Posted inOpinion

Threat to Cycling in Oxfordshire Taken as Opportunity by Local Team

In 2016, cyclists from Oxfordshire’s Abingdon Race Team grew tired of driving 100-mile round trips to take part in races and decided to set up a race series of their own. In February of that year, they held their first race on the airfield of Dalton Barracks on the outskirts of Oxford, itself a famous cycling city.

Despite the obstacles posed by coronavirus and the filming of a Spielberg World War 2 drama on the airfield, Dalton quickly became a popular and inclusive fixture on the local race calendar. As well as providing over 20 criterium races and several cyclo-cross races a year, it’s safe to say that Dalton has also created a community which turns out to compete and support even in the worst weather that an English February has to offer.

However, the future of Oxfordshire’s only closed-road cycle circuit – and the community built around it – has now been called into question, with the Vale of White Horse District Council allocating Dalton Barracks for housing development. But rather than simply accepting this threat, ART has rightly taken the housing development as an opportunity. To the applause of Oxfordshire’s cyclists, they have called on the district council to consider a proposal that would allow for the race track to remain and flourish alongside the new community that the housing development would create.

Over the last five years, the airfield has provided competition opportunities for an estimated 16,000 cyclists. This includes everyone from complete beginners, such as myself in 2018, wearing a high visibility helmet on an oversized bike, to top-level professionals like Alex Richardson of Alpecin Fenix and Charlie Quarterman formerly of Trek Segafredo.

Dalton has also undoubtedly played a role in the post-lockdown surge in women’s cycling. Speaking to The Oxford Blue, Jo Atkins, ART’s Women’s Team manager, recalled that when she first started racing at Dalton, only five or six women would turn up. However, recent events have attracted fields of over 30, drawing teams from as far as London. Testament to the opportunities that Dalton provides, ART’s women’s team will be heading into the coming season with over a dozen riders aged between 18-47. Without the airfield, cycling in Oxfordshire would be far more exclusive. Regular opportunities to compete would be limited to those with the time and means to make frequent trips to Milton Keynes, London or Chippenham, and the opportunity to train and engage future generations in the sport would be lost. We cannot let this happen.

I am continually surprised that the district council’s latest planning document, in relation to Dalton Barracks (Dalton Barracks strategic allocation draft Supplementary Planning Document), makes no mention of the vital role the airfield plays in supporting the cycling community. This is despite the housing project’s involvement in the UK government’s ‘Garden Communities’ programme, a programme that seeks to promote community and healthy living, it strikes me as borderline hypocritical.

Putting this irony aside, the district council’s sidelining of the cycling community seems to potentially contradict key commitments in its planning policies. For example, development policy eight of the Local Plan 2031 part two, in which the Dalton Barracks plan is included, states that “development proposals that would result in the loss of existing community facilities and services […] will only be supported where it would lead to the replacement of an existing facility equally convenient to the local community […]”.

Luckily for the district council, ART have made a proposal that would allow for Dalton to continue to support the existing cycling community, while also providing engagement for residents of the new development. Their proposal is the setting aside of a portion of land by the airfield for the construction of a purpose built cycle circuit. One just has to look at the success of the Redbridge cycle circuit, constructed in 2008, to see the value of such projects. If combined with the construction of Dalton’s garden village, a cycle circuit could be a relatively cheap investment in both the future of cycling in Oxfordshire, and the health of local communities. The success of ART’s races has surely shown a level of demand for such a facility, while Dalton’s proximity to the A34 would make it a prime location.

If the district council is serious about community and healthy living, and wishes to avoid an appearance of hypocrisy, then ART’s proposal is surely an option that they must consider.

For now, the district council continues in the early stages of planning the development, while ART must wait and see what the future holds for cycling in Oxfordshire.