Cycling is the ultimate eco activity, right?
While riding a bike is seen as an environmentally friendly pastime, the professional sport can be far from it. With copious amounts of litter disposed of, gas-guzzling cars, a jet-set lifestyle and kits that are minimally used, pro cycling is far from eco.
Canadian women’s Continental team InstaFund Racing is tackling that head-on as it looks cut its carbon footprint and become a carbon-neutral squad from 2022. Single-use plastics have already been banned from the team, as of June 1, and it wants to reduce its environmental impact further.
“Our team wants to set an example, it’s a mission-driven focus, and we’re learning along the way about what changes we need to have to achieve a zero-carbon footprint,” it won’t happen overnight, but for our team we’re making a statement, it starts now,” team manager Adam Korbin told VeloNews.
Achieving such a lofty goal will be a task that is easier said than done, and a much bigger one than the team first thought. There are more simple things to address such as the use of planes and cars, or their plan to eliminate single-use plastics, but it’s not as easy as that.
The team could leave it at that and declare themselves carbon neutral, but there is much more to look at when you scratch the surface. After coming up with the initial idea, discovering what it really means to be carbon neutral has been a learning curve for Korbin and the squad.
“I don’t know if we’ll ever be able to say we have a fully carbon-neutral footprint. If you take ownership of the bike that you ride that alone, with the materials, the manufacturing and the shipping, that’s massive to begin with,” Korbin said. “The whole process of reducing is just that, a process. It starts by defining what a carbon footprint is and determining what can be changed easily and what will require collaboration in all aspects of cycling
“When we started this path, we had very basic definitions that I think the general public would agree with of what it would be to be carbon neutral. Once you start deep diving in and start getting help from people in the industry, you see it is far from as straightforward as you thought.”
There are certain aspects of being a professional cycling team that are difficult to work around, such as the need for travel. Jetting around the world for races is possibly the largest part of cycling’s carbon footprint. Then there are the many vehicles needed at the races themselves.
A report on the men’s Deceuninck-Quick-Step squad estimated that it emitted 1,288 tons of CO2 during a season – which is equivalent to more than 500 flights between Europe and the USA.
While some changes can be made, such as using trains or electric vehicles when possible, it’s just not practical to take anything other than a plane to some destinations.
For that, the team will have no other choice but to use carbon offsetting – a practice where you pay an organization to help reduce carbon emissions in the atmosphere, such as by planting trees. Carbon offsetting is widely used, but it has proved controversial among some environmentalists as it still allows companies and individuals to produce vast quantities of CO2 without making any significant changes.
“I think there’s value and merit to it, as long as you’re doing other things as well. I would much rather host a clean-up ride at every race venue we go to, where we spend some time as a team cleaning up where we’re racing and having little impacts such as that,” Korbin said.
“We are changing how we are looking at the calendar, the movement of people, and thinking where we can use trains instead of planes and how we can maximize that. Also, we’re looking at how we can condense our calendar so it can be more geographic block centered, rather than moving country every weekend.”
The team’s recent racing program, which included several weeks in Spain, has allowed them to adopt a more geographically balanced schedule. By setting up a hub and traveling relatively small distances to each race, it allowed the team to cut their emissions from the outset, rather than offsetting afterward.
It’s not so easy to do that throughout the whole season with races all over Europe and North America that require lots of back-and-forth travel. With an even busier calendar, the problem is even more pronounced in the men’s side of the sport.
“It’s often easier said than done, but those blocks do reduce your footprint because you’re not getting on a plane from Belgium to Spain and then back up to Belgium for the next weekend and then across to North America,” Korbin told VeloNews.
“It might be a bit of a blessing in disguise from the pandemic that calendars were shifted and it showed that things can change if they need to. I’m curious to see how that keeps developing. At the same time, I really hope they expand the women’s calendar, so the teams get more race days.
“There is the convenience that the blocks are a bit more geographically centered on the women’s calendar, but it would be nice that, as the calendar keeps building out, there is some thought around that.”
Making equipment last longer
Cutting carbon emissions and offsetting those that are unavoidable is one part of the puzzle, alongside scrapping single-use plastics. However, the team still plans to go further by looking into the lifecycle of all its equipment and kit.
Unlike most regular bike users, a lot of kit and equipment becomes redundant after a year. The lifespan of many items is exceptionally short and the team is actively working with members of the bike industry to ensure products last, in one form or another.
“The goal is to try and keep a product going for as long as possible,” Korbin said. “I’m really honored that over the past six weeks the team has been participating in a circular economy workshop designed for the cycling industry.
“Its an exciting project with cycling industry companies taking part and we have been looking at how a team can work with suppliers differently to what is expected and make it a circular economy model for a team, so any equipment is designed to have a longer lifespan with less waste and more respect for the materials that go into production.”
Riders’ kits are probably one of the biggest victims of professional cycling’s fast-fashion habit. With crashes, regular sponsor changes, and transfers between teams, clothing doesn’t last long before riders are forced to move onto the next piece of kit.
Everyone likes a new kit day, but what happens when riders are done with the old items?
“We’re working on a plan with MakerLabs, a local creative space, to upcycle all of the old used kit into different items. Basically to repurpose the material”, said Korbin. “This inspiration came from within the team, as one of our riders Caroline Baur, owns an upcycling company called CaBa designer. Caroline makes crashed jerseys, ripped rain jackets, and turns them into bags. They’re really neat bags and we’re hoping the idea catches on.
“With the quantity of kit that we have we want to take it a step further and think what else do cyclists need, like a changing towel, or maybe we can take our kit and make it into covers you can use for your bike when it’s on a roof rack. That’s how we want to keep the items alive, in this case it’s repurposing and we recognize it isn’t ultimately the long-term solution.”
“The other side of that equation is how much kit you can’t wear if a sponsor changes from one year to the next and your colors change a little bit. So, we’re thinking about the design side and having a more generic training kit that could last you more than one year. We’re just trying to think how we can make items last longer.”