New Amsterdam Times

Looks like Charley Brown grew up and spends a lot of time in gay bars

Looks like Charley Brown grew up and spends a lot of time in gay bars

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.

4 responses to “New Amsterdam Times

  1. I agree with 98% of your post. I don’t usually wear a helmet, but sometimes I do. When my daughter is old enough to ride a bike she will wear a helmet, though. Why? Bicycle helmets are really only designed to protect the head in a straight fall from a bicycle at no or low speed. That is exactly the kind of fall a child is likely to have (but not a typical adult) especially as she learns to ride. And to encourage helmet use for my child, I probably will start wearing a helmet more often (especially when she’s aware of me riding).
    It’s strange to me the disdain that subgroups of bike users have for other bike users. Sharks and Jets, can’t we all just get along? (It’s strange to me that there ARE subgroups…but that’s people for you)

  2. Regarding the “cyclist” term I have often critically examined myself, and I must say it’s not always easy to use the term properly (also “car driver” etc.). The thing is: while I’m on the bike I consider myself as a cyclist, because I ride a bicycle and because I have to follow certain traffic rules for cyclists. The problem is that most people also think that I’m a cyclist once I’m off the bike, which makes no sense at all.

  3. I agree with what you’re saying about cycling culture being an impediment to general acceptance of bicycle commuters. And that’s the first time I’ve heard that distinction- interesting observation. However, I don’t really see what wearing helmets has got to do with in. This is America, not Europe, and you’re probably going to get hit at some point. As someone who’s whacked my helmet plenty of times, one time hard enough to break the thing, I’ll have to disagree with you on that one. Besides, wearing the thing prevents anyone from confusing me with a hipster🙂

  4. Who cares what social group you fall into, wearing a helmet is just smart (would you drive your car without a seatbelt?). I have too many friends that wouldn’t be a who they are today without them.

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