Why I’m not a “cyclist” anymore

I ride a bicycle. Practically everyday. I’ve stopped calling myself a “cyclist”.

Something happened when I crossed half the world from the US and started living in Copenhagen. I very quickly realized that something had changed. I still rode my bicycle everywhere, but so did everyone else. Riding a bike wasn’t a radical rebellion. It wasn’t a fist to “the man” or some kind of branded identity I wore proudly like a badge of honor.

I stopped carrying my one-of-a-kind San Francisco Mission-made messenger bag. Why carry things on your back when you have a lovely machine that can take the weight for you? I’m not racing to deliver parcels quickly. I’m just carrying my laptop.

I stopped wearing a bike helmet. No one else was anyway (although helmet use is now on the rise despite traffic safety here being at an all time high).

I gave my celeste colored Bianchi fixie to my ex-girlfriend (who subsequently quite reasonably put gears back on it). I left my bright pink chopper tall boy with some friends in Berkeley (who immediately got fined for riding a dangerous vehicle). I sold my Bridgestone 12-speed road bike on craigslist. No one rides any of those things here in Copenhagen.

I looked around for was the locals were riding and bought an old upright 3-speed Raleigh Club de Luxe. Later, when living briefly in Amsterdam, I bought a Dutch Sparta “women’s” stand-over bicycle complete with attached raincoat yellow messenger bags courtesy of my friends at FietsFabriek.

My bright orange REI jacket I  had bought for “visibility” seemed suddenly radical and out of place amidst a sea of black clothing, which seemed a clear statement of the locals’ desire to blend in and become invisible amidst the crowd.

I slowed down. I stopped caring about how many PSI my tires are. I started following the traffic rules (well, almost all the time). People here say Copenhageners “ride like crazy”. In fact, “other cyclists” are probably the reason for what helmets there are- not other cars. Yet I find them to be perfectly tame, slow and mild-mannered compared with Americans.

Riding a bike became completely banal and everyday. This was not a transition that happened over night and was not without its challenges.

I have long built up an identity around thinking of myself as “different”. Perhaps this was a symptom of my own insecurities constantly surrounded by overachievers. Maybe it was due to being raised by semi-reformed hippies.

I still think I’m a bit “off” and different from the everyday person (whatever that is). But I’ve given up on worrying about my identity in relationship to my particular preferred mode of transportation choice. I even sometimes let myself take a bus or train when the weather is lousy or the distance seems too long- and don’t beat myself up over it too much. Why should I? I’m just a normal person going about my daily routine.

Often when I speak with people who come from a city where they have to fight on a daily basis just to survive on the streets, they develop a strong identity as “cyclists”- as though there were something particular that sets them apart from the rest of humanity because of the way they move through space. When they come to a more bike friendly city like Copenhagen, they don’t know how to respond.

On the one hand, they appreciate how their lives have been made easier and safer by a million tiny thoughtful gestures distributed throughout the urban design and traffic planning of the city. It’s all those things they themselves have been pushing for in their own cities. Yet they also seem to feel like their identity as an individual is somehow threatened. It’s almost like they actually like being ostracized.

These divisions and dichotomies based on how we move aren’t getting us anywhere collectively. We need to better understand and empathize with why the majority (in most other cities than Copenhagen) don’t ride their bicycle and then develop solutions to make them feel safe and comfortable to try it out. When those people ride, we shouldn’t lament that it is no longer “cool” to ride anymore because “everyone is doing it”.

Biking isn’t a fashion statement that’s “in” until the next thing comes along. It’s a fantastic way to get around town. We should delight in our successes in sharing that joy with others. We can’t let our desire to hold onto our individual identity stand in the way of others’ ability to join us.


26 responses to “Why I’m not a “cyclist” anymore

  1. I had the opposite experience once when I lived in North Carolina.
    Recycling is a radical activity there. There are anarchists working to set up recycling systems and I was so used to recycling not being even an “eco” activity here in Portland, Oregon. We need a radical phase to make the thing normalize but it eventually will be normal- hopefully…

  2. I too would like to see biking normalized. That takes modeling behavior so it falls on people like myself. Could it be that non riders are simply not wired to ride? In our society I feel a disadvantage because bicycling advocates have not been successful in framing behavior. It has always been and will always be individual choice to ride. Where we live has much to do with making that choice. So while “bike culture” is the new cool thing in Minneapolis, it is not on anyones radar in Orlando. That said, the best hope we have for normal people to ride bikes is higher gas prices. And even at close to four dollars a gallon it still doesn’t hurt enough.

    • I often wonder if we put Copenhagen quality bike infrastructure in Orlando if we would get Copenhagen bike rates. My suspicion is that we would not unless we somehow also managed to fundamentally shift people’s behavior and attitudes toward cycling. As for “sticks”, I think that reducing parking- not just downtown, but also big box retail and in new construction of homes- is better than gas prices. It has to be inconvenient, not just expensive, otherwise it becomes a social equity issue.

  3. It looks like someone moved from a place with a bicycling subculture to one with a bicycling culture.

  4. Nice article. What always strikes me when talking to bicycle advocates from around the world, is the difference in membership of their organisations. In Amsterdam, 700,000(?) people cycle, only 4,000 are member of the Fietsersbond (cyclists’ union). We always explain this comparing it to the non-existing vacuum-cleaners union. Everybody owns and uses a vacuum cleaner, no-one feels the urge to unite themselves around this.

    • I tend to use the example of eating utensils: everybody uses them, different people around the world use different tools, but no one ever finds it particularly interesting to talk about why they use a fork or chopsticks. It’s just what everyone does. To my knowledge, no one has tried to convince everyone in the US to start using chopsticks instead of forks, but it might be equally if not more challenging than trying to get Americans to ride bikes!

  5. Very well put, Ezra. Often it’s hard to explain to visitors, off and online. As it goes with cultures ;).

    Govert, I’m guessing you mean 4.000 for just the Amsterdam department of Fietsersbond, as in total it has 30.000 members. Still, with about 5 million people cycling on a daily basis in NL, your argument stands ;).

  6. This is a great article.
    The strange thing is that for many of us, the only way we seem to make progress is to be loud outspoken Cyclists. But our goal really is to become just people who happen to bike. This approach has worked in many places. The Netherlands also had its era if prioritizing car traffic over bikes.
    I don’t think the current European method will affect change in North America.

  7. I am from Seattle, and I mostly walk and bike, but sometimes bus. I think if I lived in a place more flat (Seattle has lots of big hills) I would bike farther distances. Amsterdam looks kind of flat in your picture. I think that is one of the things making it a bike friendly city. I enjoyed your article though. I would like to see the US slow down a bit!

    • The picture is in Copenhagen, actually though both cities are quite flat. I think topography helps but I used to live in San Francisco and rode a fixed gear bike for a time. I just figured out how to go around the hills rather than over them. I think in Seattle it’s a bit tougher to avoid the hills but maybe there are more gradual inclines that are easier to go up and having a well-geared (or even ebike) could help.

      Personally, I think the flatness of the topography is less important than the flatness (eg, non-hierarchical nature) of Dutch and Danish societies that makes it acceptable for rock stars and politicians to ride bikes. It’s this normalization that is the crux. Of course, here, riding a bike is as linked to Danish national identity as is driving a car in the US. We need to figure out how to crack that coupling of identity to transportation mode if we are to progress with this. I think that people drive cars because it gives them freedom and independence. We should start leveraging the fact that bicycling can also bring freedom and independence. I suspect this would be a more powerful discursive and marketing argument than environment, urban ‘liveability’ or health.

  8. …and yet, you *are* a cyclist. Saying otherwise from the saddle of a bike is just as silly as saying “I am not a motorist” from the steering wheel of a car.

    So you have forsaken the perverted meanings of the word “cyclist” prevailing in the US for the no less perverted “imnotacyclist” meme prevailing amongst the segregationist/cyclestrian tribe? I fail to see how that is a progress.

    • Oh, put a sock in it already & challenge something within your grasp…like vegetables

      • Eric Tergerson

        Amsterdamize, nice pithy response to a somewhat condescending but very valid point.

        Ezra is using “Cyclist” in a way that you would *not* find in a dictionary. The word literally means, of course, “someone who rides a bicycle”. Txarli is pointing out that Ezra is defining the word using the stereotypes and generalizations made towards the types of bike riders (i.e. fixie or “hipster”) he is familiar with.
        A more appropriate title to the blog post could have been “Why I’m not a “west-coast” or “freakbike” or “subculture” rider anymore.

    • My guess is that most people in America don’t think of themselves as “motorists” either, they are just people getting somewhere and people going somewhere (“obviously”) drive cars. There are some minority groups of car drivers who are really keen on race cars, antique cars, 1980s volvo station wagons, whathaveyou as well. But this is not what makes a majority culture. The average person just gets in their car and drives. Similarly, in Copenhagen, the average person just gets on their bike and rides. They don’t identify as being part of a certain group as a result. They are just going somewhere.

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  11. I made the opposite move: from bikefriendly Zurich to totally bike-oblivious Rome. It took me a couple of years until I picked up biking again, but got used to it now.

    What I still haven’t gotten used to is the incredulous looks of my friends (“you are coming by WHAT?”) or the treatment as an alien by the the other people on the road (“move to the sidewalk, idiot!”).

  12. I’ve been riding for 40+ years. I went to Denmark in 2002 and found riding there stunning and refreshing. I wish more Americans could experience this way of living. I’d recommend it to anyone.

    When I ride on protected paths and trails I realize how much I’d like to be less angry and calmer. I desire to be regular and not threatened by the next irritated motorist. None the less, I keep riding.

    And I hope you keep riding too.

  13. Sorry for the super-long reply!!!!!

    Nice post, It’s very interesting to see the perspective of someone who came from one of our “biking meccas” to what sounds like *The* biking mecca. Not only that, but with vivid details and an interesting point to make about cycling culture not only here vs. somewhere like Copenhagen, but in various parts of the U.S. and world as well.

    There are striking differences between almost anywhere in the U.S. and the places in Europe that have solid bike/alternative transportation infrastructures.

    I think it’s worth pointing out and identifying some of the reasons why things are the way they are though. As far as i know, there are some key reasons why cycling is not used by a great number of people here in the U.S. and around the world.
    A great starting point is the age and density of cities in Europe compared to those in the U.S., especially considering suburban landscapes. The majority of European cities were built, and rebuilt, populated, and refined many times over, all in the absence of motorized vehicles. There is much less room for expansion of these cities into their surrounding areas, and as a consequense, they are dense, have narrow roads, and cater to pedestrian and smaller forms of transportation. The layout favors smaller/slower forms of transportation within the cities and makes it difficult and expensive for motorized vehicles to get around or be used en masse.
    In contrast, the cities and urban areas in the U.S. are much younger. Much of their growth happened after (and some would argue, *because of*) the popularization of the motorized vehicle.

    Economics: This large area of land would mean nothing if the U.S. did not have the wealth or population to capitolize on this, but after WWII we have had both. Our highway system was created and we benefited in many ways from the infrastructure it created. We strived to both make cars affordable, and to aquire the wealth to purchase them. We had the resources to do both. In places like China, there has been large room for growth as well, but there you have seen, in the past, widespread use of the bicycle for transportation purposes. This was due to economic reasons. But now with the rise of their economy, we see more people using cars. Looking at fuel prices around the world is another telling indicator.

    In the face of such factors, those who choose to ride bikes or drive or whatever, fall into different categories, and you can think of them following a bell curve.
    In a place where it is *hard* to own/drive a car, the majority (middle of the bell curve) will choose to ride a bike/walk/use mass transit. There will be a minority that still chooses to drive cars however, out of necessity, or personal choice.
    In a place where it is *easy* to own/drive a car, you will see a minority riding bikes/walking/using mass transit. There will be a minority that still chooses to do so, either out of necessity, or personal choice.
    These are the outliers in both cases.
    And in both those cases, it is the outliers who pave the way for what *could* be mainstream in the future.

    Coming back to your article, i noticed some details of your biking habits before and after moving- (we will ignore your total-uber-hipster cyclist checklist of things you got rid of after moving >_< )
    -A strong theme of "when in rome" going on. -You identified so strongly with the counter-culture aspects of biking in your community before, only to completely shed it, perfectly conforming to the new "scene" (?) Did you have to do that? From the picture you painted, younger more 'hip' riders in the U.S. completely eschew function for things like a lack of gear ratios, chonic knee injury, poor breaking options, learning to weld for something you'll ride 1 day a week, paying alot for bike related fashion accessories and being hyper-keen on said fashion trends. In Copenhagen, i got a bleak picture of people drudging along at slow speeds, only on their way to and from work, dressed alike in dark drab garments, all on bikes seeming built 30 years ago.
    Are those the only two choices? What about in between?
    -Im sure that there are variations in the types of bikes and commuters there, what about those?
    -What about biking behavior? Is the only reason you cant ride aggressively or dangerously In copenhagen, because you would then be a jerk amongst your peers, instead of just among "motorists"?
    (side note, i have certainly been known to ride aggresively, dangerously, and, pretty much like a jerk, kindof occasionally…<_< )
    -Im sure there is a cycling sub-culture in Copenhagen, one that eschews the commuting mainstream and instead uses their bikes for recreational purposes. I bet 20" riders would have something to say about that…. =) People get into all kinds of different biking, as a way of trying something new and challenging themselves.
    -They're not creating divisions, they are the outliers who are exploring new territories.

    I totally agree that instead of being exclusive about biking, we should be inclusive. I think it is possible to have a passion for cycling, and not be a d-bag. Learning how to both use a bicycle for its utility and as an outlet for fun and creativity is a freaking awesome thing. It takes some humility though, that just what you think is cool at the moment might not be the "right way" to ride a bike.

    • Loved your response. All good thoughts and lots of fodder for future posts. I actually didn’t want a fixie bike in San Francisco. I bought it because I desperately needed a bike to get to CalTrain so I could get down to my job in the Valley and that was the first decent and cheap one that popped up on craigslist. I stopped riding it within a couple months and bought the geared Bridgestone because the Bianchi hurt my knees. But I actually came to like riding the fixie, despite my initial skepticism. The tall boy I bought off of someone on a whim for a pittance. I had welded a similar one together in my college days and got the sense that I wouldn’t be considered “hip” enough to join one of the chopper gangs to rebuild a new one. Those bikes I am riding in Denmark and Holland are (or were at the time) more or less (one of) the local “cool” things to ride. As for the “right way” to ride a bike, we should be open to all sorts on two wheels. My personal preference is to sit on whatever moves ya and peddle 😉

  14. happy that pdx is not copenhagen

    I suspect your assimilation is purely a cultural thing. My portland neighborhood has achieved ~30% mode share, has a copenhagen-like bike infrastructure, and yet the percentage of vehicular cyclists has steadily increased. From the perspective of function (e.g. getting from point A to B with the minimum amount of fuss) a modern commuter is infinitely superior to the clunky and atavistic 40 lb alloy steel bikes popular in denmark.

    • Perhaps largely a cultural thing, but also a practical reason. No one here would ride the kind of bicycle you are referring to for two reasons. First, because you would look silly since you would be the only person on one and people would wonder what bike race you were on your way to. Americans have a reputation for needing to have top of the line things just to do every day menial tasks. It’s overkill and unnecessary and doesn’t mesh with Danish modesty.

      Second, people tend to lock their bike up outside (though not overnight like in Holland) and with only a little flip lock on the back wheel. Sure, you could haul a fancier bike into your office to prevent it from getting stolen but I’m only biking 2 km to my office right now, and I’ve never had to commute more than 6 km. Why should I care what PSI my tires are or if I can shave a minute or two off of my 10 minute ride? Making the parking experience dead simple easily saves me the 2 minutes on either end (and a lot of hassle!). I’d never trade how easy it is to park here for even the ‘fanciest’ of bikes. The reason people have cheap clunkers is to deter theft. In Amsterdam, people ride bikes that are all but falling apart since they know there’s a pretty good chance it’ll get stolen within the year. Copenhagen isn’t quite so bad, but most people don’t care to tempt fate.

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  16. And many Dutch people do have a fancier bicycle for touring or cycling fast if they are into racing – they simply don’t take it to work and leave it outdoors where it would immediately disappear.

    A Copenhager friend who has lived in Amsterdam for several years now continues to decry the endemic bicycle theft there. Sure there is theft in Copenhagen (as there is here in Montréal and in all other major cities) but Amsterdam is ridiculous. The authorities’ seeming failure to deal with this serious problem is a black mark on the otherwise splendid cycling culture (using cycling to mean “getting around on a bike” and culture to mean how people live, as in fork, carefully washed RIGHT hand or chopsticks for meals, not subcultural stuff).

  17. I think all you guys are missing the point. I felt special every time i rode my bicycle, when i was my hobby and not everyone’s way of transportation.

    When i fixed my bicycle, checked for new components. When all the rest where honking me because i was really aggressive riding or when they tried to kill me…

    It happens to me exactly the same (maybe i am getting old) :S

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