The green revolution: Can the cycling industry become environmentally friendly?

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The activity of cycling is one of the greenest out there, but does the bike industry match up to that? What is the environmental impact of making a bike?

The cycling industry is an environmental contradiction, but can it change?

Cycling as an activity is a key component in the ongoing fight against climate change as countries look to reduce carbon emissions by enticing people away from fuel-powered vehicles.

However, the sport and the wider cycling industry cannot boast the same green credentials with riders, races, teams, and journalists traveling all over the world throughout a season and the endless push for the next new piece of equipment.

It might be more environmentally friendly than the car, but cycling cannot rest on its laurels. If the cycling industry and professional racing want to keep up with the push for sustainability, it needs to make changes.

Erik Bronsvoort is the co-founder of Circular Cycling — and author of the book From Marginal Gains to a Circular Revolution — a project that aims to reduce waste in the cycling industry and bring down its carbon emissions. He believes that by utilizing its creative resources, the cycling industry can redesign itself as a more environmentally friendly one.

“In the last 20 to 30 years, there’s been a lot of innovation going on in the cycling industry, ranging from new materials like carbon fiber to the way mountain bike geometry has changed, the introduction of e-bikes, and entirely new concepts on how to put bikes on the street like bike-sharing schemes,” Bronsvoort told VeloNews.

“Having said that, sustainability has never been on the agenda other than we are the green alternative to the car and that is what needs to change. The way companies are built with a lot of innovative power they’re creating new products every two or three years to update the line of products.

“These organizations are probably better suited than any other on the planet to innovate their way out of this mess. I’m quite optimistic that in the next few years we can see a big change in the way we see bikes.”

What is the environmental impact of a bicycle?

In a report on sustainability published last year, bike manufacturer Trek estimated that you would have to ride about 430 miles (692km) to achieve carbon neutrality on your new bike purchase. Those miles would have to be done in place of a car journey, rather than a leisure ride.

The American company estimated that the carbon emissions on its Madone model were in the region of 197kg of CO2, while its Rail e-bike resulted in 229kg of CO2emissions. Trek is one of the few companies to publish this kind of information.

There is also the problem of recycling the materials when they’re done with them. Aluminum frames can be recycled but the paint must be removed before it goes through that whole process, while carbon fiber is very difficult to reuse.

These numbers are tiny in comparison to what goes into manufacturing something like a car, but it can add up with all the new parts and it doesn’t mean that it should be ignored. Tackling cycling consumption and waste can have an impact, especially as more people turn to two wheels for getting around.

“Marketers have been trying to sell all these marginal gains to us, which really don’t make that much of a difference,” Bronsvoort told VeloNews. “The next big thing for marketers and brands to set themselves apart from the others is to introduce more sustainable alternatives to the stuff that we’re used to.

“Stepping away from the ‘we need to shave off two grams’ to ‘we’re going to use some stuff that is not harming earth’ is a very good source of energy for innovation teams to work on. Also, brands need to come up with entirely new ways of doing business with customers.

“If I’m buying a groupset for my bike, I’m also buying the problems that will come with it. Worn out chains, stuff breaking, etc. I don’t want these problems I just want my drive train to work. I’d be happy to pay a monthly fee as long as Shimano, SRAM, or Campagnolo takes responsibility to make sure it always performs as it should. You can make a distinction between buying a product and paying for the use of a product.”

Paying something akin to a membership fee when you buy a new piece of equipment might not be the direction that the industry moves in, but there is a growing drive to clean up cycling’s environmental impact.

In November last year, the CEOs of Specialized, Rapha, Assos, BMC, and several other cycling companies issued an open letter, which was published by Shift Cycling Culture — a project that Bronsvoort is involved in. The letter asked companies to commit to reducing their carbon emissions by 55 percent by 2030 and by 100 percent by 2050.

Since the letter was published, almost 40 CEOs or founders have signed the letter, including from SRAM, Ridley, and Ribble Cycles.

Can professional cycling go green?

It’s not just the industry that needs to work on its green credentials, the professional sport does too. There are efforts to improve the sustainability of the sport, from a rider, team, and race organizer level — we’ll dig into that a little deeper in the next few days — but there’s still a long way to go.

There’s all the international travel to races and training camps, the mountains of new kit each year, the mighty race caravan that circumnavigates many a country, and the tonnes of trash created by gel wrappers, plastic bottles, and race goodies. It’s an eco nightmare.

Canadian racer Michael Woods calculated his own personal carbon emissions of 60 tons of CO2 — approximately three times the average person living in his region — for the 2019 season. More than half of his carbon footprint was down to travel to races.

In making his calculation, Woods did his best to include additional items such as kit, clothing, and the other pieces of equipment he used throughout the year.

That’s over 10,000 tons for a year when you look at a race peloton of 180 riders. There will be riders will larger and smaller carbon emissions across a year, but Woods’ emissions are likely to be around average.

If professional cycling wants to clean up its environmental act, then it will have to overhaul all aspects of how it operates. Bronsvoort believes that the UCI must oversee this change and not be a passive actor in it.

“I think the best way to approach it is through regulation. So, the UCI is basically determining the way bikes should look or safety standards and also the geometry standards,” Bronsvoort said. “If the UCI is able to set a strict set of rules, say by 2025, a bike should be built from 50 percent recycled or bio-based materials and should be 100 percent recyclable, and by 2028, the bikes are entirely circular then the companies providing the teams with equipment will have a good incentive to start developing these products.”

Once innovations are made for the professionals, it can then bleed out into the wider cycling industry, according to Bronsvoort.

“Then what happens, because the UCI says bikes operating in the pro peloton should also be available for regular consumers, you’ll see the same bikes in shops,” he said. “Companies will have another incentive to develop not just the pro bikes, but the entire line-up with these new innovations.

“Then you’ll see a very massive spread of these concepts within the entire cycling industry. The pro peloton does have a big impact and the way it should be done is to make sure that there’s a level playing field supported by UCI.”