Closing our series on what cycling means to me, Kersten England, the woman charged with delivering the Grand Depart’s lasting legacy talks to Sarah Freeman.
We’re sat in a small office in York Council’s smart new headquarters. Chief executive Kersten England has just been flicking through a special Tour de France edition of a glossy cycling magazine and while she’s disappointed, she’s not exactly surprised.
“Look, hardly one photograph of a woman,” she says. “If there’s one legacy I’d like to deliver from Yorkshire’s hosting of the Grand Départ is an increase in the number of women who cycle. For some reason, it’s still seen as, how can I put it, a bit boysy.”
As part of the team charged with delivering this weekend’s event, Kersten is responsible for ensuring a lasting legacy long after the teams have left. However, it’s not the only reason why she’s keen to increase participation. Her passion for cycling can be traced back to her childhood and it’s one which was forged on the streets of her home city of Edinburgh.
“I think I got my first bike when I was seven-years-old and I remember wobbling down the street on it,” she says. “I used to cycle from home to school. It was only a mile or so in distance, but particularly as a girl it gave me a tremendous sense of freedom and feeling of independence.”
That was back in the late 1970s and she’s reminded of the summer’s afternoon when she unexpectedly became a poster girl for the newly launched Edinburgh Bicycle Co-operative.
“I was 16 and a friend and I were lying on the Meadows in our bikinis, revising for our O-levels. The co-operative had just opened and they happened to be doing some publicity shots for the local paper. The photographer asked if we would pose with our bikes. Of course we said yes and our picture ended up in the Edinburgh Evening News the next day.”
When Kersten left Scotland for university in Manchester, the bike came with her. In fact so wedded was she to two wheels that she didn’t learn to drive until she was 30.
“I remember applying for my first job. It was in Stockport as a support to a number of parental self-help groups and one of the requirements was that you had to have your own car. I told them I was a committed cyclist and had my own bike instead. They can’t have minded as they gave me the job. I found my way around Stockport on that bike and then when my first son was born he came with me strapped to the back.”
For a second or two she allows herself to wallow in a little nostalgia, but with just a few days to go before the biggest spectator event in the world rolls into town, there’s barely been enough time to sleep, let alone dream.
There are still a number of outstanding roadworks which need to be completed and every so often there is a more left field call to deal with, like the one about York’s Purpleman. The street performer, who sits stationary on his bike in Stonegate for hours a day, wants to know if he has permission to paint himself yellow and be part of the celebrations when the peloton departs from the city on day two of the Grand Depart.
“It’s never dull,” says Kersten. “Just as you solve one set of problems there’s another set of queries to deal with, but that’s how it is with these big events,” she adds, mentally crossing fingers and toes. “The last few weeks are manic, but it all tends to come together in the end.”
While the last fortnight has seen an outbreak of bunting along the route of the Grand Départ and entire towns and villages are set to turn out to watch the peloton as it races past, the real success of the event will only be known much further down the line.
“We had drawn up the plan for the legacy in place even before we won the bid and we have been working with British Cycling and Sustrans to make sure we can deliver on our promises,” says Kersten, who is also chair of Cycle Yorkshire, an organisation with the simple aim of getting more people cycling more often. “We are already seeing an economic impact as people come here to cycle not only the Tour de France route, but explore the rest of the county. We should see a five-year uplift in tourism following the event, but the real legacy has to be about participation.
“A survey carried out by the BBC this week said one in five people in Yorkshire are cycling more than they were before it was announced the Tour was coming here, but we have to make sure we build on the momentum created by the event.”
What Kersten doesn’t say is that in the same survey half of those who responded nationally said they thought the country’s roads were too dangerous for cyclists. Only 34 per cent thought that their local roads were well-designed for cyclists, and over 50 per cent of people thought that employers didn’t do enough to encourage cycling to work.
“There are some things which are relatively easy to get right,” she says. “I think we will have more children cycling after the Tour de France than before it, but there are other things which take longer and require a greater degree of investment. The cycle route between Leeds and Bradford will cost almost £30m and it won’t happen over night, but it is important. If you ask people what stops them cycling in cities it’s fear of traffic.
“Making York into probably the most cycle-friendly city outside of Cambridge and Oxford has taken 10 years. We now have connected cycle routes right across the city and hopefully the lessons we’ve learnt here mean we can deliver similar results in other places much more quickly.”
Another item on her hit list is to try to replicate the success of the Edinburgh Bike Co-operative, which she helped to promote three decades ago. In 2012, following a record turnover of £11.5m, the organisation, which had sold 20,000 bikes in just 12 months, announced expansion plans which would see it create 140 jobs. Now with bases in both Leeds and Sheffield, it has been one of cycling’s success stories and offers a potential blueprint for other outlets.
“I’d really like to see the various Bike Rescue Centres in Yorkshire better connected,” says Kersten. “It’s about getting them access to the right software so they can link their stock levels and maybe find a way they can share warehouse space which would significantly reduce costs.
“There’s a lovely statistic which says if you got all the old bikes out of sheds, garages and attics there would be one for every person in the country. Only the other day I finally got round to taking three of our old bikes down to the Bike Rescue Centre and I like the idea that people who want to swap an adults bike for a children’s one can trade down as well as up.”
Partly inspired by the work she has been doing with the Tour de France committee, Kersten has recently bought her first bike with cleats. Now with feet firmly fixed in place she says she has noticed a definite improvement in her pace, although when she cycles stage one of the Grand Départ later this year it will be in a slightly more leisurely two days.
“If I could be anywhere to watch the Tour go by it would be in Addingham,” says Kersten who was previously group director of community services at Calderdale Council. “Those are roads I know so well. They feel like my roads.
“However, I doubt there will be much time for spectating - I will be very much working in an official capacity over the weekend. However, wherever I am I will be keeping my fingers-crossed not only that the weather holds, but that all the hard work of everyone who has been involved in bringing the Tour to Yorkshire pays off with a fabulous two days of cycling.”
See tomorrow’s Yorkshire Post for a special Grand Départ souvenir edition of the Saturday Magazine.