To foreign eyes, Great Britain's iconic mode of transport has always been the bright-red double-decker bus. But right now, to paraphrase, it's all about the bike.
With his gold-medal win in Wednesday's individual time trial, mutton-chopped mod and Tour de France champion Bradley Wiggins moved to the top of Britain's list of Olympic medalists with seven, four of them gold. Women's road racer Lizzie Armitstead delivered the host nation's first medal after favorite Mark Cavendish failed to reach the podium in the men's event. And yesterday, on the first day of track competition in the Olympic velodrome, the mania failed to abate. Her Royal Highness Princess Anne presented a fifth gold medal to sprint specialist Chris Hoy, the man the tabloids call His Royal Hoyness, after Hoy led teammates Jason Kenny and Philip Hindes to a world record in the team sprint.
If the Aussies must repeat their favorite taunt -- that Britain only wins medals in the sports in which one sits down (rowing, sailing, equestrian, cycling) -- then let them needle away. An entire nation sits comfortably in front of the telly, loving every race and time trial, effortlessly able to tell a keirin from an omnium.
Consider the signs of the cycling Zeitgeist, or "cyc-geist," as it's now known. So many screaming people lined the course of the men's road race as it wound through the stockbroker belt of Surrey that riders marveled -- not complained -- that they couldn't communicate with one another. Evans Cycles, which sells bikes to the mass U.K. market, reports a 35-percent increase in sales during the week after Wiggins' victory on the Champs-Elysees, and a 20-percent spike over the past months in sign-ups for its Ride2Work program, which allows employees to purchase bikes tax-free. After bagging great ratings for the Tour, Britain's ITV has rolled out The Cycle Show, a weekly magazine about all things two-wheeled. Even the Opening Ceremony, which began with Wiggins ringing the Olympic Bell, included a three-minute homage to the bicycle, with 75 "bike-dove hybrids" making their way around the track. The conflation of birds and bikes was a reference to the words of naturalist Louis Helle: "Bicycling is the nearest approximation I know to the flight of birds."
London is particularly caught up in the fever. It's as if all the bicycles that once clogged the streets of the last Olympic city, Beijing, have been teleported to the banks of the Thames. Mayor Boris Johnson both bikes to work and introduced to the city center the short-term cycle hire stands stocked with what are known as "Boris Bikes." Anyone mired in a sad, as they say here, over Britain's failure to win a medal in the men's road race should have heard hizzoner by the finish, pronouncing the result "a victory for the votaries of the velocipede."
The votaries of the velocipede look more and more like a working electoral majority of BoJo's constituents. You'd never know it, but "Get on your bike" was once a slur, used by a Thatcherite cabinet minister during the 80s to shame those on the dole to get a job.
Where did all this come from? Two men deserve particular credit. One is a formerly unemployed carpenter and tinkerer named Chris Boardman. His individual pursuit gold medal at the 1992 Barcelona Olympics led compatriots to believe that you didn't have to be a continental European to achieve success in the sport. Since then he has been at the center of the sport in Britain at every level, from selling bikes under his Boardman brand, to advising the national team, to explaining tactical fine points during telecasts.
The other, Dave Brailsford, has led Britain's national cycling program since the Athens Olympics by embracing anything that might give his riders an edge, from sports science to psychology to niggling technical details. He also conceived and manages Team Sky, which with Wiggins, Cavendish and Chris Froome sits atop the professional peloton after only three years. Even though their respective men were all professional teammates, the girlfriends of Cavendish and Froome, as well as Wiggins' wife, got into a three-way Twitter war during the Tour. There's no better confirmation that a sport has made it in the U.K., where the back pages of the tabloids set the agenda, than a digital catfight among WAGs (wives and girlfriends).
Both Boardman and Brailsford will be stepping down from the national team program after these Olympics, but its momentum isn't likely to be interrupted. That's because of a larger cultural reorientation, the result of Brits looking to mainland Europe and humbly integrating aspects of continental culture into their own. Twenty years ago you wouldn't have found outdoor café tables and tapas bars in London; people were still holed up in pubs, throwing back pints and working hard on their pallors. The European Union, the Channel tunnel and cheap flights have all enticed a generation to discover how continental Europeans live, and among the many things Brits have taken home is an affection for cycling, both the watching and the doing.
More than anything, though, the boom is the result of "people responding to the success of the elites," said Ian Whittell, who lives and rides in Manchester, site of the national youth academy, as well as the velodrome in which Hoy and others train. "I know people who would have been on a bus a few years ago, and now they ride to work."
Success begets success, which means more funding as the sport proves it can translate National Lottery money into medals. The Brits have so dominated on the track that the International Cycling Union rammed through new rules to try to stop them. One, which targets Britain's advanced R&D, requires that any equipment used in competition be commercially available to the public. The other limits a country to one male rider in each of the 10 Olympic track events, a regulation that will deny Hoy a chance to defend in London one of the three golds he won in Beijing.
But along with Wiggins' victory, Wednesday also brought collateral damage: the 61st bicycling fatality on British roads this year. It came when the driver of a media bus making a lefthand turn at a traffic light just outside the Olympic Park failed to see Dan Harris, a 28-year-old social media strategist for an Internet company, riding in his blind spot.
Trucks and buses turning left remain the biggest threats to cyclists on the roads. The accident is already ramping up existing campaigns for bike safety, including one led by the The Times of London, which has a reporter in a coma right now after a cycling accident. Wiggins responded to news of Harris' death with a plea for helmet laws. Others advocate a different emphasis, believing the solution rests with making streets safer for cyclists, not cyclists safer for streets.
If you'd paid careful attention to the Opening Ceremony, you would have noticed that director Danny Boyle quietly acknowledged that the bicycle both giveth and taketh away. That bike-dove segment paid tribute to Kirkpatrick Macmillan, the 19th century Scottish blacksmith who slapped iron wheels on a wooden frame to create the earliest version of what we know today. The allusion had an eery foresight, as Boyle pointed out in his program notes: In 1842 Macmillan himself became the first cyclist to be prosecuted for a traffic mishap, when he was brought to book for running down a pedestrian. A plaque that eventually made its way to the wall of his smithy's shop in Glasgow read, HE BUILDED BETTER THAN HE KNEW.
The Brits are grappling with a mixed verdict this week, as death on their roads gets tangled up with Olympic glory.