Do Vancouver Cyclists Belong To Distinct Tribes? Cycle-Chic vs. Lycra

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Cycle Chic(k) =) 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

4 Responses to " Do Vancouver Cyclists Belong To Distinct Tribes? Cycle-Chic vs. Lycra "

  1. Sidelines says:

    Whatever style cyclists go for, or camp they fall in, I find it difficult to understand why anyone would ride without a helmet. Your head falling against concrete, even at low speeds, can really cause serious injury. And that vancouvercyclechic site is just so painfully pretentious. I know it’s not constructive, but I have the urge to give those pictured there a little punch to the gut. Nothing serious, just enough to wind them a bit. Hipsters. Urgh!.

    Anyway, for what it’s worth, I fall into the “wear whatever works to get me to work dry, presentable, and in one piece.” That often involves a hodge-podge, mismatch of clothing and gear. I pack nice clothes in my back pack and have the luxury of having a locker at work to keep dress shoes, suit jackets, etc. So, while I may look like a clown getting to work, I like to think I look half-way decent when I’m in the office (though I’m still a bit of clown).

  2. Stinky says:

    Then there is the Brigadoonesque Fremont Solstice Parade tribe of garment-free riders. Or is body paint a garment?

  3. Big Softy says:

    Don’t be fooled by Boris Johnson’s words, they are nothing more than empty promises.
    First and foremost, Johnson is a politician, which means he has a default setting of Lying Bastard.
    He lied his way through two previous elections, now he’s trying to lie his way into the PM position.
    It’s all well and good talking about a 10 Year Plan, but he’s unlikely to be in a position to follow through in 3 years time, plus he hasn’t said where this money is coming from.
    And tbh, it would cost £913m just to bring London’s existing bike infrastructure up to scratch.

  4. RH says:

    Hey Sidelines – I hear what you’re saying, the cycle chic movement can come off as pretentious, but it’s just trying to get “cycling” away from its image as “sport” vs an image of everyday transportation. As for punching people in the guts, I don’t think that you should have anything to say about whether someone wears a helmet or not. If it feels good for you, do it, just like the clothes you wear on your bike. We’re all on the same team here and articles stirring up shit like “bike tribes” are counter-productive. Ride on, man.