Cycling Is Only as Hard as You Make It
Want to see more people on bikes? Get over yourself and the rest will follow.
Cycling is easy—really easy. In fact, cycling is so easy that it's the standard by which all other easy stuff is measured, hence expressions such as, “As easy as riding a bike” and, “It's like riding a bicycle, you never forget.” On the cliché scale of difficulty, the only activity that ranks lower than riding a bike is a walk in the park.
The main reason cycling is such a doddle is that the bicycle is probably the most efficient machine humankind has ever devised. Consequently, there’s a profound connection between bike and rider that borders on the metaphysical. Once you learn how to ride a bike, the ability is something you can count on for the rest of your life, like flowers blooming in springtime or U2 releasing yet another album.
Hey, I'm not saying cycling can't be hard. You can make anything hard and it’s human nature to do so, which is why some of us do stuff like walk on hot coals or live in New York. Still, it’s worth noting that in order to make cycling hard they had to invent a 2,000-mile race that takes, like, half the summer and covers all of France. Compare that to something that's actually hard, like caber tossing, which you'll never pad out to three weeks no matter how you try. Even an Ironman is basically a tough swim and a marathon with a leisurely bike ride in the middle for recovery and sightseeing.
It's perfectly normal to want to believe what you're doing is hard, because it gives you a sense of accomplishment. When you spend day after day taking life’s crap it’s important to feel exceptional once in awhile, and some solid saddle time can give you just that. In this regard, cycling is the perfect balm for your self-esteem—not because it’s hard, but precisely because it’s just the right amount of easy.
Cycling occupies a middle ground between the joint pulverization of running and the low-impact languor of golf, which means you can keep riding well into old age, yet you’ll still get some actual exercise in the process. Not only will you be able to ride into retirement without having to get a hip replacement, but once you get there you won’t wind up just another sedentary schlub at an omelette station.
Dirty Kanza? Hard. Great Divide? Hard. Your local group ride? Probably pretty hard. But riding a bike? Not even remotely hard.
But while a little bit of smug satisfaction can be a good thing, a lot of it can be toxic, and unfortunately there are too many of us riding around thinking we're elite athletes pushing ourselves to the very limit of human endurance as opposed to, you know, reasonably fit people enjoying some fresh air while riding a Specialized.
What happens when too many of us take our cycling too seriously is it fosters the delusion that other people couldn’t possibly do what we’re doing, too, and this has repercussions far beyond the insular world of recreational cycling. Consider bike share, for example. When Citi Bike launched in New York City in 2013 there was widespread speculation by tabloid pundits and “avid cyclist” types alike that the program would fail because the average schmuck couldn’t possibly survive riding a bicycle. Here’s a typical op-ed from the time, which predicted nothing less than “carnage”:
Now, imagine introducing 10,000 new bicycles in Manhattan, Brooklyn, and Queens to the mix that will be used daily, but not by people who have had proper training riding through our rough and tumble streets. Nope, these bicycles will be ridden by novices, likely even tourists, who very well may be clueless about the flow of New York City traffic. This is the reality that will launch any day now with the introduction of the Citi Bikes bicycle share program to New York. (You're not in Kansas anymore!)
These prognostications couldn’t have been more wrong. Citi Bike turned out to be both wildly popular and perfectly safe, because—surprise!—riding a bike isn’t that big of a deal. By the time the system hit its five-year anniversary in May 2018, the system had seen something like 60 million trips, and to date there’s only been one fatality.
Now of course bike share is widespread, in no small part due to the success of Citi Bike, and today a city without a bike share program inspires the same sense of bemusement as a person still using a flip phone. However, as the shared mobility revolution enters its next phase, so too does the It’s too hard for people attitude. Across social media, some of the most vocal critics of shared e-scooters have been cyclists, and they make the same arguments we heard at the dawn of bike share: novices not schooled in advance paceline technique couldn’t possibly handle traveling short distances on tiny scooters. (Never mind the millions of toddlers who successfully do so every single day.)
As with bike share, there’s already evidence to suggest these scooter concerns are overblown. Nevertheless, the notion persists that navigating 21st century life without a car requires a level of athleticism beyond that of the average person, and it mires any meaningful policy discussion in an extra layer of bullshit. It’s difficult enough to overcome the retrograde attitudes of entitled motorists and the politicians who serve them; there’s no reason we should also have to trudge through the ego-driven objections of cyclists who really should know better.
Dirty Kanza? Hard. Great Divide? Hard. Your local group ride? Probably pretty hard. But riding a bike? Not even remotely hard. The idea that cycling is fundamentally difficult is behind an inordinate number of falsehoods and misconceptions that hold cycling in this country back: everything from “You can’t do it without safety gear” to “You can’t carry groceries” to “You can’t do it in snow/cold/rain” to “You can’t do it with kids.” It’s also why drivers think anyone out there on a bike is just having fun, and isn’t a “serious” road user like they are.
So go ahead and revel in self-inflicted pain, but never lose sight of the fact that riding a bike is still as easy as riding a bike.