If you follow me on social media you might have picked up on the fact that I like bicycles. I may mention biking once or twice. A day. The humble 2-wheeler is undergoing a rebirth of sorts. Bearded hipsters in droves have taken to this humble 100+ year old object and use it as their primary mode of transport to get them from their soy chai lattés to whatever it is this other thing that bearded hipsters do (it’s a mystery to me). But don’t let that put you off. Plenty of normal people ride bikes too. And you may even consider becoming one of them.
Now this next bit is crucially important. We need to make a distinction between a few types of cycling. The history of the bicycle saw dramatic shifts in the cultural place it occupies, as well as the demographic that is drawn to it. From a futuristic machine that contributed to women’s emancipation:
to a racing tool ridden by the elite:
Now whichever bicycle you strongly identify with is up to you. If you want to immerse yourself in the elite(ist) world of road cycling, don that shiny lycra kit of ‘your’ pro team (because surely the sponsors’ logos alone make you go faster), obsess about the extra grams of carbon, and spend your weekend clocking up the kilometres to your predetermined goal at which you consider yourself ‘almost a pro’ – be my guest. Now I don’t have anything against roadies (I have *gulp* done my time on a road bike myself) except the almost universal contempt they have for everyone who goes slower than them. Even horses.
If you don’t mind dirt, exhilaration mixed with sheer terror, and the more than occasional bruise – mountain biking may be your thing. I am sure there are lots of blogs out there to help you get started. DISCLAIMER: I own a mountain bike myself and enjoy being in nature and the pure challenge of hitting the trails. Unfortunately, mountain biking is still largely male-dominated and, even more sadly, quite unattractive and non-glamorous. In this blog I shall not be writing about my mountain biking because as far as I am concerned urban biking is completely different. It’s like comparing Olympic race-walking with a stroll in the park.
For many years if you told somebody that you own a bike they would invariably ask you: ‘Is it road or mountain?’ Thankfully, times are a-changing and the recognition that you don’t have to be a ‘cyclist’ to ride a bike is starting to grow.
A relatively recent report by the New Zealand Transport Authority (NZTA) discusses the usual barriers that stop people from starting to cycle. It divides cycling into ‘recreational’ and ‘practical’, with the former referring to cycling with no practical purpose (which strangely groups road, mountain and biking around for pleasure into this category) and the latter referring to commuting or going to the shops. The report itself is quite worthwhile and I encourage you to have a read HERE if you are interested in this topic. However, I find that categorisation rather strange. I use my town bike for commuting (‘practical’), shopping (‘practical’) as well as cruising to a coffee shop (‘recreational’), riding around the park (‘recreational’), riding to the beach for ice-cream (??? I’ll go with ‘practical’). In fact, most journeys I make combine the ‘recreational’ and ‘practical’ aspects of cycling. It is rather ludicrous to separate the two, and it is a sign of continuous misunderstanding of what the bike can do for an individual as well as the urban development. Tell me, do you separate your driving into ‘practical’ and ‘recreational’? Using this logic would make it impossible for you to pop into a wine bar on your car commute home from work on Friday night. What about walking? I am pretty sure you don’t overthink the transition between carrying shopping bags to grabbing a cup of tea.
In fact, elevating ‘commuting’ into almost a sport can lead to all sorts of dumb decisions regarding bicycle infrastructure. The proposed London cycling underground is an example of that stupidity. Sure, let’s take these strange people on bikes out of the city (where they can stop, shop, drink lattés and socialise) and stick them underground out of sight, out of mind. In the same vein, persistently calling them ‘commuters’ rather than ‘everyday people who just happen to use a bike to get to work’ is incredibly short-sighted.
Another aspect of making ‘commuting’ into something special is the proliferation of specific commuting equipment, bikes, clothing, bags, shoes (?) and in the near future, I am sure, commuting sunglasses, commuting socks, commuting scarves, and commuting makeup. I am not against comfortable clothing but guess who is laughing all the way to the bank after charging you premium for special accessories that you now need just to ride a freaking bike? Not you, I am sure.
Don’t misunderstand me, I like accessorising as much as the next person however presenting these items as necessities is ridiculous. If you want it buy it (hello, Yakkay helmet!) but don’t let the lack of the above merchandise stop you from getting on your bike.
So… after checking with Twitter, it seems about 5 or so people are interested in me writing the whys, the hows and the oh-no’s of urban biking. That’s good enough for me. I will be writing about biking for pleasure, for convenience, and, of course, for style. And the next person who asks me about padded shorts will be blocked.