by Patrick Field

Most journeys undertaken in the UK are short. At present people who choose to get around on a bike are a statistical novelty. Arguments in favour of making short trips by bicycle press harder year by year -- but most people are frightened of cycling, of the effort they think it involves, of sharing space with motor-traffic, frightened that their neighbours might think they've gone broke, frightened they'll be considered a freak.

As the problems of motorised travel become ever more evident the bicycle-deficient majority are increasingly likely to understand that cycling is personally and socially advantageous. But they're scared of doing it. To insulate themselves from having to even consider the possibility, they characterise people who use bicycles as outside normal limits; either less... "What? On a bike? A push bike? Ooh you must be mad," ...or more... "What? On a bike? On a push bike? Ooh you must be VERY fit." ...able than the general run of humanity. Sometimes the worst thing about riding a bike is that 'normal' people tend to see you as 'different'. At other times the relative strangeness of using a bicycle to get around can make you feel special. To be thought of, not as a "person", but as a "cyclist" can be anything from flattering to offensive, depending on the context. The reaction to being categorised as extraordinary usually has to do with status.

A doctor once asked my advice about luggage. He had been a respected family physician for many years and was bridging the gap between full-time work and retirement by spending some time studying the organisation of general practices. He travelled round visiting various surgeries and needed something to carry his books and papers. I suggested a pannier that looked like a briefcase. "Oh no," said the doctor. "I'd much prefer something that makes it obvious that I'm on a bike." This man was sure of his status. Had he been going round the same locations as a stranger soliciting business for a company supplying medicine, or selling equipment, I suspect he would have been less eager to advertise how he was arriving.

All of us who ride bikes have to deal with being treated as outsiders; not taking personal offence at disdain, not getting over-blown when feted like super-heroes or heroines. It's good -- if you can manage it -- to take a positive view of this abnormal status but we must guard against any retreat into exclusivity. It's nice to be in the company of others who like riding bikes, who share your interests, your perspective on the world, and who don't think your travel choice makes you (anything other than statistically) abnormal. It's useful for cyclists to organise themselves into a political lobby, to get together for mutual support. But we need to resist the temptation to glory in the status that others give us; avoid confirming the need of the nervous non-cyclist to see anyone who travels happily by bike as specially gifted or daring.

Ride a bike and you are likely to collect unwarranted praise, as if covering a few miles at a modest speed on a push-bike were a mighty athletic achievement. When this happens it's good to be gracious but also to use the opportunity to try and reveal to impressionable fans that riding a bike, at a comfortable pace, is not particularly physically demanding and that, once you can do it, sharing space with motor-traffic is neither very difficult or highly dangerous. In the Netherlands one in four cycle journeys is made by a female pensioner. Wherever possible we must repeat the message that cycle travel is an option for everyone.

It's easy to look down on the people who don't ride bikes, or who restrict their riding to dawdling in too high a gear, on a machine with the seat set too low, or who think its safer to ride on the pavement than on the road. These people need help, a good example, not disdain. Just riding a bike doesn't make you special. But cycling, if you do it right, can be a vehicle for the expression of individuality. The flexibility of cycle technology and its relative youth (imagine if fire or the string fiddle had been invented only 115 years ago) allows everyone the possibility to develop a style of riding tailored to their personal needs and desires.

Being an interesting person is not about belonging to the tiniest minority possible, it's about self-expression. The choice of equipment available to cyclists is growing all the time. As more people discover cycling's pleasures this trend will continue. Opening up cycling to 'normal' people will make it easier for everyone who rides to progress from a special status derived only from travel statistics to the personal satisfaction of finding what makes cycling special for you.


© Patrick Field
Cycling Plus, June 2001

other stories by P. Field