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?