronet" from the days when he rode his machine daily
to the House of Commons. Earlier this year he pledged to put cycling "at the centre of our strategy" and he has since urged councils to apply for government grants to help pay for cycle
routes. The new cycling strategy is largely his handiwork.
The British sometimes give the impression that they like bikes but not to the extent of actually riding them. There are 20 million cycles in Britain, but only 15% are used regularly-
Soon, thanks to Sustrans and Sir George among others, this may