Some of you may have already read, I spent just over a month in California recently for work. During that time, I took my bike and threw myself into the local cycling scene. I was training amongst the stunning vistas of Los Gatos, San Jose, Berkeley Hills and more. I was inspired by the pure joy of riding a bike on roads less crowded than those I typically enjoy. And more importantly, I rode under gorgeous blue skies along roads that I wouldn’t see traffic lights for over an hour. It was pure bliss.
During my time there, it was my aim to absorb as much insights on what makes a successful cycling culture, racing scene, and profitable industry. My goal was to bring these insights back to my home, Singapore, and use these to help the scene in Singapore continue to develop.
First, I wrote this piece not to discredit, criticize or devalue what we have in Singapore. I love living in Singapore. This letter isn’t directed at anyone, nor is it meant to be an example of ‘what’s not working’. I wrote this purely to bring back new knowledge, and share this with cycling enthusiasts like me.
So here I go.
Cycling is a valued way of life.
California is known as a global trend setter. It’s why Facebook, Google and Apple are all in California. It’s why Silicon Valley is the cradle of startups. The entire valley runs on a pure desire for progress. Nobody gets bogged down in skepticism, gossiping or ‘tall poppy’ syndrome. This culture extends to the place cycling has in society.
Main roads have ample lanes for cyclists and car drivers. Abreast drivers patiently give way to cyclists. As a result, huge number of people choose to ride a bicycle as their daily transport. Owning a bicycle is a part of life for so many. Shops, restaurants, and work places have facilities for bicycle parking.
It’s a beautiful thing to see a mother and her child ride confidently on their commute to the grocery store.
What can we do in Singapore: We need to find a way to have cycling an accepted part of life in Singapore. Yes we have PCN’s and Safe Cycling Signs, but the vast majority of Singapore isn’t as ‘enabling’. Cycling is a way to a healthier life, and a great form of sustainable transport. I’d love to see a big push for ‘Ride to Work’ in Singapore. Let’s make it a goal to have a massive ‘Ride to Work’ day in 2016
Cycling is a family
Every single rider I pass by the road says hello. Without a fail, every single one smiled, nodded and said good morning, or hello; even the guys that had their head down do TT repeats. The feeling like you have friends on the road is comforting, especially when you’re from out of town. I feel comfortable asking for directions, or chatting with others at the lights.
It didn’t matter if you were on a 30 year old steel commuter bike, or a flash new carbon racer, everyone says hello.
It also means that even when someone isn’t racing, they come along to either help out, or support those racing.
What can we do in Singapore: Start with the small things, wave or say hello every time you pass a cyclist. Next, at the next cycling event let’s all make an effort to get down and support the cyclists, organisers and sponsors. We also each help make events a success by volunteering some time as a marshall, event staff, or officials. In time, the clubs will be the key engagement to the success of events and the community.
One of the greatest pleasures I had in California was getting to a dozen of races in a short period of time. I raced 12 times in a span of 16 days. My age meant that I could race Elite and Masters grade races on the same day.
Each race was organised by a NCAA Club, which meant an abundance of friends, family and racers that would volunteer their time to help run the event. Wives would do registration, friends would do course marshaling, and the club members would be commissaires.
Each race has a beginners category, also known as category five. Here, racers would not only have the opportunity of a less threatening race, but they’d also get the help of the higher graded riders in the field, coaching them while racing. They’re given tips on how to hold a line, or when to brake. These are invaluable lessons that meant even for the kids to go out to have a go.
Beginners are required to complete ten races before qualifying for upgrade points, giving them plenty of time to develop the skills required to race. The beginners race happens on the same day, and same course as the Pro/Cat 1 race. Twelve-year old kids who raced earlier in the day have a chance to see Pro riders up close, which boosts spectator numbers and the benefit for sponsors.
What can we do in Singapore: At our next race, I want to see all those experienced racers to bring along a friend. Show them that they can try an event. It’s not about racing, it’s about exploring what you can do with your bicycle. If we can do that, I’ll take up the debate with organizers to have more beginners options.
In the United States, all races are done under the NCAA framework, which is their local implementation of the UCI framework. All racers have licenses, and are governed in a consistent manner. This is similar to other countries, but there is one area race in South East Asia where they could learn from US races – it is the grading of racers.
In the United States all beginners start in Category 5, whether it is an open age group or masters, everyone has to ‘earn their stripes’ by doing 10 races in Category 5. The aim of this category is to first create a grade that helps new racers learn in a safer environment, while developing the necessary skills and experience to move up the grades. It’s all good to have the fitness to race the higher grades, but without the experience and skills, a new racer can be very dangerous on the road. The added bonus is, it also works as a motivation to get beginners to race more regularly, as they aim to build the required points to move up.
The next benefit of graded racing is you know everyone is in the right category. If one rider dominates in Category 3, they move up to Category 2. Or if a racer is struggling in Category 2, they can move down to Category 3. In the end, it makes for more enjoyable racing for everyone.
What can we do in Singapore: We have a re-energised Singapore Cycling Federation committee, and they are keen to improve cycling here. During the announcement of the talent program and race series, I had the new committee announce the goal of having a Singaporean qualify for the Olympics in 2024. But the only way we can have a fair playing field, that encourages participation, advancement and sportful competition is a consistent way to grade races. This should include from beginner levels, through to pro. By having a consistent framework, riders will be able to go from race to race knowing what they’d need to learn, or achieve.
Almost every race has ample support by local business, local government and the local club. This meant that the community around the location of each race is engaged. Cafes and local businesses actively supported the event as they enjoyed a lift in business on the day of the race. Local businesses were given an opportunity to gain exposure by supporting the event where it fitted their line of business. And best of all, local government were involved in ceremonial aspects, either as a race starter or presentation to the winners. It was great to see, and all those involved loved the carnival-like atmosphere the event would bring to a location. It also meant that the local government helped with any regulation or process requirements in getting the event approved and supported.
What can we do in Singapore: We continually face the challenge of finding race venues, where road closures and local community engagement remain a challenge. Events should be a celebration of the local community, we should be working with local ministers to celebrate their communities. Have ministers present awards or start the race. Engage local businesses for catering, event support, logistics, etc. By engaging a local community we can build events that communities will be proud to support, proud to have in their streets. Let’s see a local minister race.
Cycling as a sport and a way of life is still developing in Singapore. With the support from community, government and local business, we can transform Singapore into a country that embraces the bicycle as a means of sustainable transport, an instrument for outdoor activity and a national level sport. But only together can we create this exciting future.
In the coming years, I will aim to make an annual trip to places like California to continue to learn first hand cycling in other countries, and bring those lessons back to Singapore. If anyone is keen to join me, let me know.
This is an ongoing dialogue that needs everyone’s input. Share your thoughts in the comments below. Feedback, thoughts, ideas, and volunteers are all greatly appreciated.