I Am a Cyclist

Cyclist CollageLanguage is important. Words are important. We need to refer to things with labels, and in labeling things we often pack a lot of meaning into a single word. One of these loaded words is “cyclist”.

A recent article in Gizmodo, of all places, discusses how using the word “cyclist” is dangerous and how saying “people on bikes” could be safer — safer as in improving the physical safety of people. The central argument of the the piece is that the word “cyclist” brings to mind a certain stereotype: lycra-wearing, speed-racing, law-breaking, expensive bikes and gear, hyper-competitive people. And the author, someone who rides a city bike in everyday clothes at a casual pace, feels that since she doesn’t fit the “cyclist” stereotype, she shouldn’t be referred to as a cyclist. The safety aspect comes up with a bit of sociological analysis: some people believe that using the term “cyclist” dehumanizes the person riding a bike, and as a result “others” (by which they mean motorists) don’t treat the cyclist with the same care and consideration that a person would normally receive. The suggestion by Los Angeles County Bicycle Coalition is “people on bikes”, or “people who ride bikes”. The suggestion is that by putting “people” first, then “others” will think of the person and not the stereotype.

The Bike Pittsburgh organization has mounted a public-awareness campaign with the same idea, without being as forthright about avoiding the term “cyclist”. Much like the Worksafe BC Slow Down campaign (“Slow Down Our mommy works here”), BIKEPGH’s campaign includes powerful posters with “humanizing” messages and photos of people: “Nurse. Mother. Rides a bike.” “Student. Adventurer. Rides a bike.”

Vancouver’s Chris Bruntlett wrote a similar article for Hush Magazine. His article “I Am Not A Cyclist” expresses the same sentiment as the Gizmodo piece: because his behaviour, gear, and look doesn’t match the “cyclist” stereotype, he doesn’t feel that “cyclist” applies to him. In fact, Chris says in the first paragraph of his essay that he despises being referred to as a cyclist.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m sympathetic to these ideas. It’s easy to put labels on people, and once you label someone, it’s easy to project stereotypes on them. And in doing so, the person beneath the label gets hidden, removed from the thought process.

But, let’s consider the word cyclist in the Oxford dictionary:

cyclist: n. a person who rides a bicycle

That’s pretty straightforward, pretty unambiguous. It doesn’t say anything about the type of bike, the type of gear, the style of riding. It doesn’t say anything about the person riding the bike, their motivations, their story. It’s just a clear noun to describe a person who rides a bicycle.

My objection to disowning this term is that in disowning it, the very stereotypes and dehumanization that are trying to be avoided are being perpetuated instead. Those people on bikes who don’t want to be called cyclists because they don’t like being associated with certain perceptions are reinforcing the stereotype. Instead of normalizing the word
“cyclist” and instead of broadening the types of people who are thought about when the term “cyclist” is used, a number of problems result: They themselves are dehumanizing those cyclists that do fit the stereotype. They are introducing an “us vs them” attitude amongst cyclists. They bring confusion to the public who aren’t really that concerned about semantics, who think “there’s a cyclist” when they see a person on a bike.

Anyone riding a bike is a person. They are somebody’s daughter or son. They might be someone’s mother or father. They might be your doctor, your teacher, your food server, or a bike courier. They might be dressed in lycra. They might be dressed in tweed. They might be riding an upright city bike or they might be hunched over aerobars. They’re all cyclists, and deserve to be thought about as … people.

So, I own the word, but it doesn’t define me. I’m a father. I’m a husband. I’m a son. I’m an engineer. I happen to ride my bike to work regularly, and that makes me a cyclist. Sometimes I wear lycra on my bike. Sometimes I wear jeans. Sometimes I’m riding a road bike, sometimes an upright. Sometimes I’m pulling a kid behind me on a tag-along. Sometimes I’m riding with my kids and my wife on the roads as we get to and from things in our neighbourhood. We’re cyclists. And, we probably log more kilometers on our bikes than the average family. But we also walk. A lot. That makes us pedestrians. And we drive places too. As shocking as it might be to readers of this blog, I’m a motorist. Oh, and we take a lot of transit too. That makes us … wait. We’re pretty average city dwellers.

So, when you think of cyclists, don’t think just of the fully-suited club-riders. Don’t just think of the capri-wearing fixie-riding hipsters. Think of me and my family. Think of Chris and his family. Think of tourists riding the seawall. Think of kids riding to school. Think of your neighbours, your friends, your colleagues. Ride a bike? You’re a cyclist. And that’s all right.

4 Responses to “I Am a Cyclist”

  1. Hi Anthony… Thanks for your take on this. I must say, I was quite taken aback by the overwhelming response to my “I Am Not a Cyclist” piece. It was, far and away, the most popular article I have written for Hush Magazine. And to be perfectly honest, a subject I really don’t feel THAT passionate about. However, I was motivated to write it after appearing on the Bill Good Show, where the host referred to me as an “avid cyclist” on air throughout the interview. I was a little puzzled, as I seriously doubt he refers to his other guests as “avid motorists” or “avid bus riders”. My larger point was that for the one hour a day I sit on my bicycle, I am indeed a cyclist. But the other 23, I am a myriad of other things, most importantly a citizen of a multi-modal city. As in Amsterdam and Copenhagen, the bicycle will not be a normal and accepted mode of transport until we stop identifying folks as ‘cyclists’, and treat them as individuals, with a diverse range of politics, incomes, ethnicities, careers, and interests. The only common denominator is their mode of transport on any given day. Anyway, that’s my two cents. Thanks for providing yours! :-)

  2. Ruth says:

    Anthony’s last-but-one paragraph particularly resonates with me. When I’m on my bike, I’m a cyclist but I don’t automatically stop being all the other things I am – a mother, an office worker, a daughter, an aunt, a terrible dancer, a chocoholic – just as being in the car or on my two feet or on my snowboard doesn’t suddenly change me into a different person.

    I also agree with everything Chris says above.

  3. Ian says:

    The same battles over terminology get fought over many other terms – atheist, communist, skeptic, liberal, gay, etc. – and it’s always the same. Words are more than definitions in the dictionary, they invoke ideas and stereotypes. It’s important to fight to reclaim words and push for more positive definitions, but sometimes you have to work in the broader context.

  4. S. Rose says:

    This is reminiscent of the recent “I’m not a feminist” thing, and driven, I think, by the same regrettable dynamics- there are negative stereotypes associated with all sorts of activities and behaviours that people don’t want to risk having applied to themselves. Yes, I support the rights of women to control their own bodies and participate equally in the workforce, but I don’t publicly burn a lot of intimate garments so I won’t accept the label. Yes, I vote my conscience and work for social change, but I’m no activist- I haven’t sung Kumbaya since childhood summer camp. Sure, I drink to excess, but I’m no alcoholic- it’s been weeks (okay, days) since I woke up on a pool of my own piss in an alley off W. Broadway.

    A label never captures the whole person, but we distance ourselves from the ones that more or less apply to our peril.

    http://bikeyface.com/2013/11/25/utilityvsport/