by Our Bicycle Lives
Newspapers regularly run stories on cycling tribes (preferably with alliterated names), being eager to differentiate us without individualising us and to group us under conveniently stereotypical categories for the benefit of their readership. There are the Lycra lads and the cyclists chic, the Hackney hipsters, the fast fixed and the random riders. So, what kind of cyclist are you? Does it matter? There is, I admit, a certain uniformity to people on bikes, as with anybody engaged in a physical pursuit. Swimmers or long-distance runners for example have very distinctive body shapes. The majority of urban cyclists are commuters, not professional sportsmen and women, but it is somewhat a myth that we come in all shapes and sizes. In the current bicycle-unfriendly environment that is London, most people who venture on a bike will be fairly fit, fast and assertive: in other words, the statistics say that we are typically male and under the age of 50. With specialised clothing on top, we all start to look like types.
Still, I rarely think of us as a crowd displaying a mass behaviour, a uniform style. Perhaps because we are, visibly, individuals and because, even during the rush hour, I am able to single out someone I know cycling in the opposite direction. Indeed, I have never come across so many familiar faces than on two wheels, each and every single one of them recognisable by their own style of cycling. It possibly begins with the choice of a bicycle, which will determine a riding position, speed, clothes, shoes etc. Or vice-versa, the choice of bicycle being informed by one’s purpose: fast commuting, a cheap way to get around, leisure riding, competitive sport, or just the means to spend a pleasant hour in the sun, getting nowhere in particular. In the end, my cycling style is the product of factors like type of bike, purpose, fitness, skills, experience and confidence. Whether I can put it into words or not, I have a good notion of its essence, so that I can say, for instance, that ‘weaving through traffic is not my style.’
It may, deep down, boil down to my position on the bike, my position on the road and my position towards other road users. Style is a matter of choice. It reflects in part my attitude to cycling, what I view as my privileges, rights and duties in a space I share with pedestrians, cars, motorcycles, taxis, buses and lorries. With time and practice, the power of habit turns my style into lasting behavioural traits: how I act and react on a bike. Over the years, I’ve tried to make it relaxed but responsible, without going as far as the slightly intimidating ‘cycling with intent’ (the BikeReader definition of activism!). I feel the same way about cycling as 16th century writer Michel de Montaigne did about death when he wrote in The Essays: ‘I will take care, if I can, that my death says nothing that my life had not previously said.’ I would of course like to think that someone’s cycling style is an accurate indication of the type of person they are, especially since for me cycling is more than a mode of transport, a way of life. But we all know that the peculiar road environment changes people. Man often undergoes a metamorphosis, a mutation, from an ordinary, decent office type into a caveman on wheels. It seems the race to and from the workplace, with the single-mindedness required to go over the same stretches of tarmac day after day, brings to the fore some primal competitive instinct and keeps true selves well-hidden. So I’ll never know.
Now, the important question: have you got style? Or have you got helmet hair, reflective clothing and duck shoes? We’ll never meet the impossibly glamorous standards of Marilyn Monroe’s frantic cycle ride to catch a boat at the end of Some Like It Hot* – not a blonde hair out of place – but cycling is once again perceived as cool and chic, thanks in part to websites like Copenhagen Cycle Chic. The aesthetics of urban cycling make for some lovely looks, half natural poses and half fashion statements, spotless, sweat-free, the very image of insouciance and freedom. As for me, I find that practicalities and comfort often stand in the way of style and I am content for cycling to be more than a fashion style, my lifestyle.
* Billy Wilder, 1959