Reclaiming the Road: Experiencing the world around us through cycling

Whether for sport, adventure, or simply getting from A to B, cycling is an eco-conscious way to add value to many people’s lives. How has it shaped our understanding and relationship with our environment? And looking ahead, what changes can be made to improve the cyclist’s experience?

The University of Bristol’s Dr. Martin Hurcombe (French Studies) assembled a focused team from the Universities of Bath, Birmingham, and Bristol, as well as an industry expert from Lesportif. Together, they brought expertise from French studies, Psychology, History, and the commercial cycling industry to investigate how we can improve conditions for cyclists. 

What did the project involve?  

Prior to the riding element of the project, Dr Cardon and Dr Hanna conducted research into the history of cycling. They produced digestible histories of Bristol’s relationship with cycling through urban design.  

With the help of a Bristol cycling organisation, the team organised two groups of five riders. One group took part in a pre-ride workshop, where they learned about the history of Bristol’s cycle paths. Both groups were given route plans and the means to record video diaries of their ride.  

As it transpired, the group who had learned about the history of Bristol’s cycle paths ended up riding significantly longer and going further afield.  

 The researchers present their project in this video: 

The video was included in a workshop about improving cycling in Bristol, attended by representatives by UWE transport, Bristol City Council, and local cycling groups.  

Who are the team and what do they bring?

  • Prof. Martin Hurcombe‘s (Modern Languages) current research focuses on the history of the relationship between the sports press and cycling in France. 
  • Dr. Nathan Cardon (University of Birmingham, History department) researchers into the United States’ history. His work focuses on the intersections of race and empire in foreign and domestic space.  
  • Keen cyclist Dr. Erika Hanna (Historical Studies) has worked extensively on urban history, including the history and politics of the ‘visible’ cyclist.  
  • With a specialist interest in traffic and transport psychology, Dr. Ian Walker (University of Bath, Psychology department) brought experience of data analysis and video ethnography, a tool that the project deployed via the use of video glasses.  
  • Director of LesportifPhil Adkinsprovided access to an existing cycling community. He was able to provide the Mud Dock café as a venue for the pre- and post-ride workshops.  

What were the results?

Reclaiming the Roads was the seed for a whole host of future research projects. The research team quickly realised that the most useful elements of the projects were discussions around why people cycled, and what made them love it so much. By learning about the emotional connection riders have with cycling, they would be able to encourage more people to get on their bikes.  

In a later project, Professor Hurcombe was able to work with Dr. Melanie Chalder and Lifecycle, a national charity based in Bristol. They held a day-long workshop called Positive Spin, focusing on a group of older cyclists (aged 60 and over), the reasons why these people love to ride, and the benefits they gained from cycling. Rather than holding structured interviews, they asked attendees to bring along a ‘memory object’ and to discuss the cycling memory that object triggered. By understanding what causes people to fall in love with cycling, they are now able to advise initiatives to get people to cycle more.  

Chalder and Hurcombe have since established the interdisciplinary Physical Cultures research cluster and are running two projects exploring the impact of COVID-19 upon outdoor exercise. Active in Lockdown aims to build a digital archive collecting people’s stories of running, cycling and walking during the first year of the pandemic, notably the first national lockdown when there appeared to be a surge in these activities. Access and Active Leisure in a Time of the Pandemic: Tales of Two Cities (funded by a Brigstow Collaborative Fellowship) explores the same issue in a comparative study of Bristol and Bordeaux.