Fashion. Opinion. Standards. Interests. These things all have a habit of changing over time.
Bicycles have maintained a steady existence ever since they first graced us with their presence nearly 150 years ago. The form they take has essentially remained unchanged as well. Still two triangles, two wheels, cranks driving the rear wheel, and handlebars to hold on to. We have fine-tuned this, added a whole host of gizmos, and created versions to do things that they wouldn’t have dreamed of even 50 years ago, but a modern-day bike would still be recognizable as a bike by those from old-timey days.
At certain times in history, in certain places in the world, the bicycle has been some of these things, all of these things, or even other things, but as far as popular culture goes, one usually more than the others. Though the transport segment of cycling is growing in Australia, the image that cycling brings to mind in the average Australian person, and one that the media as well as the largest of our cycling bodies nationwide most identify with, is that of men, serious men (or at least serious looking men), in flashy cycling kit, on road bikes, and often enough in packs riding at full speed. And it’s a view that tends to polarize people in how they think about cycling.
I can’t speak for other nations, but apparently England has the same problem. We lived there for a while and I can agree that road cycling is quite popular, as was mountain biking and touring, but since Wiggins and Froome have become poster-children of cycling in the UK, road cycling has reached new heights, and somebody doesn’t like that. Somebody thinks that roadies have chased all the good cyclists away.
In a recent article in The Guardian, Tom Marriage argues that road cyclists and their preoccupation with Strava have essentially ruined cycling. They’ve greedily swallowed it’s soul like so many recovery shakes after a hard interval session.
Cycling used to be more about connection: with nature, with mates, with your thoughts and emotions. It was a time to seek out new places and experiences. Authenticity, not superficiality, Strava times, and power outputs.
“The aspiration is no longer to get lost, to enjoy and to explore: the aspiration is to do stages of the Tour, watch races, spend more money, own the best stuff, be the quickest. And it bores the shit out of me.”
“It’s hard to find the hippies and the explorers any more. It’s all about the competition and the conformity…. And the chat is about bikes and times, Strava segments, with the same fervour dull men use to talk about football teams. People are less and less likely to talk about experiences, the things the’ve (sic) seen, the places they’ve been, the fun and epic hardship they’ve experienced. They’re less and less likely to talk about the joy of cycling. Again, it bores the shit out of me.”
From my perspective, Tom, you’re just too focused on your personal loss and are missing the thing you long for while it’s right under your nose. There is a massive exploratory, for-the-fun-of-it segment within cycling today, and one that is growing rapidly. Perhaps it’s just not strong among your circle of acquaintances. Gravel bikes (huge in the US) and fat bikes are a response to what people want to do by a market that is paying close attention. The everesting phenomenon, bikepacking, #coffeeoutside, Race to the Rock, pretty much every Rapha Prestige ride or otherwise (although a well monied peloton in head-to-toe Rapha does tend to have the appearance of something rather exclusive and hoity-toity), and countless other ongoing events and regular occurrences are all things that point directly to the popularity of riding bikes simply for the love of riding bikes. Even among, I hate to break it to you, things that include the latest gear, are competitive, and are full of people wearing spandex.
Unfortunately, the world where an opportunity for someone to make a dollar off of something is set aside in order to keep the pursuit pure is not one we currently live in. That ship, if it ever existed, has sailed.
But the real question I have is, does that matter? Why does popular culture’s collective propensity to road cycling and shiny new things have any bearing on whether or not you are able to mount your bike and go where the wind takes you? If you used to head out on your own to explore, what’s stopping you from doing so now? Go head out and eat your curly cheese sandwiches on lonely B-road laybys to your heart’s content! No one is stopping you!
Likewise, there may be a glut of products out there wishing to be purchased, but 1) you don’t have to buy any of it, and 2) some or much of it may actually make your desired inspirational experience that much more enjoyable and no less authentic. Sure, gadgets can be distracting, but that’s entirely your own choice.
Cycling is a big, big business these days, largely encouraged in the current era by the spectacle that is the Tour de France, so it’s no wonder that road cycling has become so popular. As anything explodes in popularity it inevitably tends to go mass market because people like to sell things and make money, and people like to buy things and spend money. That can give the appearance that the activity of cycling has become shallower to those who cycled “before it was popular”, doing it on shite bikes with actual, paper maps, no carbon fibre or Lycra in sight, curly cheese sandwiches, etc, etc. I felt that way about skateboarding in the 90’s. Stupid X-Games… Still, the niche, anorak nature of cycling is certainly not gone (it may even be on the rise), it’s maybe just not dressed in the same way that the author remembers or prefers.
I don’t want to brag, but this morning while out for an easy spin with a friend, we talked about bikes a bit, sure, but also managed to discuss the inexplicably mind-blowing nature of the natural world, the universe, how incredibly complex the human body is, psychology, the irrationality of human-kind, the mind/brain dichotomy, appreciated and waxed lyrical about how amazing the weather was, and other conversations about less superficial things than racing bikes… as though that were a bad thing… (all while wearing racy looking Lycra, wrap-around sunnies, and riding flash road bikes no less – even despite all of this!)
“First, I don’t like being looked down on. I don’t like being characterised as less of a cyclist because I can’t be arsed with sportives and would rather get lost than go hard.”
I agree with the first point. It is frustrating when people make assumptions about you. The second point, however, doesn’t sound very compelling. People can do sportives and fast bunch rides for the same sense of accomplishment and satisfaction that others go on meandering adventure rides for. Plus, on a more pragmatic note, would you rather that all of these sheep wake up to “real” cycling and follow you onto all of your quiet roads and trails, or would that compromise your ability to experience escape and adventure all the same? I suspect that if that happened, the author might then be upset that all those poseur, wannabe “authentic cyclists” were ruining his experience…
“I think it pollutes the rest of the culture. This pernicious strand of macho sport orthodoxy is creeping into all parts of cycling. It’s starting to be the norm. Bike shops are geared towards it, bike blogs are geared towards it, conversations around cycling are geared towards it. You mention you like cycling, now that comes with an expectation that you are a certain type of person; alpha male, serious, competitive, buyer of bikes, regurgitator of facts.”
Some points worth considering, to be sure, but isn’t that the same as everything (not that this necessarily makes it ok)? You like a certain kind of music, people might have assumptions about you. You dress a certain way, people will make some assumptions about you. You speak a certain way, and people will have assumptions about you. That’s what people do. They put people in boxes. The solution? When asked about cycling, you can use your words to explain to them why you like it and how you like to do it, if that matters. Go to different bike shops. Read different bike blogs. Have different conversations. For goodness sake, you could even use it to try to convert one or two people to “real” cycling.
To me it sounds a bit like the author might be a little sad that the past held such meaningful times on the bike and that due to certain choices he has made, they are no longer occurring in the present. Something of a lost identity, perhaps, and road cycling in general is getting the blame.
Maybe it’s not really about cycling at all, but about a sense of self that is being called into question.
In any case, I don’t think cycling is getting ruined at all. At least the accessibility of “real” cycling, anyway. Road cycling is still exciting to watch and talk about, if you’re into that, and if you’re not, the other segments of cycling are making the most of its popularity and really innovating new ways to have fun with it. I too get frustrated with the staggering number of people who seem to be more interested in having the latest gear than actually riding it properly (ie, further than the cafe). On the other hand, really nice kit is really nice to ride in, and nice bikes are nice to ride on. Don’t get me started on bike shops, but there are still a few out there that share our passion for adventure and escape, Tom. May I point out that the video you credit with inspiring you to love cycling again was made possible by a rather large sporting goods company? The commercial nature of cycling is strong now, but it’s never going to compromise the access one has to real experiences, and isn’t necessarily at odds with that either.
Oh, and I would be doing you a disservice if I didn’t point you towards a particular website that isn’t about races and stats and enjoys the less tangible experiences that riding a bike offers… wink, wink.
Header image: source