This is a sentence you often hear that's completely untrue: "Cyclists have the same rights and responsibilities as drivers." In fact, cyclists have only a fraction of the rights, yet bear a disproportionate amount of responsibility. Only when drive-thrus start serving cyclists and people start insisting drivers wear helmets can anybody reasonably claim otherwise.
One particular area in which cyclists bear an undue amount of responsibility is in the area of accountability. Specifically, people love to hold individual cyclists responsible for the behavior of everyone else who throws a leg over a bike. This is why your cranky neighbor will argue against a new bike lane because of that one time a cyclist "almost hit him."
This is unfair. You shouldn’t have to be your cycling sibling’s keeper just because you ride a bike. Indeed, in an ideal world, you wouldn’t even be a cyclist just because you ride a bike; you’d just be a regular person. Imagine how easy cycling would be if we could all be totally indifferent to each other, as drivers are. Bliss, sheer bliss! It’s like this in the Netherlands—nobody gives a shit that you’re riding a bike and it’s wonderful.
Unfortunately, here in America, we still haven’t reached the point where we can ride bicycles anonymously. We need each other. This means that, like it or not:
You Are Part of a Group
That’s right. If you ride a bike, you’re part of a community, and as a community member you do have certain responsibilities toward each other, as well as toward society at large. Alas, mainstream guidance doesn’t go much further than “wear a helmet,” which makes figuring out your role in the cycling community akin to learning about sex in the schoolyard: awkward, with a lot of miscommunication along the way. The good news is that your responsibilities as a cyclist are fairly straightforward. Your number one responsibility is to yourself, and it is this:
There are of course plenty of people who stop there. You’ll see them riding around on department store bikes and collecting cans. And that’s fine! However, in order to truly thrive as a cyclist, it’s crucial to move beyond this basic responsibility and onto the next level, which includes:
Consider Your Fellow Riders
No, I’m not talking about waving. Anybody can wave. It’s a flourish; there’s no real substance behind it. What truly matters is being there when your fellow cyclists need you. This might mean stopping during your commute or your long-awaited leisure ride to offer assistance to a fellow rider who has dropped a chain or incurred a flat. Yes, you might be late, and yes, you might get your hands dirty. (The sorts of people who drop chains generally have filthy drivetrains.) Nevertheless, even if you’re a meager mechanic yourself, you never know when the contents of your saddlebag might be of use to a stranded rider who perhaps has the know-how but lacks the tools to implement it.
Of course the most enlightened form of offering assistance is doing so when the stranded rider has an extremely expensive bicycle and wardrobe. In such a case, it can be tempting to laugh and call out, “Let’s see you buy your way out of that one, moneybags!” as you pass.
(Can’t say I’ve reached enlightenment myself yet, but I’m working on it.)
Be a Role Model
There’s no way around it: people are passing judgment on you as you ride and your comportment matters. Does that mean you have to wear a helmet every waking moment or do those stupid old-timey hand signals nobody understands anyway every time you change direction? Nah.
It does mean that you should occasionally try to make cycling look enjoyable and like something a normal person might want to do. Loosen up! Wipe that puss off your face! And for chrissakes wear some normal clothes once in a while! The oppressive nature of American cycling has forced half of us into Lycra and the other half into hi-viz safety gear like we’re on our way to a roadwork site. Nobody really wants to look like that—and if we can get more people riding, maybe we won’t have to.
You Don’t Have to Be an Advocate, But You Do Have to Do...Something
Being a true bicycle advocate is like being a professional cyclist: you’ve got to be born to do it, it’s very hard, and for the most part, there ain’t a lot of money involved. Fortunately, because we do have such hardworking bicycle advocates it’s very easy for you to do next to nothing. Still, you have to do something. Join an organization, make a donation, sign a petition...and for fuck’s sake, vote against the local politician pandering to the cranks with anti-bike rhetoric.
Few people have the time or the constitution to face the soul-crushing experience that is speaking up at a community meeting about bike lanes. The very least you can do is lend a hand to the people who do.
Speak Up When You’re Off the Bike
In many years of cycling, I’ve never had any success in addressing a motorist who, through either negligence or antagonism, has attempted to kill me. At best, I’ve gotten half-assed apologies that only made me angrier. At worst, I’ve gotten lunatics who leap from their vehicles and attempt to finish the job. These days I try to keep my mouth shut and focus on Responsibility #1. [See: Stay Alive.]
Off the bike is another story. We’ve all been in situations where people who don’t realize we ride start ranting about bikes. If you’re the retiring sort, you may be tempted to let it go, but it’s important to let these people know we’re human. So when your dental hygienist starts going off on “those damn cyclists” during your cleaning, what are you gonna do? Just lie there while the pick of injustice scrapes away at your tartar and your soul? Or rinse, spit, rip off that bib, and cry: “I’m not going to stand for this!”? (Or, if it’s the actual dentist and you’re in mid-procedure, something more like: “Uh-muh-muh-muhmuhmuhmuh!”)
Sometimes you’ve got to stand up and mumble for what’s right.
Illustration by Taj Mihelich