I’ll never forget the first time someone called me a cyclist.
It happened after I ran a red light. If you’re not a person who rides bikes, you might not know about the so-called Idaho stop or that it’s completely legal in many cities for bikes to treat red lights as stop signs and stop signs as yield signs, and that—even if it’s not legal—many bike safety proponents advise doing it anyway. If you’re not a person who rides bikes, you might get annoyed when you see people like me blaze past a line of parked cars and blissfully into an intersection. You might even be tempted to do what the driver in front of me did next.
She buzzed past me in her beige SUV—the line of paint on the ground didn’t offer much protection from the backdraft—then rolled through the next stop sign and threw her car in park on the side of the road. She waited until I caught up, and then opened her driver’s side door and climbed out.
I winced. I was used to the stray driver rolling down their window to heckle me now and then, but this had never happened before.
“Excuse me, miss,” the driver said. “But do your realize that you just ran a red light?”
The woman was maybe 5'3", in a fleece pullover with a dance academy logo embroidered on it and the embarrassed expression of someone who never normally did things like this. I checked her rear windshield: stick figure family, honor roll bumper sticker.
I had a stack of handy little cards I’d gotten from a local bike non-profit about how what I had just done was legal in our city. Of course, I’d forgotten them at home.
“I’m not trying to be confrontational,” the driver said, “I’m a nice person. But what if I’d hit you just now? It’s not just about you. It’d ruin my life, too.”
I bristled, but I tried to keep my tone neutral. “Well, if that happened, I’d probably be dead. I know it’s confusing, but I’ve been riding a bike for a long time, and I know that the safest thing was for me to go through that intersection while there weren’t any cars coming.”
I was late to work, straightening my messenger bag, hoping she’d get the hint. “I’m just saying you should follow the law,” she said, staring me down.
“And I’m saying there are different laws for people on bikes,” I said, pushing off. “I hope you learn about them.”
I heard her mutter it as I pulled away: “These cyclists!”
A Person Who Rides Bikes
I’ve been riding a bike since I was five years old, turning circles on training wheels in the parking lot of a church near my suburban house. By the time the woman stopped me that day on Tower Grove Ave, I’d been riding bikes regularly for going on twenty years.
But when had I become a cyclist?
Most people I know think of cyclists as those who ride bikes for sport: guys (and a few girls) who obsess about the weight of their panniers in grams or talk about “brapping on hardtail” when they mean riding a damn mountain . Those people are cool. But I’m not really one of them.
The day the woman stopped me, I was wearing a knee-length sundress that I’d flash-proofed with the penny trick and a pair of gym shorts underneath. I’d never owned a pair of biking cleats, or anything whatsoever made of Lycra. In college, I volunteered at a bike collective where I learned how to change out a flat tube and rebuild a bottom bracket, but if you start talking top-shelf bike components to me, I will probably smile politely and stay quiet. I am not a gearhead. I ride pretty slow.
But I can see why someone who doesn’t identify as A Person Who Rides Bikes might mistake me for a cyclist. I drive a car, too, sometimes, and when I see people on bikes in my city, that’s what they tend to look like, if I’m not looking closely: Usually young, male, in padded shorts and on carbon-fiber frames, zipping too close to my side view mirror for comfort.
They definitely don’t look they belong in the street.
Of course, bikes do belong in the street. But most of our streets aren’t even designed for those ultra-athletic riders, much less for grandmothers with groceries on their rear racks—and when I pay even a little more attention as I drive, I realize there are lots of grandmas out there on bikes, too. When you’re driving on a stroad and you pass a person on a bike, I can understand why you might mistake them for a cyclist. It seems downright daring to brave a curb lane on a 50 mile per hour thoroughfare in the middle of town, dodging broken glass and pot holes and, yes, the occasional well-intentioned soccer mom who pulls over to harangue you.
I resist the term “cyclist” because I don’t believe riding a bicycle should, by necessity, be an extreme sport. You don’t magically become a NASCAR racer when you get behind the wheel of your Honda—and if the street outside your house was designed like the Indianapolis motor speedway, you’d probably be pretty stressed out. I ride a bike for the same reasons many Americans do. Or the reasons that many of them would if they thought they’d be safe doing it:
- Because it’s cheaper to get to the grocery store or the movies on my bike, and quicker, especially if I’m headed to that ultra-packed downtown food festival;
- Because some of my best memories are from group rides with friends to north city breweries, rain-soaked and happy by the time we sat down for burgers and $4 drafts;
- Because it’s good exercise? Kind of. But I’d be lying if I said that mattered much to me.
A PERSON WHO LIVES IN A CITY
I am not a cyclist for the same reason I don’t call myself an urban planning nerd, even though, yes, I work for Strong Towns, and yes, even before I did that, I spent a lot of time on websites like it, and badgering my alderpeople about the things I learned. Ten-odd years into an armchair urban planning and urban economics obsession, I still can’t hang in a lot of conversations with professionals, in the same way I can’t hang in a conversation with self-proclaimed cyclists.
Or rather, I don’t really want to hang. It’s enough for me to be a Person Who Rides a Bike in the same way that it’s enough for me to be a Person Who Lives in a City.
We can all see the problems in our neighborhoods—and if people get the message that they need to be experts to participate in conversations about how to fix their towns, then we’re losing out on an enormous and crucial resource.
Engaged citizenry shouldn’t require expertise, any more than riding a bike should require a $2000 frame and a mastery of cycling lingo (and to my cyclist friends reading this: forgive me for whatever I’ve butchered). If you’re a Person Who Lives in a City, your voice matters. If you’re a Person on a Bike, get out there and ride.
(Top photo by Flo Karr)