How to Think Like a Person on a Bike (And Not Like a Cyclist)

When I wrote last week about why I resist the term “cyclist” and prefer to call myself a “Person on a Bike,” I received some good responses from some truly amazing people including a self-described “57 year old non-athlete who rides mostly when it’s not icy or too icky”; an actual “grandmother with groceries on her rear rack”; and several fellow twenty-something women who have fashioned ingenuous ways to bike to work in skirts. The People on Bikes who dropped me a line were as diverse as the people I see in my own city every day, and they all had fascinating things to say about what they needed from their streets and roads.

But a few people who reached out weren’t so happy:

  • One email insisted that I wasn’t a person a bike; I was a cyclist. Insisting that I wasn’t one was exactly the thing creating division in the cycling community, and that was the real problem.
  • Someone else retweeted my article with a picture of a woman riding a road bike on the beach in sneakers. “Many #cyclists have carbon #bikes+Lycra+wear normal clothes+ride city bikes. #NotEitherOr.”
  • A commenter was annoyed. “Do I really have to move 6 miles closer to my job so I can do my ride on a 60 pound Mary Poppins bike and a 3-piece suit in order to be a proper bike commuter?”
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Every one of them made good points. All of them were thoughtful and articulate people, and I’m grateful that they read my piece, even if they didn’t particularly like it. And when I read what they had to say, I realized I probably had to make a confession: I’m a Cyclist sometimes, too.

I got my first bike jersey over the summer. I had just finished the first leg of a bike camping trip, and I was woozy and sore from riding 50 miles in jean shorts up a long false flat. My lower back ached, and I was lolling on the grass with a beer, procrastinating on setting up the tent. My boyfriend nodded sympathetically as he dug around in his Chrome bag, and that’s when he found it: an old race giveaway jersey he’d bought at Salvation Army for a few bucks because it was a good deal, and then promptly forgotten about. The race had been sponsored by Build-A-Bear Workshop. Even if the jersey hadn’t been way too small for him, the teddy bears printed all over it weren’t really his look.

“You should wear this,” he said. “Put some ice in your water bottle tomorrow and ride with it in the jersey pocket. It’ll help your back.”

I’ve worn the jersey a handful of times since, and it has helped. I’ve experimented with Lycra, too (gasp!), and while I don’t think it’s terribly necessary for my style of riding, I can see the appeal of a pair of padded shorts. I even bought a pair of those cool clippy shoes for myself, though I’m still a little petrified I’d fall over at a stoplight if I wore them out on the road. I’m not lying when I say I’m more comfortable being called A Person On a Bike, but—don’t tell—every now and then, I sure as hell could pass for a cyclist. 

And more to the point: in the rare moments that I find myself in my full-on cyclist get-up, I still care deeply about how the streets I ride through are built. And for the most part, so do all my cross-racing, Chamois-Butt’r-needing, mega-athletic friends who would call themselves cyclists proudly and without a moment’s hesitation.

Cyclists are People on Bikes. And the kind of People on Bikes who will never touch a fiber of Lycra a day in their life still need Cyclists in the fight to create better streets. They also need sympathetic drivers, and transit riders, and people on hoverboards, if those infernal things somehow manage to stick around. We need every single person we can get.

But here’s where I may disagree with some of the commenters: I do think there’s a difference between People on Bikes and Cyclists. And I think that difference is about empowerment.

I don’t believe that the average Person on a Bike who catches a wheel on a poorly designed trolley rail and flips his handlebars is likely to think that anyone will care what he has to say if he complains (much less feel empowered to write a great editorial and make some concrete suggestions on how to make the street better, like this Cyclist did.)

He might think, I’m not a city planner; I want this street to be safer, but I don’t even know how to ask for a better design.

He might think, I’m not a real cyclist; maybe I don’t know how to ride well, and it’s my fault that I wiped out.

He might not think anything all. He might just walk his bike home on the sidewalk and decide to never ride again.

I don’t believe our culture does a good enough job of letting plain-old People on Bikes know that their voices matter just as much—if not more—than the person with the expansive urban planning vocabulary.

Because he’s not a capital-C Cyclist. He’s not someone who considers his mode of transportation a part of his identity. He’s a person who tried to ride a bike, and he got hurt. He probably won’t take to the cycling rights message boards or the city council meeting to demand that we all do better. Nothing has suggested to him that he would be heard if he did. 

I believe that’s the single biggest problem facing cycling in America.

I don’t believe our culture—not just aggressive cycle-bro sub-cultures, not even cycling culture in general, but our entire culture, in cities and towns across this countrydoes a good enough job of letting plain-old People on Bikes know that their unique needs are valid, and that their voices matter just as much—if not more—than the person with the expansive urban planning vocabulary.

If our cities aren’t built in a way that keeps all people safe on the roads, then they’re not built well enough. If our cities are built from the top down by experts rather than from the bottom up in response to the real needs of many different kinds of real people, then they’ll never be truly strong communities. This means that People on Bikes need to be invited into the conversation about how our streets are built, and given center stage. But it also means that Cyclists—and planners—need to think like People on Bikes, and like People in Crosswalks, and People in Wheelchairs, and on and on and on. And don’t get me wrong—a lot of you already do.

Speak up, if you haven’t. Keep it up, if you have. And let’s all try harder to listen.  

Join me tomorrow (Thursday, Feb. 9) at 1pm Central to discuss the differences and overlaps between People on Bikes and Cyclists in a live SlackChat. More info here.

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