Regular People Doing Regular Things on Bikes

October 28, 2013


Do you wear regular clothes?

Yes, I know: That’s a meaningless question. You’d expect a person’s wardrobe to vary based on their job, their leisure activities, and their personal style. 

But this sort of question seems to be a thing among certain cycling circles these days. There is, understandably, and attempt to normalize urban cycling, to depict it as a regular thing people do to get to work or buy groceries, instead of a fringe activity indulged in by crazed bicycle couriers and die-hard athletes in branded lycra. And I get it: There are a lot of stereotypes about cyclists, and combatting them is an important part of building safe infrastructure and letting cars & bikes get along on the streets.

But increasingly, this argument seems to take an elitist, judgemental tone; in seeking to make cycling mainstream, it attempts to mainstream all cyclists.

I was struck by this quote in story about a memorial for a cyclist who was recently struck and killed by a  truck:

“Was Carla a cycling activist? No. She was a regular person who was getting around the city in a way that many people do.”

I don’t want to try and read too much into this quote, because I don’t know the question that provoked it.

But what is a regular person? For that matter, what is a cycling activist? And are the two really mutually exclusive?

Chris Bruntlett offered a few distinctions in a piece decrying the use of the term cyclist.

In a local context, the term ‘cyclist’ continues to provide us with a damaging mental barrier and convenient scapegoat. It serves only to alienate and denigrate an entire segment of society, and cast them aside as ‘others’. … They are easily typecast, maligned and disregarded. And worst of all, they are thought of as anybody else but me.

All right, that sounds reasonable. But while eschewing a single word, Bruntlett proceeds to draw up his own list of criteria for alienating and denigrating others:

I refrain from owning and wearing any form of ‘cycle wear’. My morning routine and wardrobe selection do not depend on the mode of transport I happen to be choosing that day; whether it be foot, bicycle, bus, train or automobile. In fact, while most folks I see on the local bikeways are busy indulging in dry-wicking shirts, cleated shoes, padded shorts and high-performance socks, I’ve already travelled halfway to work in my office attire.

I’m unsure why someone would need to refrain from owning cycle wear. It’s not to everyone’s taste, or benefit, but it would be foolish to refrain from wearing something if it was. I don’t indulge in sneakers, a winter coat, boots, or gloves – they are things I wear because they best suit what I’m doing and where I’m going. My own cycling wardrobe is the result of a combination of factors: My destination, the distance I’m travelling, and the weather. I see a lot of cyclists every day, wearing a lot of different outfits. I can’t say that any of them are doing it wrong, because I don’t actually know what they are trying to do.

But this appears to be a problem for Bruntlett: He can’t understand why anyone would want to do things differently. He seems unable to comprehend that those people whose shirts, shoes, and shorts do not match his own may have a longer commute than him, or more difficult terrain, or a different destination. He doesn’t even recognize the possibility that people might not be wearing “office attire” because they don’t work in an office.

I wrote a piece last year that touched on the so-called normalization of cycling, and thought that it sucked most of the fun out of riding a bike. Defining a bicycle as a purely practical contraption, and ruling any accompanying lifestlye or fashion choices as out of order, doesn’t even attempt to convey the wide range of relationships people have with their bicycles.

But beyond merely being a killjoy, this latest drive to define normal, regular cycling does exactly what purports to end: An othering of cyclists, a clear and simple distinction that awards empathy and compassion to some, but not others.

For a more positive example of the “cyclists are people” argument, look to Bike Pittsburgh, which attempts to humanize without generalizing by presenting a variety of people & professionals with their bikes. It also sums it up quite nicely, encouraging people to look past the two wheels and think about the person riding them:

From behind the windshield it may seem that we are all the same, but we come from all walks of life and experiences. We could be your nurse, your carpenter, your child’s friend, your priest or even one of your sports heroes. We may ride for different reasons, but we all love to ride.

Ultimately, this is all that matters: If you ride a bike, you deserve to be safe, and treated with a basic amount of compassion and human decency, uninfringed upon by the kind of bike you ride, where you ride it, or what you wear.