Tony Abbott and the dangers of cycling

"Doctor's advice to Tony Abbott: give up the bike before you have an accident."

That was the headline in last Friday's edition of The Australian, in which Graeme Killer, who recently retired after being a physician to every prime minister since Paul Keating, warned the current PM that "one day he'll come off".

"I encourage exercise totally but riding a bike?" he was quoted as saying, before urging Abbott to follow the actions of former prime minister John Howard, and focus on walking.

How dangerous is riding a bike, anyway? It can be a difficult question to answer. Recently, Fairfax columnist Sam de Brito, pre-empting the PM's physician, asked "should endangered Mamils reconsider their sport?"

De Brito based some of his concerns on a recently released report on Australian sports injury hospitalisations. It showed sports such as Australian Rules and football (aka soccer) vie with cycling for the number of stays in hospital.

However, when it comes to the rate of hospitalisations by participation, cycling starts to look a lot better because (and this may not surprise you) there are a lot of cyclists out there.

The report found cyclist injury rates, based on participation, compare with such activities as dancing and fishing, while ice and snow sports cause four times as many hospital stays during a brief winter window.

It's true that, compared with other sports, a relatively large percentage of cycling hospitalisations are classified as "high threat to life", but the study also noted that cycling statistics are more complicated because it's not just a sport – it's also a means of transport and data about a rider's trip purpose wasn't always collected.

It must be remembered that people ride bikes in extremely varied ways – compare a club rider racing in a twisting, elbow-to-elbow criterium, and a pensioner rolling along a couple of blocks to the beach. In Australia, we tend to conflate the two modes – unlike, say, the Dutch, who have two words for cyclists, "fietser" and "wielrenner" ("cycler" and "wheel-runner").

Advertisement

Nevertheless, should we all just stay in bed?

The problem with focusing on such reports is that it is easy to overlook the tremendous benefits that exercise confers – on individuals, and society in general.

Doctors and emergency departments might see injuries caused by cycling, but meanwhile there are droves of fit bike riders who are warding off obesity, congestive heart disease, depression, etc etc, through their active lifestyles.

This isn't fantasy stuff. The reports come thick and fast, such as the two I spotted this week. One found that people in Melbourne who incorporate walking or cycling into their commutes gain "enormous health benefits"; and in defence of older cyclists, a study of keen bike riders aged 55 to 79 suggested that "cycling seems to optimise the ageing process".

But what about bike riding when it comes to being a busy Prime Minister?

It's been 14 months since Tony Abbott marked his first day in the top job by getting up in the early hours and going for a ride. Since then, the bike has featured regularly in news coverage of his activities.

While his mentor, John Howard, was renowned for his early morning brisk walks, Abbott prefers a speedier start to the day.

He takes his bike overseas and has been seen on rides in such diverse (and deeply enviable) locations as the Champs-Elysees in Paris and the Imperial Palace in Tokyo. On the domestic front, in November he went for a spin with Mark Rutte, the PM of that most cycling of nations, the Netherlands. Britain's David Cameron, however, declined a similar invitation.

But what if he crashes? The Cycling Promotion Fund's Stephen Hodge told radio 3AW: "Tony himself has asked me about this risk but I have to say in Canberra … I think we face more risks or as many risks from kangaroos as we do from cars."

The good Dr Killer (and yes, I'm sure he's heard all the jokes) might suggest other forms of exercise, but the PM clearly loves the bike - and the exercise you most enjoy is the exercise you keep doing.

I was a happy runner and rock climber until injury got in the way. Walking isn't enough for me, I quickly get bored in the gym, and the black line of a swimming pool absolutely does my head in – but give me a bike, and exercise goes from chore to adventure.

Yes, there are risks. But every day, hundreds of thousands of Australians get on their bikes and ride without incident.

As for Tony Abbott, the official response from his office was simply: "The PM has no plans to stop cycling just yet."

Nor should he.

Is too much emphasis placed on danger and not enough on the benefits of cycling? Should the PM give it up?

To encourage constructive debate, this blog will be carefully moderated; please stay on topic.

Follow Michael O'Reilly on Twitter or email him.