Archive for the ‘Environment’ Category

How green is your bike? Ask Specialized


Cycling is environmentally cool, right? Cyclists are not merely friends of the Earth but lovers, carers and life-long best mates, right? Bicycles are as benign as a gentle breeze wafting a summer meadow, right? Wrong. A new report says otherwise. It lays bare the impact that manufacturing bikes has on the environment. It’s not pretty.

ImageJust in case you suspect that it’s propaganda put out by the roads lobby or auto industry, you should know that it’s actually been produced at the expense of, and with huge help from, the third largest US bike seller, Specialized. With their income from 9% of the US bicycle market, they’ve paid three post-graduates at Nicholas School of Environment, Duke University, to dig the dirt on how much of our planet’s resources are used and abused to make the machines we love.

It’s a big report. There’s a massive amount of detail. It deserves to be studied and the facts and figures broadcast, published and gossipped. Such as the fact that it takes more than 30,000 litres of water to make just one Roubaix fork. Specialized uses enough water making Roubaix frames to supply the water needed by 477,000 people per year. “These numbers are staggering”, say the authors.

Making a a kilogram of a carbon frame uses 45% more water than an aluminium frame but, getting its own back in the race to depleteImage the planet, aluminium frames require more energy during their manufacture. “Over 58.7 gigawatt-hours are used per year to produce all the Allez framesets sold in a year, which is enough power to supply New York City for approximately 128 hours. The Allez frame’s most energy intensive process is artificially aging the aluminum frame to achieve specific metallurgy properties. This requires the frame to be heat treated at 400°F for ten hours.”

Other figures are equally shocking. In making all of the Allez framesets that are sold in a year, 6.4 million kilos of carbon dioxide equivalent are released into the atmosphere. To make the Roubaix frame, 1.01kg of waste are generated. For every kilogram of chain produced, there’s an astonishing 3.69kg of waste.

I won’t go on – you can read, open-mouthed, all 179 pages of the report yourself. Download it here. And do compare it with the impacts of other forms of travel, as detailed in the first chapter of my book, Cycling Science.

Of course, Specialized doesn’t do any of the manufacturing itself. It’s done mostly in China and Taiwan, with some components made in Japan. Each country, and each region within it, has different environmental goals. Some even have to meet national or international standards.

And Specialized must be applauded for being so candid about the impact that the making of their bikes is having on Earth. If ths publication can encourage other manufacturers to be equally transparent then there is hope that they will all work together to reduce their eco-footprint – not to boost cycling’s genuine green credentials but for the sake of the planet.


Listen up!


traffic bicycleSshhh! Cycling’s way down the list of noise polluters. A well-maintained bike on a smooth surface can be near-silent (assuming the rider isn’t wearing chain mail, playing a bugle or both). The peacefulness is one of its pleasures.

So that makes a bicycle a relatively good platform for collecting other sounds on the move. What you do with those noises is up to you and different scientists are doing surprising things.

There’s a team in Austria that’s been eavesdropping on a rider as she pedals around the town of Graz. She knew about it. Before she started she phoned the lab and kept the call connected. The researchers were able to hear all the sounds around her wherever she cycled.

Then they analysed the audible clues and, like sound detectives with their ears to the ground, they succeeded in working out her route just from the noises they heard through her phone. It’s an impressive result.

It’s not clear from this experiment who had the most fun but it does show that even if you doubt the existance of Big Brother (he does exist), it seems that he doesn’t need to watch you to find out where you are. All he has to do is listen and he’s got you located.

The research paper will download when you click here.

Elsewhere, three unfamous (as yet) Belgians have been cycling round cities capturing the traffic noise as they ride. At the same time they’ve been sampling the air, not just through their own mouths and noses but also through chemical sensors.

They made 200 trips and then calculated that there is a relationship between traffic noise and the level of carbon particles that pollute the air. This shouldn’t be very surprising because it stands to reason that the more traffic there is, the noiser it is and the greater the quantity of pollutants they are pumping into the atmosphere.

Here’s the clever thing about the research. Lots of people want to know how dirty the air is in our city streets at different times of day and in different weather conditions. The general aim is to keep the air cleaner somehow or other and thus improve everybody’s health. The problem, though, is that air quality monitoring equipment isn’t cheap.

By showing that noise levels are a reliable indicator of air pollution levels, the Belgian team says that audio recordings captured by street-level microphones can reveal the truth just as effectvely as air quality sensors. And microphones are much, much cheaper.

How ironic that the toxic emissions from motor vehicles will be more easily monitored because of an experiment by cyclists.

The abstract of the research can be seen here.

Making cycling events greener


When we organised the first commercial mountain bike event in the UK there was just a small nod towards sustainability. It was, to be frank, pathetic – all we did was include directions to the venue from the nearest railway station.

Of course, most of the 700 spectators arrived in mortorised vehicles. Many of them did the 120 mile round trip from London, in cars that didn’t have catalytic converters, they drank fuel at 25 mpg and used leaded petrol. It was 1984.

We’d kidded ourselves that ours was an Earth-friendly event simply because it involved cycling. Thirty years on, we know better (see the previous post).

So, how best to organise an event that has no impact on the environment?

We’re not talking about carbon offsetting, the cop out that’s used by the motor racing circus called Formula One. We’re interested in genune zero-impact events – and there’s nothing to stop you from still paying an offsetting outfit to plant some trees, to boot.

One of the biggest contributors to an event’s carbon footprint would be travel. So, in a perfect world, events should be restricted to entrants who live within a short distance. How short is short? Ideally it could be reached by bike easily in an hour or less.

That gives a radius of maybe 12 miles and an area of 450 square miles. If you can’t attract enough participants from that area within Western Europe or the eastern seaboard of the USA then maybe you shouldn’t run it.

For some, in the more remote places, the next best option would be to restrict entry to those who travel by public transport – and I don’t include flying. In fact, rail travel is the only credible method for many because buses and coaches tend to reject bicycles as luggage.

If even that is tricky, event organisers could hire coaches that will carry bikes, and include the fares in the entry fees, along with a supplement large enough to offset the carbon several times over.

Granted, these may seem extreme and naive. For something a little more considered, see what the Council for Responsible Sport has done.

They’ve devised a sophisticated method for encouraging organisers to reduce their events’ impacts on the planet.

But precious few cycling events have ever applied for certification.

Executive director Kevin Peters tells me it may be because “cycling events take sustainability for granted”.

That’s sad. It’s pretty much where we were in 1984.

How green are cycling events?


Riding a bike, in itself, has the lowest impact on our planet of any form of transport except walking (see Cycling Science pages 24 & 25).

But what about cycling en masse, such as sportives or charity rides? Participants often drive many miles to take part.

And what about the biggest of them all – the Tour de France? The publicity caravan, team buses, police, press and organiser’s motorbikes, TV helicopters and air transfers between stages all belch carbon.

Then, of course, there’s us. The fans. How much of the Earth’s resources do we convert into greenhouse gases just to catch a glimpse of our heroes?

One answer was given last month in a summary report on the envronmental impact of the 2007 Grand Depart from London. It was published by BRASS (the Centre for Business Relationsips, Responsibility, Accountability and Sustainability & Society at Cardiff University).

In keeping with the current backlash against the relentless rise of cycling, the summary was interpreted by some as an exposé and that Le Tour deserves no green jersey.

The CO2 emissions generated by the crowds it attracted to London from across the UK, Europe and the rest of the world were 2.2 times higher than if they had stayed at home and watched it on TV.

But that’s as far as it went.

It didn’t take into account that some or all of those attending may not have stayed at home even if Le Tour hadn’t happened. It was, after all, a lovely summer day, just right for a day out.

And the summary didn’t take into account the reduction in vehicle emissions in central London, caused not only by closing the roads to traffic but also by the disruption,

And it certainly didn’t compare the environmental impact of the stage to any other large sporting event.

This is unfair. Unintentionally, it blackened cycling.

The authors might, at least, have drawn comparisons with the impacts of other sports events of global interest.

Fortunately, it is possible to straighten the record a little.

In 2006 I wrote a piece, for IPC’s guide to Le Tour, discussing the green credentials of the event. By happy coincidence I spoke with a BRASS researcher.

He told me that, compared to other large sporting events, such as the Olympics, Formula One or the FIFA World Cup, the Tour is green, “Particularly when you consider how many spectators there are,” he said.

The key is that the Tour is a road race.

“It uses the existing road network and doesn’t need any new infrastructure such as stadiums which require large amounts of natural resources.”

And he pointed out that the Tour may actually boost sustainability. “It may even inspire people to cycle,” he said.