Psystenance

Sustainability through the mind's eye

Down with “avid cyclists”

Posted by Michael Druker on March 22, 2010

As if it wasn’t enough that we scare people away from cycling with our exclusively car-oriented infrastructure and even a socially constructed fear of cycling, we also do it by marginalizing cycling as something done only by the kind of people who cycle. Make a mental count of how often you’ve seen news reports or commentary refer to “avid cyclists”, and the number of times you might have used this term yourself.

Banish “avid cyclist” from your vocabulary. Self-marginalizing language like this is why we can’t have nice infrastructure.

By using and condoning the use of this term, we help reinforce our tendency to neglect the impact of the situation and over-attribute behavior to characteristics of the person. In other words, labelling those who willingly cycle as “avid cyclists” is a way of setting aside the difficult and interesting problem of how to make our cities conducive to cycling — in favor of the easy story of cycling as something “other”, as something done by people who aren’t normal. Why bother making the city a better place to cycle if the only people who will do it are the ones who are already cyclists? Why waste city money on them?

Note the division into us (normal people) and them (avid cyclists). Never the twain shall meet. Is that true? No it is not.

I claim that in most North American cities, while you will find many people riding a bicycle for utility/transportation, most people who cycle are hardly avid. Do they cycle in the dark? Do they always cycle on the road? Do they cycle in any part of the city? At any time of year? The answers are an emphatic no. And the reason is that the majority are cycling when the situation makes it easy and attractive for the person who considers the possibility. Avid cyclists should be resilient cyclists, but actual North American cyclists are fickle. With their recreational bikes and the poor infrastructure they have access to, they are fair-weather, back-roads cyclists.

Some places seem so far into the motor kingdom that cycling as transportation appears patently absurd to many. Thus, to brave the unfriendly conditions, cyclists must be avid — doing it as a sport, as exercise, to prove a point. Yet this describes fewer places than you think. I know it absolutely doesn’t describe Kitchener-Waterloo, Ontario, however “avid cyclist” still seems to be the mindset here.

There is a poignant irony in the number of obituaries a search for “avid cyclist” turns up. If instead of marginalizing cycling, we facilitate it through infrastructure and encourage regular people to ride, fewer people will die on the roads and those who cycle will be healthier for doing so. We need to free cycling from the shackles of recreation. We need to get utility bicycles into our bike stores. And instead of the conversation being about cyclists, we need to make it about regular people taking advantage of the two-wheel mobility available to them — because it is effective and enjoyable.

Addendum: There are more comments on this post over at Copenhagenize.com and Kaid Benfield responds as a proud avid cyclist.

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16 Responses to “Down with “avid cyclists””

  1. Jason said

    I have never heard cyclists refer to themselves as “avid cyclists.” It seems to be one of many subtle language uses employed to marginalise an out-group rather than to self-marginalise.

    I wonder what would happen if you were to stop a sample of people cycling towards campus and ask them if they described themselves as “cyclists.” I bet, despite the fact that they are riding bicycles, the term cyclist its-self is so marginalised that many of them would probably respond in the negative.

    Also, you seem to imply that “normal” people don’t ride year round? The bike racks on campus seem fairly well used in the winter… I guess all those people aren’t normal. Whenever you start trying to define a “normal” average Joe, you undoubtedly marginalise a great number of people. McCain learned that lesson the hard way; celebrate diversity rather than patronising the “normal” and you can return dignity to the minority (cyclists, pedestriens, etc.)

    • Michael D said

      I should’ve been more careful with the wording. Normal people certainly do ride in the winter, though even in Copenhagen it’s fewer than during the rest of the year. My point is that most people are sensitive to the conditions they find themselves in, and this influences how much they ride. Not trying to be normative.

  2. Good point. I think that the word “avid” isn’t necessarily the problem, though. It’s the word “cyclist” that brings the focus to the person on the bike, rather than to the bicycle as a mode choice.

  3. Erik Ewald said

    here’s a different angle on the topic

    http://davesbikeblog.squarespace.com/blog/2007/10/15/cyclists-and-pobs.html

  4. Jeremy said

    I appreciate your post. I was thinking along the same lines when I saw a local North Carolina news story today – “Cyclist struck by car raises safety awareness” http://www.wral.com/news/local/story/7274416/ – that describes the injured rider as a “cycling enthusiast” in the video edition of the story. The “otherness” of the term “cycling enthusiast” struck me as marginalizing, as you describe.

  5. scotto said

    I’ve heard this meme before but I don’t believe it.

    Time constraints, inconvenience, discomfort and safety fears are what keep people from biking. If calling cyclist “avid” has any effect on behavior, it is tiny compared to the other factors.

    I think we need to concentrate on actual solutions, not marginal effects.

  6. Jack said

    Great post. While you’re at it, you can ban the UK varient: “keen cyclist”!!

  7. electric said

    As a person branded an “avid cyclist” I find the author’s conclusions bizarre. First off, I won’t be writing my own obituary. The amount of control I have over other people deciding to label me an avid cyclist after my death(was that a cycling related death?)is zero.

    I won’t go on much more, but there are a number of flaws in this new trend of thinking which the author is promoting. Firstly “avid cyclists” were all that existed to keep the cycling torch alight on so many car exclusive roadways for so many years. It seems those cyclists are being demonized simply because we are the only thing there to rail against. How is it that the author would want to use cyclists like me as a scapegoat for the reason why there aren’t more people on a bicycle am I the “them”? Just because “avid cyclists” are at the crime scene doesn’t mean we’re the perpetrators.

    There is a lot be be praised about “avid cyclists” and cycling advocacy groups. For many years real avid cyclists fought for cyclist’s road rights. It is only until recently that trendy and ingenious people picked up thread as if they were the first Europeans to discover North America. Can I look forward to timelessly ignorant chic people not understanding the past and scoffing at a helmet and hi-viz badge of shame? Seems so, maybe it is worth it if more people get out there and ride, but we should remember that without history there is no future.

    • Michael D said

      Those are indeed cycling related deaths I’m referring to.

      As for true “avid cyclists”, I agree that there’s a lot of good to be said for them (you). I don’t wish to demonize legitimate cycling enthusiasts. My point is that people who cycle are not “avid” by default, and should not be assumed to be such; this assumption is the target of my post. The reason to try to change the perception of cycling away from something done only by the devoted is that it makes it seem much more accessible as a mode of transportation to the regular person. And that is important for large-scale shifts in modal choice, particularly away from the car.

  8. Dean said

    I have to agree 100% with “Electric” . I have been an “avid” or “keen” cyclist for most of my life, and I consider that a good thing. I think the blog poster is getting carried away with worrying about semantics. I am not just a “willing cyclist” (it is one of my favourite recreational past-times), but you wouldn’t know to see me, since I don’t wear the uniform.
    I would argue that most people killed on bicycles are not avid cyclists. They are more likely to be the less careful and less knowledgeable “casual cyclists”. Can anyone provide statistics instead of making assumptions?
    Yes,it is more difficult to ride a bicycle in North America than in most of the world, and something has to happen to end the dominance of the automobile as our first choice of transportation. Demonizing the “avid cyclist” is not the right way to do that!
    What we need is for everyone to be “the kind of people who cycle”. In my small home town we have eighty year old men and women cycling on old three-speeds with baskets…in their regular clothes,in any weather -and they would probably laugh at us for trying to label them.
    Just get out and ride and you will be doing your part to change perceptions.

  9. For another look at this, here’s the April 1 post on cyclelicio.us: http://www.cyclelicio.us/2010/down-with-car-enthusiast/

    @BarbChamberlain

  10. Jym said

    =v= I must confess I have a very different take on the phrase. Usually I only see it used as self-description in a certain variety of letters to the editor. “I’m an avid cyclist and I disapprove of all these [Pick One] a) scofflaws who run red lights b) hipsters on fixie bikes c) Critical Mass riders. I’m so much better than them, you see.”

  11. William T Morewood said

    Avid cyclist, Hmmm.. I think I might fall into that category. crazy, half spun, 25,000 km average per year on the bike, soon to be on something different, and faster. Yes, it still has pedals to lock into… I really don`t care what is said.. I share the road, use the bikes as much as possible, drive a car, ride the Ducati, live, and just have a great time. “If you live your life inside the boundaries of fixed human beliefs, you only limit you ability to become more.. Remember, its all about one thing“. Figure this out and I`ll see you at the shop. I await your replies………….

  12. William said

    Sorry about that, my finger lied, it was only 15,000 km…. I am awake now. If a photograph is worth a thousand words, Is a photograph of an open book worth more…

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