I read an op-ed last week in the Brisbane Times. The piece was about London Mayor Boris Johnson’s stunning £ 913 million ($1.4 billion Canadian) 10-year plan for new cycling infrastructure. Stop and absorb that number for a minute. $1.4 billion. Over $100 million per year. Proportionally, Vancouver would have to spend about $8 million a year to match this commitment. Instead, Vancouver is in the middle of a $25 million 10-year plan.
But that’s not what caught my attention in this article. Instead, the article focused on Mayor Boris’ remark that he wants to “de-Lycrafy cycling”. It moved on to a discussion about cycling tribes and a perceived growing divide among cyclists between those who believe cycling should be a normal, everyday activity that does not require “cycle-specific clothing” and those who stuff their body into skin-tight kit.
This divide isn’t restricted to London, or Australia. The “cycle-chic” movement manifested in Copenhagen but the North American chapters (is it a movement or a cult, I half-jokingly wonder) are quite vocal too. Vancouver, of course, has one of the more active cycle-chic organizations (see http://vancouvercyclechic.blogspot.ca).
The op-ed talked about two tribes, but after thinking about it, it’s really three tribes:
- The cycle-chic tribe. Never mind cycling in ordinary clothes, they want to cycle in good looking clothes. They shun helmets, lycra, drop-bars, and gearing. You’d be forgiven for calling them hipsters.
- The utilitarian tribe. They don’t really care what they look like, as long as it’s comfortable. This might mean padded lycra shorts. It might mean a “technical” top. It usually means a mix of styles, clothes, bags, and bike types.
- The club rider tribe. They want to look good, but their idea of looking good is complete, matching cycling kit. Team-branded lycra top and bottom. Fast, light-weight, expensive bikes.
I fall squarely into the utilitarian tribe. I use my bike to get to and from work, daily. My commute is 10km each way, with a significant hill climb. It’s a 30 minute workout. I get sweaty. There’s no way I’d be comfortable, or even *presentable* if I wore my work clothes on my commute. And that’s in dry weather. Cycling in “ordinary clothes” in wet weather would … well, it just wouldn’t work. By the same token, I’m not wearing lycra top and bottom. Well, not 100% lycra. I do wear a sweat-wicking top, typically under my sensible MEC cycling jacket, with MEC riding shorts or tights. I never match and certainly wouldn’t characterize my gear as “good looking”, but I get to work every day comfortable and without chafing.
But you know something? Much like most things in life, it’s not all black and white. When I’m riding with my kids, often pulling one of them behind my bike on a ride-along, I’m usually wearing “normal” clothes. We’re riding slowly and I’m not usually breaking a sweat. I doubt it puts me into the “cycle-chic” tribe (I’m pretty sure “chic” is not a term EVER used in reference to me) but it definitely fits the mentality that you don’t need special clothing to be a cyclist. And I swing the other way too. I’ve got matching lycra kit that I sometimes wear when I’m out road-riding. It’s cool (that is, not warm), light-weight, and keeps the chafing away. When you’re out riding 100km, you’re pedalling in the neighbourhood of 20,000 rotations of the pedals. Without “proper” clothing (and sometimes, despite) you’re going to get sore.
So, I don’t think it’s productive talking about cycling tribes. Different people ride their bikes in different ways. There’s no sense in berating people for wearing lycra in the same way there’s no sense looking down on people because they’re cycling in jeans. Some people may choose to eschew fashion in favour of practicality, others may choose form over function.
If we want to “normalize” cycling*, then we need to allow people to be themselves. Without judgment, without being patronizing.
What about it? Do cyclists belong to distinct tribes? Or is it a silly characterization?
* A whole different blog post. I don’t buy into the “normalization” of cycling idea, mostly because that requires a belief that cycling right now isn’t normal.
Last modified: April 15, 2013