The route of the 2016 Tour de France was recently unveiled, confirming that the Grand Départ will take place in Mont-Saint-Michel.

That means that at the beginning of July, this picturesque island commune in the Normandy region of France will be engulfed by riders, teams, officials, journalists, photographers and spectators. With their cars, motorbikes, rubbish, water consumption and use of energy, they will without a doubt put considerable pressure on the local environment.

That does not mean, however, that we should throw up our arms in horror and deplore the evils of cyclists and their entourage. Experience has demonstrated that the short-term disadvantages of such an event can be largely outweighed by the positive legacy it leaves behind. Take the 2014 Tour de France, which set off from the north of England.

The 2014 Tour de France Grand Départ in Yorkshire was one of the most successful in the Tour’s history, according to its Director, Christian Prudhomme, who called it ‘the grandest ever Départ’.

Starting in the city of Leeds, the Tour spent two days in Yorkshire before a third stage took it to London. The event generated huge interest, with 3.5 million spectators massed along the route, and levels of engagement from villages and cities beyond that of previous editions.

2014 Tour de France, stage 1, Yorkshire (GBR)

In addition, 8000 volunteers, 2000 journalists and almost 2000 official vehicles formed part of the event, generating the equivalent of 1500 tonnes of carbon dioxide for the Grand Départ alone.

Stimulating behavior change

That damage, however, needs to be off-set against the possible change in behaviour that the event triggered. A survey of spectators found that 37% of the attendees wanted to cycle more as a result of the Grand Départ. A study of the impacts of the event concluded that there was a potential saving of the equivalent of 9600 tonnes of carbon dioxide after accounting for the potential shift in behaviour from car to bike by the spectators. That’s 6 times the size of the emissions from the race itself.

For many people considering taking up cycling for their health – and for transport – the sight of elite riders can be one of the triggers for a shift in behaviour. If bike events are incorporated within wider transport and marketing strategies, they can help persuade people to try cycling as an alternative to the car.

The savings from a shift to cycling can be huge. Someone who commutes 5km to work by car could save half a tonne of carbon dioxide per year by shifting to cycling for all those journeys.

Measuring changes in behaviour is a complex and challenging exercise, but attempts have been made with thisrecent study.

Maximising the legacy for long-term benefits

Going back to the 2014 Tour de France, one of the reasons for bringing the Grand Départ de Yorkshire was to help inspire people to take up cycling in a region where – though the sport of cycling is popular – everyday cycle use is very low: just 1.8% of commuters were travelling by bike in Leeds, and even fewer in other cities. The region has created an agency – Cycle Yorkshire – tasked with maximising the legacy of the 2014 Grand Départ and the subsequent Tour de Yorkshire, which had a successful first year in 2015.

The chair of Cycle Yorkshire, Kersten England, says:

“Cycling has the potential to help address major social issues in the region through promoting healthy living, increasing green travel, boosting tourism and supporting social inclusion.”

One of Cycle Yorkshire’s initiatives is a ‘Bicycle Library’ – a collection of bikes that can be used by children for free and at a small cost for adults who don’t have access to their own bikes. These bikes can be used on cycle training courses, giving kids the skills to cycle with confidence. It is these sorts of small scale, community based initiatives that can help build and sustain a culture of cycling.

The environmental impact of major sporting events is therefore dependent on how much emphasis is placed on creating a legacy of everyday cycling. The 2014 Grand Départ experience showed that there is the potential for the environmental impact to outweigh the costs by 6 times. Coupled with the economic benefits, that should make big cycling events something every region and city embraces, particularly if they aim to use the event to help ‘nudge’ their citizens to use the bike for transport.

Boosting the economy

Cities and regions hosting major cycling events welcome many thousands of people whose spending boosts the local economy. Outdoor cycling events such as road and MTB also serve to showcase the region as a tourist destination, creating economic benefits that last beyond the time of the event itself. In some cases the economicbenefits are ten times greater than the costs of hosting the event.

Sports events can also help bring communities together, inspiring positive, lasting changes in the way a city feels about itself and the way its citizens interact, leaving a legacy of happier, more active communities.

Many events have strategies to minimise any negative environmental impact, and UCI’s Bike City label project includes a requirement for cities to consider this as part of their qualification for the label. The UCI would like cities to go even further, using their events to inspire people to cycle more, be it for leisure or transport. Such changes could do more for the environment than any sustainability measures implemented for the event itself.