The NY Times recently published an article about Dutch bikes entitled Riding the It Factor. The piece ran like wildfire through the American-Dutch bike community and was met with mixed reviews. Aside from the ridiculous photo spreads of spindly-legged metrosexuals, the article hit the nail right on the head. American bike culture is hindering the growth of bikes as a means of transportation for the average man:
“I use to think that car culture was the problem, but now I think it’s bike culture,” he said. By that he meant that the discourse about city biking is dominated by cycling zealots who don’t have the desire, or the skill, to attract people who don’t see themselves as cyclists, just as people who ride a bike to work.
I couldn’t have said it better myself. While car culture remains a massive barrier to winning daily bike riders, bikers in the States aren’t helping matters. We’d like to think that we can put our differences asside and promote biking collectively, but the hipsters and silly Styrofoam hat Nazis will have none of it. The American preoccupation with sporty manliness and fear-based risk analysis has to be eradicated before biking can take hold.
The words we use are telling. Even on Dutch bike blogs we often refer to ourselves as “cyclists” and talk about how we went “cycling.” For a daily commuter on a city bike this word makes no sense. “Cycling” conjures up images of a velodrome or Lance Armstrong. Perhaps those of us who promote practical city bikes should simply use the term “riding” to describe our activity. “Cycling” is for sportsmen. “Riding” is for regular people on a normal bike. I am not a cyclist!
Fringe idiots wearing wool knit caps and thick rimmed glasses on fixies are of virtually no importance to this debate. The real issue lies with those well meaning but misguided souls who have made it their mission to ensure that wearing a helmet is the most important thing you should know about biking. This weekend I watched an Elmo episode about bikes with my 16 month old son. After the tenth montage of bubble-rapped children on tricycles and bikes with training wheels I almost yacked. Let’s not even mention the fact that about half of the kids were wearing their helmet improperly. But who cares? Helmets on children have more to do with deflecting parental guilt and responsibility than sound science.
“Cycling” probably requires a helmet whereas simply “riding” your bike doesn’t. Our loss of that crucial distinction is a tragedy. Here in Minneapolis the same parents who dress up their children like Corky for a spin ride around the block are often the same folks clamoring for a more relaxed-European lifestyle. Perhaps we can start that noble journey by distinguishing between biking for sport (cycling) and everyday bike use? After all…the Dutch and Danes love their children too.