Nice Bike – Wanna Ride?

A number of people have looked approvingly at my bike lately and commented “nice bike.” I’m not great at reading people, but I don’t think they were being sarcastic. None of them appeared to be cyclists.

On the other hand, long-distance cyclists have made comments such as, “You rode 300 miles on that?” The idea that one could ride 300 miles on a hybrid of all things just seemed unthinkable to them. One followed it up with, “You must be as strong as an ox!” Um, thanks?

The disparity in reactions reflects a growing gap in Americans’ view of bikes, especially in the D.C. area. On one hand, you get the folks who are seeing more and more bicycles around, with a variety of people riding them. They may or may not bike themselves, but they’re beginning to realize that biking could be a valid transportation option. They appreciate all of the functional bike accessories – mirrors, racks, baskets, and bells. On the other hand are the people for whom athletic cycling – not necessarily “biking” – is Serious Business. They race, want to race, or do a large number of long-distance charity rides a year. For them, cycling is a competitive pursuit, and any equipment that gets in the way of getting a faster time needs to be jettisoned. They tend to buy high-end road bikes and appear to be baffled by the entire concept of bikesharing. There are plenty of people in the middle, of course. There are racers who use bikes for transportation, people who have different bikes for different needs, people who just lark about on bikes on weekends, and people who only commute to work but manage to have an expression on their face like they’re competing against Lance himself. Nonetheless, I think these groups reflect two major ways of looking at biking – as transportation and sport. Even leaving pure recreation out of it for the moment, I can’t think of another activity with this sort of split identity.

The fact is, they’re both right. There are lots of reasons to bike, and competition is a perfectly legitimate one. In fact, Europe has been able to balance the two for decades. The images of the yellow-jerseyed Tour de France racer and the proper Parisian lady with a baguette in her bike basket are perfectly complementary.

In America at least, the problem comes when one group gives the impression that it’s the only legitimate form.

On the racing side, it occurs when the bicycle shop tries to sell everyone on the light-weight road bike when they really need something to haul groceries in. Or when the bicycle shop doesn’t carry commuting equipment in favor of stocking up on funky sports gels. It’s reflected in the fact that most bicycle clubs have an average of 13-14 miles per hour as their minimum speed, which I personally have some trouble keeping up with. Or one particular pet peeve of mine – when Hard Core Cyclists blow past slower ones on narrow multi-use paths without even a warning. This has seriously startled me and can be dangerously distracting to a newer cyclist. Or the situation with which I started the article, when people in the Hard Core make vaguely demeaning comments about your bicycle and don’t even realize it. Even I’m not immune to it – I’ve made my share of “that’s not hard” comments to people for whom that distance is hard.

But the cycling for transportation crowd isn’t immune either. I’ve seen too many comments on blogs saying, “Why are people in such a rush? Why don’t they slow down?” to think that. The idea that someone may need or even like to go fast shouldn’t be that difficult to comprehend. Similarly, I’ve seen a surprising number of comments that say, “People think they need fancy clothes to bike when I can just use my everyday ones.” While I don’t think that a new cyclist should rush off and buy a lot of spandex, the fact is that many people like riding distances for work or play for which street clothes aren’t appropriate. Frequent commenter Jean has a great post on why the assumption that everyone can wear street clothes cycling can be just as annoying as the assumption you have to drop hundreds on a new wardrobe.

On both sides, people who make assumptions about what is or is not “proper biking” are just showing off their lack of imagination outside of their own experience.

So how can the American hipster with the farmers market pie and the hard-core racer with a closet full of jerseys coexist peacefully? In some cases, that might be the same person on different days. But in the larger society, I think there’s a couple of steps we can take that would help a lot. Acknowledging that every bicyclist is worth celebrating and every well-loved bike is worthy of a “nice bike” comment would go a long way. Going on rides with people who are different from you and learning their personal reasons provides some insight. If you can’t keep up with the racers or the long-distance fans – goodness knows I can’t – reading their blogs is a good substitute. People who do both like the theoretical pie-eating racer can serve as a bridge. I know I greatly appreciate the work of my fellow bike advocacy volunteer Spencer, who is both a racer and a bicycle rodeo organizer.

Beyond communication, building appropriate infrastructure that accommodates all users would ease some of the discomfort. Having unpredictable eight-year-olds going 5 miles per hour and speedsters averaging 17 miles per hour on the same narrow trail is dangerous and inappropriate. It’s no wonder that both end up frustrated. Yet in some places, like the Rock Creek Trail from the zoo to downtown D.C., it’s the only choice available. When we consider investing in bicycle infrastructure, we should consider the whole range of pedestrians and cyclists who will be using it. One option is to build wide paths that accommodate everyone like the Capital Crescent Trail. Another option is to make bike lanes or roads that are safe for faster cyclists as well as accompanying alternative routes for slow cyclists and pedestrians.

While I’m not suggesting holding hands in a circle and singing Kumbaya – holding hands while on a bike is hard! – I do think it would be helpful to have a little more peace, love, and understanding, to quote another folk song. And more bike lanes. More bike lanes always help.

Have you experienced this tension in your bicycling? What do you think could help all bicyclists, not just people in one group or the other?

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9 Responses to Nice Bike – Wanna Ride?

  1. Jean says:

    “So how can the American hipster with the farmers market pie and the hard-core racer with a closet full of jerseys coexist peacefully?”

    As we know, sometimes 1 person can have multiple cycling identities –hipster plus hard core racer.

    Honest it would be unsafe for me to be cycling in flipflops, loafers, pumps, slickback dress dress shoes.. I simply would not be comfortable. It would not be a “carefree” ride with no worries except for errant drivers, rollerbladers. We have to pay attention to these folks when we share paths, roads with them also. Not worry about whether or not our shoes will fall off or we sweat up a nice streetwear outfit. Even if only a sundress. I no longer have a sundress anyway..

  2. Pingback: Nice Bike – Wanna Ride? « Will Bike for Change (or Pie!) | Bicycle News

  3. J.A.B. says:

    Bike lanes don’t always help. It’s not impossible to design a good bike lane, but actively hazardous lanes are a lot more common.

    (But you were on a roll up to that last sentence.)

    • Shannon says:

      Thanks for the comment! Admittedly, bike lanes can create more of a problem than they solve. Just assume that when I promote bike lanes, I’m promoting ones that follow best practices (like those listed on the League of American Bicyclists).

      • J.A.B. says: doesn’t mention the debris problem or the intersection problem, and specifically endorses bus-bike lanes.

        How well do bus-bike lanes work in practice? When I lived near Albany in New York, I found it extremely unpleasant to get trapped behind a city bus — they block the view, give off fumes right where my nose is, average so slow it’s hard to balance, and are almost impossible to pass.

    • Shannon says:

      I find bus-bike lanes to have mixed results. I actually thought the ones in New York City were pretty good. The buses respected my space and the only problem I had was that people kept standing in them to hail cabs. In contrast, the bike-bus lanes in D.C. are awful. Cars don’t respect them at all and are always cutting in rudely. Buses are constantly stopping and trap you with no indication of why they are stopped or when they’ll start going.

      I didn’t know that they had bike-bus lanes in Albany these days! I’m originally from the Albany suburbs and worked there for a little while, but I never biked much in the city.

      • J.A.B. says:

        Bike is — or was, I’ve been gone eleven years — the only way I could go downtown. I could drive a car through the town, but stopping it and getting out wasn’t an option for people not willing to do daft things. (Once I pulled up behind a car that appeared to be waiting for a red light. Light changed, car didn’t move — it was parked in the intersection.)

        All lanes in Albany were open to everybody, and the busses I got stuck behind were all on four-lane streets. I *still* couldn’t get around them. Once in a great while there would be a great long line of people waiting to get on the bus and I’d know that I had time to ride a bus-length and get back into the lane where the bus driver could see me, and if the next stop wasn’t too far off and I pedalled for all I was worth until past it, I could stay in front.

        And what’s with this interface demanding that I press down arrow at the end of every line and sometimes in between? If there’s a next time, I’ll compose my reply in Notepad.

      • Shannon says:

        When I worked in Albany, I took the bus in and carpooled. The few times I had to drive in, it took forever and the only available parking was 3/4 mile away and in a somewhat dodgy area. I lived too far out in the suburbs to bike in most of the time, and at the time, I would have been too nervous to bike in the city.

        I think buses are a pain in the butt everywhere. The ones in NYC didn’t stop very often, which helped.

        As for the interface, I think it’s because it’s a response to a response. If you start it as a new comment, it shouldn’t give you that issue.

  4. J.A.B. says:

    I figured it out right after I logged out after sending my previous comment.

    So this time, I clicked ctl-0, and the text got wee small. My new browser remembers my ctl-+ status and opens the same page the same way next time, so I did’t know I had vastly enlarged the text. This comment doesn’t run off the edges.

    (I like to sit with my face a couple of feet from the screen & most web designers like to leave nose prints, so hitting ctl+ isn’t something I think about any more.)

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