Culture Shift

Like most people in the U.S., I spent a good portion of my adult life thinking of bicycling as a sport. Even during a long period when I rode my bicycle to work everyday, I was concerned with things like personal bests, total miles logged, and target heart rates. As if it was a measure of my worth as a bicyclist (or person?), passing another rider was much better than being passed, and hanging with the front group was something to be done at all costs.

Somewhere along the way, I went through a mental shift that resulted in my viewing the bicycle primarily as a tool for transportation. Along with this mental shift came an outward move away from competitive rides and racing culture. I still enjoy socializing with other bicyclists, and I even participate in group rides, though only those of an uncompetitive nature. And even though I no longer approach bicycling as if it’s a sport, I enjoy bike riding more now than at any time since I was a kid.

Don’t get me wrong; I have nothing at all against bicycle racing and riding bicycles for fun and entertainment. As a matter of fact, I can’t think of a better way to get out and enjoy nature while getting some exercise. And as any bicyclist knows, the joys of bicycle riding transcend every genre; the wind in your face and the pavement (or dirt) rolling by underneath are pleasures all bicyclists experience, regardless of whether they’re putt-putting along on a bike trail or taking a pull in a paceline.

As I’ve made my own shift in thinking, I’ve also sensed a shift in our overall bike culture in the U.S. There appears to be a move away from focusing primarily on sport cycling to a more inclusive and eclectic mix of creative uses for the bicycle. From cargo bikes, fixies, e-bikes, and folders, to carbon racers, tweedsters, and cycle chic, this new potpourri is a healthy step toward opening bike culture to a much wider audience. For those who are just now taking up bicycling again as an adult, this could be the best time yet to find their place within this melting pot we call bike culture.

33 Responses to “Culture Shift”

  • bongobike says:

    Couldn’t agree more, Alan. It is a very good shift in the culture and market. As to the personal shift, I made that one a long time ago too. :)

  • Rick Goolsby says:

    I have just experienced the same thing you have Alan. I thought I was going through some sort of crisis, but instead it was a realization that I enjoy riding for fun and commuting much more than any other type of riding (and I have done them all)

  • Chris Moore says:

    I too underwent this shift a couple of years ago. I actually have found that I enjoy it a lot more. One of my favorite things now is just “riding around” somewhat aimlessly – no destination, no mileage goal, etc. Or if there is a destination, doing some exploration along the way.

    One thing, however, that I see with people who make this shift is that some make another shift – quite unnecessarily – at the same time. This shift is “now that I use the bike as transportation, the bike no longer counts”. They feel like they somehow need to ride a cheap crappy bike. I reject this myself – just like a lot of Bentley’s are mainly used as transportation, so I ride a fine English bike (a Mercian) that I fuss over constantly. For ME at least this increases my enjoyment. Sure, I could ride to work and do my exploring on a piece of junk, but I just like doing these same things on my Mercian!

    Chris

  • John says:

    Even though I ride for fun and commuting reasons, I used to race (ha!) a bit, and even now I can’t get out of the mindset that I don’t like being passed by other cyclists. Which is unfortunate cuz I’m really, really slow.

    John

  • Greg says:

    As I rode in today — it’s Bike to Work Day in the San Francisco Bay area — I saw all kinds of riders, and that’s different than previous years. I saw the regular commuter contingent, but I also saw folks in street clothes, the lycra-wearing racing crowd and and everything in between.

    The shift to including riding for the purpose of getting something done, whether that’s shopping, running errands, or visiting friends, is a big cultural change that will make it socially acceptable to ride a bike for transportation, and will in the end drive the need for bicycle infrastructure, which will create a virtuous cycle of riders demanding infrastructure that makes it easier for others to ride. And that’s a good thing.

  • David Fong says:

    I’m with you there too. Although I still race competitively, I find that I enjoy just hopping on my bike in normal clothes and pootling about my business more than pulling on the lycra for a serious training ride.

    The type of bike also has a big influence – since I’ve been playing with the belt drive, I find I don’t even bother with rolling up my jeans or using clips, which has just made the bike so much more integrated into normal life.

  • stacey2545 says:

    Funny how I came at cycling from the other direction. A year ago February I started riding for transportation and after a few months became interested in it for sport/recreation.

    Hopefully the change in bike culture will be followed by a shift in transportation culture in general so that those of us who are cyclists, of any stripe, are no longer viewed as fringe thinkers.

  • Alistair Williamson says:

    And I see the signs of car culture ever so slightly inclining our way too.

    Cycling in Portland yesterday I had three different car drivers make effort to recognize me as part of the transport system. One stopped on a fairly busy street to let three bikes in a side street join the main street. A second picking up my signal to traverse three lanes of traffic, slowed down to my speed to let me get out of the bike lane. A third about to turn right across a bike lane, came to a stop 75 feet ahead of me and let me pass through on the inside before turning.

    It truly lifted my heart.

  • brad says:

    In competitive cycling, the unspoken mantra is “my body, my machine, my challenge.” I think cycling for transport, utility, and recreation is much more outward-directed, less self-absorbed. That’s a good thing in itself; you miss so much on a bike ride by paying attention only to your pace and heart rate. Riding fast through beautiful country is like roller-skating through the Louvre.

  • brett says:

    Alistair, that sort of thing happens to me in Portland, too, almost every day. (Not to say that there aren’t the occasional jerks/oblivious drivers who cut in front of me while turning right through a bike lane etc.) I think the big reasons are
    1) we have so many bikes on the street in Portland that drivers are increasingly conditioned to look around for us transportation riders;
    2) we have enough bike infrastructure and lane markings — though still not nearly enough separated facilities — that drivers are reminded of our potential presence;
    3) a good number of drivers are also transportation bike riders and see the world through our eyes. We’re not there yet, but I think we’re approaching the point where most drivers will assume that bicycles are part of the every day transportation mix as they drive through the city, and respond accordingly.
    The studies I’ve seen suggest that this is a cumulative phenonmenon — i.e., the more cyclists on the road, the more aware drivers are of cyclists. Just think how much better it will be when the city installs enough proper separated infrastructure for transportation bike routes, like they have in Amsterdam, Copenhagen et al.
    I biked to a concert at a church a couple months during an especially rainy spell, and as I shed my rain gear, I remember several people (including elderly ladies) greeting me with smiles: “You biked here in this rain? Good for you!” I’m sure in many other places, they’d have been thinking “Are you crazy?” Here, it was worthy of praise.

    I try to remember that it’s not like this everywhere, that there are cities where people still think it’s weird for a guy to show up at work or at a play or concert or restaurant on a bike, wearing rain gear etc. In Portland, transport bicycling is not yet the norm or the majority, but it’s a common and increasingly respected mode of getting around town.

  • sbcommute says:

    @stace2545,

    I came at it from the same direction as you as well. For a long time i could not get past the competitive sport vibe that hovers around US bike culture. For me this was a big turn off and probably why i did not start using my bike sooner. Sounds weird but i always thought those race folks were so full of themselves and i just didn’t feel like joining in that scene.

    I do feel there is a big mental shift going on right now and that’s probably why I started commuting on my bike. Maybe now that things are shifting, more people will just get on their bikes and ride.

    I did have a conversation with a coworker the other day who races and commutes. He could not get over the fact that someone tried to pass him on his way in that morning. I think he ended up catching up to him and passing him back. I just started laughing and shacking my head.

  • Archergal says:

    I was thinking about this just this morning as I found a back-street that cut out part of a ride down a busy street in my bike-unfriendly city.

    I felt more like I was just noodling around, like I did when I was a kid, than anything else. I do track my average speed, but that’s mostly to see if I’m getting stronger/faster than anything else. (I’m slower than molasses in January, but faster than I was when I started back riding for commuting purposes last month.)

  • rich says:

    Some people want the bike equivalent of an F1 Lamborghini. Others want the equivalent of a swamp buggy. I’m cool with that. Leaving the automotive analogies aside, I want the bike equivalent of a basic Swiss Army Knife…while it likely won’t stand out in any one performance area, it needs to be durable, fairly easy to use, and do a handful of things pretty well.

  • bongobike says:

    Rich,

    To me the Swiss Army knife of bikes was the MTB of the mid to late 80s. They did a pretty good job as MTBs, commuters, tourers, cargo bikes, etc. The slack frame angles on those bikes made them very comfortable, they had wide-range gearing, you could put racks and fenders on them, fat or skinny tires–just very versatile bikes.

    But then dealers started selling MTBs almost exclusively, and that was not a good thing. Imagine car dealers selling only SUVs. That wouldn’t make any sense, would it? We still have specialized dealers, but thankfully there’s a lot more variety now.

  • Supp Suppinger says:

    Great post! You´re absolutely right! Enjoy Your rides, Supp.

  • Runjikol says:

    There’s many good points and people can find alll kinds of ways to get to the top of the mountain (or any position, really). My father was a competitive cyclist: road racing, criterium, velodrome, etc. I tried a road race once and it wasn’t for me. Even thought I came fourth with no training – that didn’t many anything to me at the time.

    My position is somehwere between transportation cyclist and competitive cyclist. The only person I compete with is myself. I like to know I am gaining fitness, improving speed and stamina, and generally becoming a better engine for my favourite mode of transport.

    As for the multi-tool analogy for bikes I have only one bike that fits that with an extra qualifier: convenient. My convenient multi-tool bike is my Big Dummy. I leave one wideloader on it at all times and keep a cargo net. It is my go to bike: which surprised me when I realised.

    What really makes me grin in all of this shift towards bikes is how much better it will make our ecology (in the Ancient Greek sense of the word: environment, culture, economics). At a time where future energy is looking a little shaky it’s almost like the natural correction is starting.

    And if the shift to cycling can go viral, like say people joining Facebook, then we will have a truly excellent paradigm shift within a year.

  • alan says:

    Amen to ‘the shift’. Enjoy my bike much more after I started using it to commute, joy ride, nature watch and run errands than when I did it just as exercise. But guess what? I still get that out of it also.

  • Roger says:

    I’ve made the shift too. I’ve noticed a many improvement in Vermont too, more bike lanes etc. I have been commuting off and on via bike since the early 90’s. VT is still very bike unfriendly, in-spite of what the tourism people say. I took a sabbatical after getting hit 2 years ago.

    Back then I recall many more altercations and encountering otherwise well-educated grown adult motorists who actually thought bikes had no legal right to be on the road. Recently a bike club member here was told by a police officer it was illegal for bicycles to ride in traffic. This still happens, but it is getting rarer.

    I have almost wished for another $4.00 a gallon gas price spike to get more cyclists on the roads and raise awareness. We were noticing a lot more cyclists on the road during that. I think a few may have caught the bug. As an Iraq vet reducing oil dependence is close to my heart too.
    -R

  • tdp says:

    I don’t ride in races or spend too much time thinking about Le Tour (though I do want to know some as I am in the bike business and sell Treks among other brands) but any time I ride my natural competitiveness comes out and I end up always breaking a sweat… maybe it’s all the hills.

    That said I spend a lot of time reading about and advocating for a better bike infrastructure and incorporation in American culture but still feel somewhat apart from “my bike as a tool” way of thinking. I’m not sure how to reconcile my bicycle schizophrenia.

  • Alan says:

    @Chris Moore

    “One thing, however, that I see with people who make this shift is that some make another shift – quite unnecessarily – at the same time. This shift is “now that I use the bike as transportation, the bike no longer counts”. They feel like they somehow need to ride a cheap crappy bike. I reject this myself…”

    I’m with you Chris. There’s no reason why bikes used for transportation should be any less attractive and enjoyable than those that are used for recreation.

    Alan

  • Alan says:

    @brad

    “Riding fast through beautiful country is like roller-skating through the Louvre.”

    Love that. Might have to borrow it sometime… ;-)

  • Dave Kee says:

    The best thing I ever did was removing the computer from every bike I own. I no longer know (or care) how many miles I have ridden or how fast. Life is good.

  • brett says:

    Yeah, the “cheap and crappy” idea pops up among those who view expensive bikes as elitist. While I appreciate their democratic inclinations, those of us who replace driving with cycling require reliability above all. If I’m trying to get to work or an appointment, I can’t afford sudden breakdowns. And I don’t have time to be forever cleaning my chain or repairing breakdowns or tinkering.

    I also don’t have to spend money adding essentials like fenders, bells, lights, etc. , whose omission contributes to the cheap initial price of so many bikes. In fact, I ride a sturdy, heavy Dutch bike with all the essentials included. I was lucky to get it practically new for half price on Craigslist, and I confess I would never have paid the actual $1500 or more for a new, fully equipped Dutch bike or equivalent . But now that I know how important it is to have all those features, a comfortable sturdy steel frame, really good brakes, puncture resistant tires etc, I wouldn’t hesitate. However , I bet that initial sticker shock deters a lot of potential buyers among people who don’t recognize what a good investment it is when you consider what you’re not spending on the cost of a car or the time you’re spending fixing up a cheap bike or, ultimately, replacing your cheapie; my bike will last a good couple decades.

    I’m sure there are people who buy expensive bikes as a status symbol, but for most transportation cyclists, we’re investing in reliability and comfort, because we’re riding everywhere, all the time.

  • robby says:

    its posts like these that are the reason I read your blog everyday.

  • Doug R. says:

    Great post old friend! I love riding the bike trail to work in the mornings and “tinkering” on some bike on the stand at night. I have become a commuter/collector and that is a good place for me.
    Yesterday, I experienced a woman in a car who made a line of cars wait, so I could cross an intersection! There is a bicycling god! See you on the next Tweed, Dougman.

  • Jo says:

    I’ve been looking at “Cultural Shifts” within local Transit Commissions, and was pleased to discover your blog !

    BTW: The big regional Transit Agency here in Southern Ontario seems to be really starting to get it, when it comes to integrating bikes into an expanded transit framework !

    http://thumbshift.wordpress.com/2010/05/13/metrolinx-laying-tracks/

    Ride On!
    Jo

  • Tony Dyson says:

    You gained a sense of perspective. Some unfortunate people never do. Congratulations!

  • RocBike.com » Culture Shift says:

    [...] on EcoVelo, Alan has a really nice little article about thinking about bicycling as more than a sport. Like most people in the U.S., I spent a good [...]

  • Jason Crane | RocBike.com says:

    I enjoyed this, Alan, and I feel the same way about cycling-as-transportation. Although I was never a racer and never had an athletic perspective to change, I definitely had an epiphany one day about riding a bike. I was covering a jazz festival and thought it would be too hard to park, so I rode my bike downtown for the week. After the festival ended, I thought to myself, “I should do that all the time.” Turned out to be a pretty good idea.

    A day or two ago, I wrote a very short piece about a funny conversation I had regarding transportation cycling. Here it is, if you’re interested:

    http://www.rocbike.com/2010/05/12/road-or-mountain/

    All the best,

    Jason

  • Ryan says:

    AMEN Brotha!

    As has been expressed above I have gone through a similar change over last 18 months I actually stop and take pictures which would have been unthinkable while on a “training ride”. I Built up a steel ride with racks fenders and barcons that I plod along on with no HRM, although I do still have a cyclo-computer on it and I still spend a good part of July with Phil and Paul. Baby steps ;-).

    Great topic Alan thanks

  • Jo says:

    BTW: This is my personal best reason to Ride !

    http://thumbshift.wordpress.com/2010/05/05/confessions/

    Ride On !
    Jo

  • Tyler Colby Hill says:

    NYC has gone through a radical change to point where Chelsea Piers and Goldman Sachs have posted crossing guards on the West Side Greenway. The Lycra crowd now has to share the road with all commuters, delivery guys, day trippers and tourists wobbling on rental bikes.

    One the avenues commuters sometimes bunch up into impromptu group rides which definitely helps with driver awareness.

    Not there yet but getting better. Our DOT commissioner Janette Sadik-Kahn is like a force of nature in making this happen.

    Biking as sport is really valuable in teaching the rest of the biking world how to ride safer and better. I have to admit that I feel safest and with a bit of envy when I’m riding my clunky Giant behind a group sport riders on their fine tuned machines out for a morning spin.

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