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Ousting the Notion of Cycling Elitism

By Megan Flottorp

There has been plenty of good news for cyclists as of late. With people around the world seeking safe, independent forms of transportation, many cities are investing in better cycling infrastructure, offering incentives to ride, and even providing subsidies to help people keep their bikes in good shape. This all suggests that we’re on track to have more cyclists on the road than ever before. Great news, right? Well, there’s no doubt that the community is growing in diverse and wonderful ways, yet there does remain one stubborn point of tension that seems to creep up when bike enthusiasts encounter the non-cycling public or attempt to get their bike-fearing pals to give it a go. In addition to concerns about safety and fitness levels — there’s a persistent myth that cyclists are, well, kind of snobs.

To be fair, part of this image has to do with certain attempts from within the cycling community to promote a kind of exclusivity. From rules being drawn up about what is and what isn’t acceptable, to a litany of online content advising new cyclists on how to avoid “looking like a rookie”, there is definitely evidence to support the notion that cycling has a bit of class system. And although there is undeniably some pleasure to be gained from delineating the different “types” of cyclists and figuring out where you fit in, the truth is that this model of selectivity does more harm than good.

Friends Cycling
A group of friends cycling in the hills and woodlands around Machynlleth, Powys Wales, UK. (C) redsnapper / Alamy / Profimedia

Indeed, we’ve seen a push in recent years towards greater representation in advertising and the emergence of various initiatives to introduce cycling to underserved communities. Yet there is still plenty of fodder that reinforces the snobbish stereotypes which many new cyclists find so alienating. Some advocates have pointed out that a renewed emphasis on the utility of getting around by bike could help dispel this association with pretentiousness and would certainly help cycling return to its roots of freedom and empowerment for all. So, what else can we do to make this happen? In the interest of spreading the right idea of our sport and getting more people to embrace life on two wheels — while still honouring the fortitude of those out there accomplishing great feats on their bikes — let’s take a look at a few ways we can remind the public that cycling is an accessible activity which can be enjoyed by all.

Embrace your tribe but be kind to others

We’ve all had a good laugh recognizing ourselves in the humorous depictions of different factions of cyclists but it is important not to let the “us vs. them” mentality root itself too deep in our psyche. Whether you’re a staunch roadie, mountain biker, urban warrior or the so-called “contraption captain,” it is a good idea to remind yourself that, at some point, regardless of how far back it seems now, the bike was a mysterious and unmastered object. Before any hills had been conquered, titles earned, or trails thrashed, you were ignorant of the thrills that awaited you. You can and should celebrate all the things that make your particular style of riding unique and awesome but don’t use it as a means of diminishing the value of others. We’re still all part of the same big, happy family.

Remember to be kind to other cyclists.

Understand that a bike might play a very different role for someone else

Speaking of accepting different types of cyclists and nodding to the need to increase the visibility of utility cycling, it is important to remind yourself that every individual has a unique relationship to their bike. You might enjoy debating the finer points of why rim or disc brakes are better but this simply isn’t the case for everyone. A basic hybrid is all some people want, need or can afford. If you see someone engaging in a form of cycling that doesn’t make sense to you, take a moment to remind yourself of that useful adage “until you walk a mile in someone’s shoes…”.

Do not give unsought advice

This is another big one that comes up a lot in discussions about cycling club and bike shop culture. The unfortunate reality is that poorly-timed advice from someone whose heart really is in the right place can have significant and negative consequences. We’ve talked about the need to get rid of mansplaining and other forms of hierarchical discourse that take place in some cycling circles, and the reason this is so important is that it can end up discouraging those new to the sport, and ultimately having the opposite outcome than was intended. As a general rule of thumb, it should never be assumed that any cyclist does or does not have a certain level of knowledge. Likewise, a person’s physical ability or cycling competency shouldn’t be influenced by their gender, the kind of bike they ride or the vocabulary they use to discuss it.

Good intentions don’t stop harm from being done. © redsnapper / Alamy / Profimedia

Show some love for all the bikes out there

In the same way that it can be hard to bite your tongue when it comes to shelling out free advice at your local group ride, it can also be almost impossible to keep a lid on it when you see a poorly cared for or badly setup bike pass by. Again, remember that what works for you might not work for everyone and keep an open mind. Likewise, don’t denounce electric bikes or any custom designs that strike you as goofy, we should celebrate the diversity, accessibility, and creativity thriving in our community.

Remember that the whole point is to get more people on bikes!

If you’re still not convinced that this is anything to worry about, just do the Google search for yourself and you’ll find all sorts of articles out there about “how to avoid looking like a newbie” on your bike. Of course, it’s a good idea for new cyclists to put in a little effort when learning the ropes but it is also important that seasoned riders make them feel accepted. At its core, the cycling community is one characterized by warmth, support, and friendship — so let’s make sure people know it!