This year’s Étape Caledonia did not go as planned. What should have been an idyllic day’s cycling for more than 3,000 riders, through a breathtaking Perthshire landscape, almost ended prematurely for everyone. In a bizarre throwback to the very earliest days of professional cycling and the Tour de France - when partisan fans, during 1904’s second edition of the famous race, bombarded the peleton with rocks and bottles; and sabotaged the stage route with nails, after their favoured rider had passed - some person or persons scattered thousands of carpet tacks along an estimated 20-mile stretch of the route, causing the temporary suspension of the UK’s only closed-road, mass-participation cycling event.

The organisers feared for participants’ safety especially with the prospect of riders suffering punctures during high speed descents. The event was stopped while efforts were made to clear away the tacks and this was done for all but the last nine miles. Inevitably many riders did get flats along the way and as Cycling Plus/bikeradar.com reported, one hapless participant was seen throwing his bike into a hedge in frustration, after his 7th flat tyre. But the race did resume.

Undaunted, the organisers say they are determined to run the Étape in 2010. Indeed entries are already being taken online. But why would anyone want to disrupt a one-off cycle race which brings thousands of people to the Pitlochry area for the weekend during which they spend copious amounts of money (as much as one million pounds by one estimate) in local pubs, shops and hotels? It also generates funds for the main charity backing the event, MacMillan Cancer Support , which had already raised £250,000 from the Étape by the end of May.

Those responsible for the chaos at this year’s Étape Caledonia were not fanatical cycling fans keen to cheat on behalf of their favourite rider as in 1904 (in any event, the ride is an amateur cyclo-sportive, not a professional competitive race) but residents, who are vehemently opposed to the closure of the roads for the Étape - even if only for a few hours. There is a pressure group called Acre (Against Closed Road Events) which campaigns, principally, to stop the Étape Caledonia from being run on car-free highways.

A local councillor has since been arrested in connection with the carpet tack incident. Opponents say closing the roads keeps people stranded in their homes, unable to go out to run local businesses or attend church.

It may be worth pointing out that the road closures for one day in May are hardly a surprise. People have a whole year during which to make plans to minimise the impact of the closure on their lives. Could the negative attitude have anything to do with the general disdain (bordering on hatred) in which a certain sizeable sector of society holds cyclists in general?

The decimation of Britain’s premier racing calendar this year, with several top level races cancelled (often by the police) is yet another sign that cyclists - despite all the official exhortations for us to get on our bikes - are still regarded as second class citizens. But if we’re serious about getting people pedalling; for their health and for the environment; the authorities and the nail-scattering curmudgeons north of Hadrian’s wall, need to adopt a very different tack.


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