Why Don’t More Avid Cyclists Become Bike Activists?
Some cyclists are drawn to advocacy while others remain uninterested. Eben Weiss explores biking’s political divide.
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Not too long ago, Warren J. Wells, the policy and planning director at the Marin County Bicycle Coalition, put the following question to Twitter:
Why does biking thoroughly radicalize some people, (typically urban transportation riders like myself), while other 5,000 mile/year “avid cyclists” remain unfazed and wholly uninterested in any political movement for better infrastructure?
It’s an enticing question, and robust discussion ensued in the thread below Wells’ tweet. Let’s see if we can answer him once and for all. (Spoiler alert: we can, and I will.)
While the label “avid cyclist” is often one people give themselves so they can talk trash about actual cyclists, presumably Wells is referring to roadies and other types of “serious” cyclists, since he stipulates the label referring to a person who rides 5,000 miles per year, and not the five (5) miles a year the typical self-professed “avid cyclist” actually rides. For the avoidance of doubt, I will use “Serious” instead of “avid” going forward. Furthermore, by “radicalized” cyclists, my assumption is that he means “advocates,” so for the sake of both clarity and alliteration I will heretofore refer to them as “Smuggies.”
To answer Warren J. Wells’s question thoroughly and conclusively, it is first necessary to understand the relationship between Serious Cyclists and Smuggies, and since he is being reductive, then so will I. Basically, the Smuggies don’t particularly care for the Serious Cyclists. They find their preening fatuous, their too-fast riding on shared paths selfish, and their fixation on fitness and equipment rather than transport counter to the profound utility and fundamentally transformative nature of the bicycle. They also resent that the average non-bicycling American associates cycling with these so-called “Lance Armstrong wannabees,” and in turn lumps the Smuggies in with them. Serious Cyclists feed the perception that bicycling is an expensive hobby for entitled white people, a stereotype the Smuggies are desperate to avoid, because theirs is a higher calling: to save the Earth by getting everyone to ride bikes.
Meanwhile, Serious Cyclists don’t give the Smuggies a second thought, unless there’s a Smuggy slowing them down on the bike path, in which case their thought is, “Nice sandals, Granola Breath! Now get the hell out of my way.”
So in this context, the answer to Warren J. Well’s question–and the one it seems like maybe he’s fishing for–is this: They don’t care. They ride to go fast and get fit. They like cool toys and speed. They suffer from “toxic masculinity” and see complaining about or succumbing to vehicular intimidation as a sign of weakness. They probably drove to the start of the ride in the first place, and maybe even honked at a few Smuggies on the way. They like things the way they are!
Obviously (I hope) all of this is gross hyperbole. I realize that neither category of cyclists fits my narrow definitions. To be sure, Serious Cycling includes an ample contingent of elitist snobs. However, Wells’s tweet also belies a sort of reverse snobbery by which Smuggies can feel they’re bicycling more meaningfully and purposefully than those who do so for recreation, and in turn look down upon them. Smuggies can’t believe someone might simply enjoy riding without demanding more in the way of infrastructure, in the same way the oenophile is amazed someone can drink wine without worrying about body and serving temperature and different varieties of grapes. But of course it’s possible to enjoy riding a bike without knowing anything more than how to stay upright and out of trouble, just as you can happily drink wine without knowing anything more than that it comes in white and red. Not only is it possible, but it’s also easy, and whether it’s bikes or wine we should consider the people who are able to do so without dealing with all the bullshit that comes along with it quite lucky.
It does seem unfortunate that many Americans seem to see riding bikes as a form of recreation and not as a legitimate way to get around. Cycling is often portrayed as a niche activity for ultra-lefties and eco-nerds, but in fact as an outdoor activity it’s quite mainstream in this country, sitting right between fishing and camping in terms of popularity with 52.7 million participants. For those of us who would like to see bicycling as a form of transportation better integrated into daily life, these apolitical riders can seem like a vast untapped resource. Even in America, where we romanticize the car and the open road perhaps more than any other culture, the idea that we should have better bike infrastructure is not weird or controversial. Yet somehow, the idea persists that actually asking for it is impertinent. It’s almost like we’re constantly on the cusp of turning to each other and saying, “You know what? This is totally normal! We need more of this!,” and if only the Lycra set would lend it’s voice, then we’d achieve bicycle utopia.
Then there’s the fact that, beyond all the idealism and petty annoyances and griping on social media, advocacy is fundamentally a matter of life and death. Sure, some riders become advocates because they’re fed up with drivers cutting them off on their commute, or they want more places to lock their bikes, or they think they’re pedaling us out of a climate emergency. Still others become radicalized because a friend or a riding buddy or a family member or a partner was maimed or killed and then written off by the city and the media as an “accident.” Maybe they were even seriously hurt themselves. But not every cyclist has been exposed to this sort of tragedy, nor does everybody who has been grieve in the same way. Yes, many people who have been riding for a long time are not more than one or two degrees of separation from someone who has died on the bike. While some become radicalized, others may simply choose to keep riding in the name of the lost compatriot, and to cherish their memory. This is far from a cop-out; in fact it can be just as important as advocacy, because if we focus too much on death, we lose sight of just how much cycling can improve our lives. Ultimately, we want to get more people on bikes, not scare people away from them.
But instead of wondering why more Serious Cyclists don’t become activists, or lamenting their apparent apathy, we should instead be grateful that—for some of us, anyway—our recreation can still exist outside the realm of polarizing political discourse. Like mercury in seafood, politics has leached into every nook and cranny of our culture–and (also like mercury), consuming too much of it makes us sick. Certainly the business of advocating for better bike infrastructure is unavoidably political, but in my opinion, it’s also essential that the freedom and joy of riding a bike always remains independent from it and untainted by it. If anything, too many “radicalized” riders threaten to undermine cycling in the long run, since if riding a bike becomes an inherently political act, then it becomes less attractive and fewer people are liable to take part. Predicating participation in cycling on becoming an activist or subscribing to a certain set of beliefs or participating in a certain agenda is even more elitist and exclusionary than telling people they’re not “real” riders unless they have electronic shifting carbon wheels. If you’re truly “radicalized” you’ll understand this and you’ll work on their behalf anyway.
So, to to answer Warren J. Well’s question: they don’t become radicalized because they don’t feel like it. And that’s okay. Actually it’s more than okay, it’s fantastic.