Can competitive cyclists help the face of bike advocacy?

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Tim Johnson, apparently a prominent cyclocross racer, recently got into bike advocacy.  Says he:

Bike advocacy is about as far away from ‘cool’ as one can get.  It’s a world full of recumbents, Day-Glo yellow, helmet mirrors, wool and tweed; the stereotypes that make self-important racers and hardcore enthusiasts cringe.

I’ve often been confused by the question “Are you a serious cyclist?”.  I don’t own a car, and bike virtually everywhere I go.  I’ve spent a year or so cumulatively living on my bike touring.  In eastern Europe, in Mexico.  To my mind, this makes me serious.  But not so in some other minds.  To many it seems that only competition can make one “serious”, and I just don’t understand.  But then, I’ve never watched a SuperBowl either.

Bike, Boots, and Kid

The gist of the article is that bicycle advocacy has a marketing problem, and I agree with that emphatically.  The Day-Glo yellow and helmet mirrors (much though we might love them) turn off not only the spandex-clad superheroes, but also the public at large.  However, I don’t think that the “hardcore enthusiasts” are really the right face to put forward either.  Cycle Dork is a subculture to which only a few will aspire, but the sporty competitive folks, while “cool” within some narrow swath of the population, are inherently exclusive, by virtue of their competitiveness, as well as the dysfunctionality of their gear in the context of everyday transportation.  They are also despised as pretentious aliens and weekend warriors by many non-cyclists.  I think most normal folks — the populist bike market — cringe just as enthusiastically at the carbon fiber, body armor and/or color-coordinated skin-tight outfits that the so-called “enthusiasts” adore.  The problem isn’t that we’ve chosen to promote the wrong subculture, it’s that we’ve chosen to make cycling subcultural at all.

Hold on tight!

We need somehow to communicate that bicycles aren’t just for cyclists.  They’re for everyone.  You’ll notice that the car companies and the AAA aren’t marketing to motorists or automobilists.  Their market is every single person in the country.  Ours can be too, but not by transforming the population into cyclists.  We need instead to make cycling populist.  Bikes are transportation for the young and old.  For families and fashionistas.  In rain or shine or snow.  By day and dark of night.

We need a conception of bicycles that is accessible not to 5% of the population, but to 50% or more.

Southern Sun Bike Parking

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4 Responses to Can competitive cyclists help the face of bike advocacy?

  1. Neil says:

    Yo Zane!

    Good article. As a lifelong “casual” cyclist who recently became “serious” (ie, started competing in road), I’d like to add my two pennies.

    First, as we see in Boulder, our conception of cycling is already accessible to the majority of the population. I see elders on bikes all the time, and I see mothers and fathers carting their kiddo trailers through some danged hilly terrain. This makes me smile.

    I also see hardcore racers, who have been training and racing a few weeks or a few decades, putting in the effort to make cycling safe and accessible. In general, I think a lot of racers are already advocates for cycling – they have a big stake in the game. They organize rides, make sure people know the rules and follow them, and start campaigns like http://www.peopleforbikes.org/ and http://bouldercyclechic.com/ This also makes me smile.

    But you know what doesn’t make me smile? Sprawl. If we really want a lot of people on bikes, we’re going to have to grow smarter and probably retrofit our cities even more to make them accessible and safe to all kinds of cyclists.

    I think you’re onto something when you say that we cyclists need not create unnecessary divisions amongst ourselves. It’s also true that the responsibility for bike advocacy shouldn’t fall solely on the shoulders of grandma commuters – thing is, I don’t think that’s how things currently stand.

    Anyway, I’m rambling and it’s starting to get late. But as a new member of the CU Cycling Team, I know for a fact that our group would welcome any and all ideas for how to become better advocates and representatives for cyclists as a whole. Join our listserve, and maybe come talk to us… won’t you? 🙂

  2. Neil says:

    PS. It was nice meeting you at the Boulder Cycle Chic meetup the other night.

  3. Tsuru says:

    As a spandex-clad non-competitive serious cyclist, I whole-heartedly agree with your article. Bike advocacy starts with those on the bikes though, all of us. I can’t tell you how many folks out there have no idea how to remotely ride a bike in the street (or even that they should be in the street and not on the sidewalk), from roadies to freds to hipsters all they way down the the guy with a DUI in jeans… advocacy starts with learning how to ride a bike, something most of these people on bikes don’t seem to know how to do.

  4. Zane Selvans says:

    Riding a bike for transportation is much more accessible — and socially acceptable — in Boulder than in the US at large, but I’m not so sure that it’s something the majority of the population considers. Just based on the demographics of my photo bicycle counts, I can tell you that women, as a whole, don’t feel comfortable riding — they’re outnumbered 4:1 by men. Parents transporting children are also vanishingly rare (less than 2% of riders). Children younger than high school are also practically non-existent, and by then they’re probably already lusting for a car. The fact that we see these less aggressive riders at all means we’re doing a better job than, say, Los Angeles (where I lived for 11 years) but that’s not saying much. Young to middle-aged males (of which you and I are specimens) are still very much over-represented.

    I’m curious what makes you think that People for Bikes or Boulder Cycle Chic were started by racers… the first is a project of Bikes Belong, a bike industry funded advocacy organization and the second well, I know all 4 people involved and I don’t think any of us are particularly competitive 😉

    Anyway, I’m meeting someone for a ride in a few minutes, but I’ll definitely come check out CU Cycling. I searched for it, and all I could find was the team mailing list, and I thought no, that can’t possibly the only bike organization on campus. Let me know when/where you meet up.

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