So I've been reading Bike Snob Abroad recently. I'm not a huge fan of his blog, but I check it out daily. Strange, right? On the blog he just seems too snarky for my tastes. I get taking the piss out of something, but there is a fine line.
Anyway, I'm reading his book and keep finding myself shaking my head in agreement with him. The premise is that he's on a quest for a place or time where cycling and, specifically, cycling for transport is ubiquitous, normalized, and accepted. He talks about the different cycling types in America and the cycling regions of this country. And he's right on the money.
As a cycle commuter you are looked at as either a freak or as someone trying to make some political statement, or as the guy who has no other way to get around. None of these are particularly gracious.
This has gotten me thinking about my own prejudices. I see lots of people throughout the year on bikes. And they fall into a number of distinct categories. Or at least seem to.
Roadies: These are the guys and gals who may or may not be commuting to work. It doesn't matter, though, because they are in full team kit and pumping out the watts. They don't smile. They don't wave. They really don't seem to be enjoying the ride at all. It is punishment and atonement for eating a cheeseburger last night - burn those calories and keep the legs stubble free.
Commuters: These are the guys and gals who are clearly on their way somewhere. They have panniers or backpacks, may be wearing a mix of business casual, wool, and poly tech fabrics. They aren't pushing the pace, but aren't slouching either. They generally smile or wave, and tend to seem like they enjoy the ride. They are out there pretty much whatever the weather. The more hardcore they are, the more shabby their bikes tend to look, though they all ride decent bikes - mountain, hybrid, touring - doesn't matter so much as long as it is dependable. No weight weenies here - steel and leather pervade and when the snow is blowing the beards are flowing.
Joy riders: Adults on vacation on rented bikes. Kids on BMXs. These are the riders who either don't ride often or are young enough to not care about riding with any sort of predictability. For these riders, a bike is a toy, not a vehicle. Nuff said about them. The older the joy rider, the more painfully annoying they tend to be.
Everyone else: These are the others that Bike Snob talks a bit about. The folks on the horribly squeaky dime-store bikes, who ride the hell out of these machines until they get stolen or self destruct from being ridden past their expiration miles. These are the people who ride because they have no other choice. They may have lost their driving privileges or they maybe just can't afford the price of admission for a car. They ride in jeans. They ride neither slow nor fast. They ride on the road, on the paths, on the sidewalks, wherever.
And these groups generally don't intermingle, which is sad. The everyone else group could teach the rest of us a thing or two about riding I bet. These are the folks we need to engage in discussion about bike infrastructure and improving transport by bike. Take a guy like me who commutes by bike daily and you'll find that we tend to follow the same route everyday. When we have to go someplace new, we'll often research the possible routes and will tack an extra mile or two on if the route makes it more convenient for the ride. We'll ride in traffic if we need to, but would just as soon get our chai latte at a different coffee shop, one right off the bike path, instead of going through the "bad part" of town. We're the ones who can afford to be smug about our riding because it's a choice we make.
For those who don't have a choice, who ride everywhere out of need - how can we make their trips safer? How can we give them the infrastructure they need to make it there and back in one piece? How can we get to the point where the Everyone else category becomes...when the categories themselves disappear? When riding a bike is neither a political statement, statement of one's personal wealth, or an expression of one's low rank on the social totem?
Portland isn't what we should strive towards. Celebration of the bike leads to further fragmentation and specialization. We need unification. We need for people to realize that riding a bike is a valid form of movement.
But, and here is where I think things get tricky, don't we need to go through the Portland-style celebration of bikes and bike culture before we can get to normalization? We need to get the folks out there on bike in sufficient numbers to change the public's perspective before we can fade into the background as a normal part of the daily flow.
My thoughts on this are only half-formed right now. And my experience is quite limited. I've only been a bike commuter for reals while living in Alaska. Before I was the guy who would sometimes ride to work, but prefered to go for a long trail ride before work, go home and shower, and then drive my car to the office (The office was 1.25 miles away) or I was the guy who would never even think that the bike is a valid form of transportation at all. So I'm new to the whole game with a myopic vision of what the bike commute culture is in the US as a whole. Though I think that much of what I've seen and learned can be applied to most places.