Skip to content

A Cyclist by Any Other Name Would Spin Just as Sweet

February 8, 2012

It’s often said that bumper stickers are useless in that you can’t possibly sum up a political or philosophical position in a mere phrase. But they do serve a somewhat useful purpose – to tell the people around the driver a little bit about the person’s identity. While some are frustratingly in your face, there are others that bring a smile to my face and make me think that I would actually like to meet the driver. As I have an unfortunate fondness for goofy/sincere bumper stickers (like the vegetarian one), I find it a bit unfortunate that there’s no way to put any on a bike. But thinking about that fact, I realized that riding a bike for transportation where I am in and of itself a statement about my identity.

The image of what it means to be a commuter bicyclist varies widely by geography and culture. In the D.C. metro area, you have three types of commuter cyclists – racers, “bike culture” folks, and folks who aren’t necessarily “into” cycling but think it’s convenient/cheap.

The racers often wear spandex, use high-end gear, bike down major roadways, and use their commute to rack up mileage. Most people who see them think of them first and foremost as athletes, even if they’re headed to work. Anyone who grimaces whenever someone has shouted, “Hey, Lance Armstrong!” hates the cultural image of this group, even when they’re a part of it. Similarly, the character of Jeff the Cyclist in Pearls before Swine is the ultimate summary of this unfortunate stereotype.

Then there’s the “bike culture” folks, who span a wide array. These are people who are either active bicycle advocates or think cycling to get everywhere in and of itself is fantastic (not just for cost/convenience). In the suburbs, they may wear spandex, especially because long commutes are much more comfortable with bike shorts. In the city, they generally wear street clothes or bike clothes that just look normal. They may also wear fancy street clothes, like the fellow at the Victorian-ish Seersucker Ride who told me he always dressed that way. These are the folks you see most often with cargo bikes, as they value comfort and practicality in their gear far more than speed. When riding recreationally, they may be more interested in where they are stopping for lunch than how fast they are going. They enjoy going on slow, meandering recreational rides for the sense of community. (Can you tell this category includes me?) An increasing number of stores like Bicycle Space are catering to this group specifically, rather than to racers. If a person in this group is outspoken about his or her love of bicycles, he or she may be labeled a hippie, treehugger, gentrifier, or maybe even a “myopic little twit.”

Then there’s the commuters that ride bikes the same way they ride the bus or walk somewhere. They aren’t particularly fond of it as a mode of transit, but it’s easy and cheap. Some of the people in this category are young professionals who live near their work, while others are low-income folks who find the bus system too restrictive and Metro too expensive. Capital Bikeshare appeals the most to this group, as it maximizes convenience and ease. Although people in the second group might use CaBi occasionally, they’re likely to own their own bikes, and racers would almost never ride on something that heavy. In fact, the bikeshare deployment in my area is specifically targeted at low-income folks in the hopes that subsidizing it will increase their transportation options. Because D.C. has only recently starting shifting towards cycling as a major option, some drivers will lump this entire category into either the first or second group because they can’t imagine a “normal person” cycling somewhere. As a result, even casual commuter bicyclists run the risk of being harassed just because of their mode of transportation. On the other hand, just a change of clothes can move someone’s appearance to others from the first or second group into this one. One of my fellow advocates in my community bicycle advisory group said that he tends to be treated very differently by drivers whether he is wearing spandex or semi-street clothes with a reflective vest.

Of course, elsewhere in the country and the world is a far different story. I suspect that in more bicycle-friendly cities like Minneapolis, and even moreso in bicycle-friendly countries like the Netherlands, bicycling is far less of an identity marker in general. People would find no reason to yell at cyclists or harass them if everyone does it. (Not that rude/threatening behavior is ever acceptable in any circumstance.) In contrast, cycling out in rural areas or less cosmopolitan suburbs in the U.S. is far stranger than in the city. If you use a bicycle for your main form of transportation in places that are generally unsafe for cycling, especially at night, you may be looked at askance. I believe the thinking goes, “Why would you be putting your life in danger unless you’re some sort of deviant?” The most common label I’ve heard is that the person must have lost their drivers’ license for drunk driving. Many of the people who have this attitude have no qualms about bringing their kids out for a bike ride on the weekends and may even support bike trails. In these areas, the idea of cycling for recreation is completely separate than for transportation.

Even within the cycling community, there’s identity conflicts at play. The racers and enthusiasts don’t always get along terribly well, in part because the enthusiasts feel the competitive image discourages people from trying it out at all. Admittedly, part of my refusal to purchase a road bike to replace my sturdy hybrid, despite the fact that it would have made the Climate Ride easier, is a backlash against the idea that you need fancy equipment to ride.

I hope that someday, people can use sustainable forms of transportation anywhere, be they walking, biking, or taking public transit, and not have that taken as a mark of identity. When we need to start creating bumper stickers for bikes to show off our opinions, we’ll know that we’ve reached a real milestone.

About these ads
9 Comments leave one →
  1. February 8, 2012 11:54 pm

    ” The racers and enthusiasts don’t always get along terribly well, in part because the enthusiasts feel the competitive image discourages people from trying it out at all. Admittedly, part of my refusal to purchase a road bike to replace my sturdy hybrid, despite the fact that it would have made the Climate Ride easier, is a backlash against the idea that you need fancy equipment to ride.”

    Part of my reasons for not going to a roadie bike with dropped handlebars, is simply wanting a bike where I don’t have to worry overly going over grates, railway tracks and rougher stuff.

    For some of us who do cycle regularily one sometimes forgets how noticeable once appears in helmet, jacket going up the elevator at work to get into the office.

    I’m not sure we could get to a place in a decade or so where cycling is just not part of a person’s identity. It would be like brushing teeth…we don’t call ourselves tooth-brushers because we do something that is necessary and part of a daily habit.

    • February 9, 2012 5:31 pm

      “Part of my reasons for not going to a roadie bike with dropped handlebars, is simply wanting a bike where I don’t have to worry overly going over grates, railway tracks and rougher stuff.”

      Honestly, that’s the main reason I haven’t switched to a road bike yet. I like being able to go over gravel if necessary. Similarly, part of the path to work is quite bumpy and I don’t think a road bike would handle it as well. That, and I’m admittedly cheap.

      As for it not being part of a person’s identity, I would be very happy if it would be the same way as driving a car. Whether for good or bad, everyone just assumes you know how to drive and it’s considered a legitimate form of transportation.

      • Eric_from_A permalink
        February 9, 2012 11:12 pm

        Sounds like a cyclocross bike would be good for you. They usually have around 32mm wide tires with a little bit of profile that run with lower pressure than traditional road bikes with 23 mm slicks but still have the drop bars. It’s a great alternative.

      • February 9, 2012 11:56 pm

        My mom has a cyclocross bike and she really likes it. She says it’s perfect for what you’re talking about – bumpy but not mountain biking. Still doesn’t change the fact that I’m cheap though. :-)

  2. Alex permalink
    February 9, 2012 12:42 pm

    I don’t know that fancy equipment is key, but the right equipment certainly is. I never would have got into cycling without a folding bike. I have a long commute, and knowing I could take the train home with my bike if I had to was really important, especially when I first started riding. It’s still nice if it starts raining during the day and I haven’t planned ahead and brought my raincoat…

    • February 9, 2012 5:35 pm

      That’s an excellent point. (Sorry that your comment wasn’t posted immediately – it was caught in WordPress’s spamtrap.) I know I like being able to fall back on taking the train home, but it is a pain to have to wait for rush hour(s) to pass before being allowed to bring my bike on. Being able to go on whenever would be great.

      Although I’ve never actually ridden a folding bike, I’ve heard good things. There was actually a blogger from Bikehugger covering the Climate Ride on a folding bike and the bike he was using certainly didn’t seem to be hurting his speed.

      • February 9, 2012 9:46 pm

        I also have a Dahon folding bike (in addition to 3 other bikes)..and I love it. But no, I don’t use it everywhere, every day…more on trips and locally when I know I won’t be leaving it unattended for long periods of time. (I’m careful with my baby). He has a Dahon too but a different model. So I refer to my bike, “Baby Day”, just to distinguish from his when we talk about our bikes.

        I went overseas and we cycled around in Germany, etc. with our loaded panniers. Took trains also with our bikes. So handy and a great way to see the countries!

        I think you would enjoy a folding bike, Shannon. The bike has seen several 120 km. day trips within the past 2 years. I go up 10-12% hills with loaded panniers. Just buy 16 inch wheels at least.. (or was it 18 inch. The bigger wheels for folding bikes.)

        Mine is also lightweight and has an internal hub.

Trackbacks

  1. The View from the Bottom of the Hill « Will Bike for Change (or Pie!)
  2. In the suburbs I learned to drive and you told me we’d never survive « Will Bike for Change (or Pie!)

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 50 other followers

%d bloggers like this: