by Bicycle Times Contributor / December 24, 2015 8:00am
Bicycle Culture, In Print, Opinion
Words: Anna Schwinn
Photos: Katherine Fuller
From Issue #37
Man, I love bikes. I love that I get to live and work in an industry that promotes a healthy lifestyle and enjoy the world through cycling. Smiles for miles. But every so often something starts a debate that highlights what a selfish and insecure community of enthusiasts we really are.
Many of us cling to cycling as an identity, which is dangerous because we often define that identity in opposition to everyone else. We have subconsciously and consciously defined criteria for that “cyclist” identity because the harder it is to attain for others, the more unique we are for having it.
This exclusivity allows us to maintain our “special snowflake” status—because everyone wants to be special. We view the barriers that we had to overcome to gain that identity as the price of entry to our exclusive community, rather than as obstacles we could work to remove to make entry possible for others.
There are plenty of obstacles that make it difficult for people to join this exclusive club we call “cycling,” without even getting into those obstacles involving social, gender or cultural factors. There are a number of people, especially on the small side, who don’t fit most stock sized bicycles, for example. Commuting by bike takes safe streets, infrastructure and an inherent know-how that isn’t always available or financially feasible.
If you have children, time is at a premium and safe transportation is critical. If you want to race a bicycle, you need thousands of dollars a year for equipment, race fees and travel. Finally, there is a base level of health and able-bodiedness that is required to even throw a leg over a bike, let alone commute or tour or journey into the wilderness on one.
If you are fortunate enough to be able-bodied, healthy, have the resources to live in a safe place with a great cycling infrastructure and to work at a physically undemanding job, bully to you! But that’s unfortunately not what the landscape always looks like for everyone. We need to recognize that by being able to participate in this activity we are physically, financially and socially privileged—that is really our identity.
But instead of recognizing and working to equalize the landscape, we mock and shame product that isn’t geared directly towards us, as we also mock and shame those not like us by labeling them as “non-cyclists” or “cheaters.” This is especially problematic when we have these sentiments and work in the industry or on the front line in bike shops.
A spectacular example of an unnecessarily controversial technology is the electric assist bicycle. These bikes have taken Europe by storm, allowing people to ditch their cars for a less expensive, healthier and more environmentally friendly alternative on the streets.
They also allow more people into nature where they may not have been able to push themselves before. The experience of riding is democratized and the implications are massive—so many barriers to riding would be removed for “cyclists” and potential cyclists alike.
But the U.S. has been much slower to pick up the technology, partially because of the aggressive backlash of self-identified “cyclists.” E-bikes “aren’t real bicycles.” They will bring people into the activity that “don’t belong there.” E-bike riders are “cheating.”
Arguments like these are laughable because they come from such an obvious place of insecurity. And we’ve heard them before—they have been used to lash out at other technologies in the past such as disc brakes, hybrids, suspension and triple cranksets.
If you find negative statements like these rolling out of your mouth, take a step back and ask yourself a few questions. What is it that is really bothering you about sharing road, trail or market space with people different from you?
For an activity that is so positively transformative, it’s a riot that we’re so overtly selfish about it. Who gets to determine what a “real bike” is? Who has the authority to determine who does and does not get to participate in cycling? By keeping our club closed we deny ourselves the rich and diverse community that we could have by expanding the experience, not to mention the political power and possibilities for positive change a more robust cycling community could bring.