Saturday, November 21, 2009

We are "cyclists"

We are "cyclists": "Mikael Colville-Anderson of Copenhagenize was in San Francisco last week to talk about his out five ways that cycling should be promoted in the United States. Among his other proposals, Mikael suggests that we don't focus so much on the subculture of cyclists.

women cyclists

The bikes we wore.

I knew I'd be at the meeting with a large group of people who identify themselves strongly as cyclists and bike advocates. Several of us -- including myself -- put some thought into which bike we should 'wear' to the meeting to impress the others.

I decided eventually on my Perfect Commuter Bicycle, which was just as well because I ended up parking a block away because there's no bike parking at the San Francisco Planning and Urban Research Association which hosted Mikael's bike talk, though to be fair they just moved into their current facility.

I saw a wonderful Danish Bullet truck bike and the usual collection of fixed gear bikes. Adrienne rode her marvelous be-stickered Dutch Batavus bike in white pants and a frilly yellow blouse. The folding bike of choice for this meeting was various models from Bike Friday. Andy Thornley was in his usual black slacks and button shirt.

Afterwards, several of us wryly noted in conversation that our bike fetish is focusing on the bike subculture. We're gearheads and we know it, but maybe we should ride something a little less flashy and something a little more proletarian if we're really interested in mainstreaming cycling.

I saw a few cleated bike shoes, but at least nobody showed up wearing Lycra shorts, sponsored jerseys and yellow hi viz jackets. I wore jeans, brown pleather street shoes and a bike themed t-shirt. I left home with a nicer casual shirt but a pigeon nailed me as I locked my bike.
A lot of us into bike advocacy obsess about the gear and minutiae of cycling. Even if we're not into sport and racing (which Mikael, incidentally, used to do), we really appreciate higher quality bikes and bike clothes and even bike riding -- we tut tut scofflaws and those who otherwise ride incorrectly.

Vacuum cleaner culture

Mikael in his talk, however, talked about the Danish attitude of bikes. Cycling is very widespread -- 55% of Copenhageners regularly ride a bicycle, and many of them ride year round through the winter rain and snow. When Mikael talks to his Danish friends about American bike culture, they look at him a little non-plussed. 'Bike culture? What's that?'

He began his presentation talking about a mythical Vacuum Cleaner Culture, in which the people blog about their vacuums and obsess about the materials, design and construction of vacuum cleaners. Different vacuums are used for various vacuuming conditions. They recommend the right clothing, shoes, hats, gloves and underwear to use while vacuuming.

In Copenhagen, the bike is a tool just like a vacuum cleaner. Nobody owns more than one or two bikes, they don't spend entire weekends maintaining them, and they don't suit up in special clothes just to make a coffee run.


I think a more apropos analogy might be a car. Most Americans think of a car as a tool -- just a way to get from A to B, but there's also a substantial automotive love affair. Every daily newspaper I've subscribed to has a weekly automotive section with reviews of hot cars most people could never afford. I think most people are familiar with automotive websites like and Edmunds. And who remembers the Justification for Higher Education Poster from the 80s?

Enthusiasts spearheaded auto use in the early 1900s, and even today we have races at the enthusiast, amateur and pro levels. Bookstores are filled with automotive magazines for the enthusiast.

Maybe it's an American thing, but we like to tinker with our toys here, whether they're cars or bikes.


Mikael's whole point is that labeling 'cyclists' as a group alienates the non-cyclists -- the group of people we're specifically trying to encourage. We talk about the specific bikes and clothing to buy, safety classes to take. The bike shops themselves are infamously intimidating to the non-enthusiast. 'I'm a cyclist, and you should be too' has a slightly preachy, smarmy off-putting vibe that many people react against because it's the scary 'other.'

An aside: many people in the United States seem get into cycling because of the tribal, slightly anti-establishment groove of biking. People want to belong to something, and cycling is a way to get back at 'the man.' I have to admit, I've thought that if (when?) cycling becomes mainstream I'm going to have to take up another oddball identity to differentiate myself from the lemming like masses of American society.

What do you think of Mikael's idea? Does this incessant 'cyclist as a subculture' hinder bike promotion in the United States?

'We Are the Cyclists' Monkey Dust video hosted at 53x11.


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