The green revolution: Can the professional peloton effect change?

Michael Woods considered living off-grid in an effort to reduce his environmental impact, while cycling is for life and not just work for Alison Jackson.

Photo: Tim de Waele / Getty Images

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This is the second article in a series of four on VeloNews on the subject of the environment and sustainability in cycling. Read part one, part three, and part four of the series.

What do you do when you want to be good to the environment, but your job doesn’t allow it?

That’s a conundrum that many pro riders find themselves in as they try to balance a career that sees them jetting around the world with concerns about the environment. While it’s not a widely discussed subject in the public forum, it doesn’t mean it is a topic that is ignored inside the peloton.

Like the wider public, opinions and approaches differ on pro cycling’s environmental impact and what, or even if, something should be done about it.

Being passionate about an activity that happens to be eco-friendly, doesn’t necessarily translate into care for the environment.

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

“The pro peloton is a reflection of the world population,” Israel Start-Up Nation’s Michael Woods told VeloNews. “You have people that are really concerned about it, and they’ll want to change, there are people that think about it a bit, but it doesn’t really consume them, and then there are people that just don’t care and want to go about their day-to-day routine.

“It’s not like people are inherently bad, it’s just they’re busy and distracted. I am not here to condescend towards anybody, I don’t want to put anybody down because I’m not perfect when it comes to this either. I do take a business class flight to Australia to the Tour Down Under. There are things that I do that are not environmentally friendly but I’m conscious of it, and I just want others to be conscious of it.”

Woods decided to make a change to his own lifestyle and made a bold step at the start of last year to commit himself to going carbon neutral. To do this, calculated that his carbon footprint in a normal season would about to about 60 tons of C02.

To achieve his goal, Woods has chosen to pay for carbon off-setting. It is a controversial method of reducing a carbon footprint and there is an argument to say that it glosses over the real problem.

However, it’s the only viable option for some parts of Woods’ carbon footprint, as he can’t swap planes for trains when he travels to many races, and he has a responsibility to his team to race where they ask him to.

It’s complicated.

Woods is not the only member of the peloton to try and make a change, even if it is small, and Woods credits former teammates Alex Howes and Mitch Docker for “showing me the light.”

Jumbo-Visma rider Robert Gesink is getting solar panels installed on his home and he has switched to an electric car, while Liv Racing’s Alison Jackson doesn’t have a car at all.

Antoine Duchesne spoke to VeloNews last year about his efforts to ensure he eats sustainably.

Rising star Gino Mäder (Bahrain-Victorious) launched an initiative during the Vuelta a España, where he donated €1 for each rider he beat on a stage and a further €10 for each rider he beat in the GC to project that aims to “re-green” Africa. He raised almost €5,000 himself and supporters nearly doubled his total.

Also read: CEOs of Specialized, Rapha, Assos, BMC and others sign Climate Commitment letter

“When I first started thinking about how I could best change things from an environmental perspective. I realized I do have a platform. It’s not huge, but I do have a platform,” Woods said. “I spent time thinking about what how I could change my lifestyle and how I could reduce my footprint.

“At one point, it was like, what if I just like, bought a plot of land in the middle of nowhere and live off-grid? I don’t have to be a contributor to environmental decline but if I did that wouldn’t change.

“It changed things for me, but nobody else. Because I do have this platform instead and I do love racing, I do love racing my bike. Why not try and see how I can affect change within my sport? Why not figure out ways to reduce my personal impact but then also use those ways as examples to motivate others to try and do the same?”

The enemy of progress

Concerned riders could, of course, give it all up for the “good life,” but would that have an impact outside the individual carbon reduction?

If one rider packs in the jet-set career to have a more environmentally friendly lifestyle, there will certainly be another person ready to take their place in the international peloton.

The mentality of “what’s the point when others don’t change” can be a dangerous one when tackling any problem, not least that of climate change. We can’t all wait around for everyone to be on board before taking steps forward. Something has to be done, now.

As Winston Churchill said in 1952, “perfection is the enemy of progress.”

“In anything we do, it’s the little steps that make a big difference,” Jackson told VeloNews. “It’s what you’re consistent about. We’re not going to be able to be perfect. Bike racing is a part of my life, but there’s so much more of my life, or how I do my daily life that contributes to the value of the environment and sustainability.”

Jackson hasn’t taken the step of carbon off-setting like Woods has, yet, but she has also tried to ensure her lifestyle away from racing has as little impact on the environment.

Without a car, she rides everywhere when she’s at home, including to do the groceries, which can involve a long round trip when she’s back in Canada.

She also tries to limit the amount of plastic she uses and doesn’t shy away from having a word with a fellow rider if she sees them littering.

Rules have been introduced by the UCI to try and tackle the littering problem, with riders potentially being ejected from races if they do it, but commissaires can’t spot everyone that transgresses.

“There are quite a few people who have been policing in a bike race,” Jackson said. “You have your gel, and then what do you do with the wrapper? You put it back in your pocket, it doesn’t weigh that much.

“There are a few girls that are so good at it, I’m one of them. It’s about being vocal if you see someone throwing their trash in the river or in the forest. There are people who have that as a value and yeah basically like internally police it.”

Implementing a change

Professional riders are normal people like you and me, and there is ultimately only so much they can do without having the support of the industry.

However, unlike many of us, they are in the position to have the ear of industry and potentially force it to change.

“It’s difficult because you don’t want to like, you don’t want to bite the hand that feeds you,” Woods said. “At the same time, most companies that are involved in cycling are often very forward-thinking because they get cycling, and one of the most beautiful things about the action of cycling is how environmentally friendly it is. How you get to go out and enjoy nature without impacting its decline.

“I think leading by example, promoting conscious consumerism, and promoting environmentally friendly thinking could certainly impact the sponsors that are involved in the teams.”

Jackson would like to see cycling companies to a proactive approach to tackling problems such as waste and not need to rely on the consumer to make all the changes.

“I would love to see production change. That’s a big polluter,” Jackson said. “If we can have bike recycling programs, we take all of these old components, bikes, seats, and make them 100 percent. Take them and revive them back, which is the circular model, I would love to see that.

“I would like that be like a norm, so everyone knows where they can exchange things,” she continued. “Another thing I would love to see is that all of our bar and gel wrappers are 100 percent compostable. There are a couple of companies that do that. One thing that bothers me in pro cycling is all these single-use wrappers. We have to have the nutrition and food in the bike race, but I think there are ways that we can do that better. I’m just trying to encourage all partners and brands to get on that.”

An American in France

What’s it like to be an American cyclist living in France? Watch to get professional road cyclist Joe Dombrowski’s view.