Disobey cycling

Ricardo Zapata Lopera
Jun 13 · 7 min read

Bike resistance in the age of consumerism and self-exposure

Photo by arialqadri - on Unsplash

Cycling is trapped in consumerism. Try to ride a bike every day to your work and soon you’ll find yourself buying new stuff: a new saddle, spare air tubes, new handlebar grips, a pair of lights. Then the rainy days arrive, so you’ll need the whole rain equipment. Then you get robbed, so you buy a new bike, now with insurance and a lock. Parts get worn out, you lose accessories, the bike gets dirty, it needs too much maintenance! And we are just starting. Now you find that riding to the park a sunny Saturday afternoon is pretty cool. Then you see in Google Maps that there is a park in a place you don’t know and going on your bike might be exciting. You have just realized that a bike is not only good for daily commuting, but for traveling and sport. Of course, your jeans are just too sweaty to double the distance you are used to do, so you need better clothes. Things might go on like this almost forever because there will always be new roads and journeys. For every condition and situation, you’ll find different bikes, accessories, clothing, digital gadgets, and even tourist plans. It’s a world of consumption where nothing is enough. You look at others and they always have better things. Suddenly, you start thinking that your worth as a cyclist is given by the things you’ve bought. Is it really? Cyclists are burned out by consumerism and competition, but to change it we need to reclaim the original reason why we got into the saddle: the feeling of air hitting our face when we roll down the street, nothing else.

Consumption has existed for several decades since the spread of globalization and cheap products. Although that is not an excuse, almost all contemporary cyclist knew before what they were getting into. The real problem has come with the spirit of competition and, even more, with that of self-exposure. Things have intensified in recent years. Now we can record our ride on digital apps to compare our performances with others. Now we can expose our life through social media, sharing photos and videos of every new ride, component or place we visited. This has profoundly changed the way we use our bikes. Our rides are losing the personal, political and environmental essence they inherently have, in favor of a transactional, competitive, and, ultimately, egoistic desire.

…and when a random Sunday morning you want to stay in bed hugging your lover, “duty” will call out.

This misses the point of what ought to be cycling. I’ve seen how people (myself included) have been trapped in the crescendo of consumption, competition, and exposition. How discovering new places turns into tourism. How tourism becomes “doing” places, as checking them on a list. How it then demands more efficiency and better performance. How you start to train for new objectives: reaching a new village, climbing a mountain, or getting into a Sunday amateur competition. How training then absorbs your whole life, changes your food regime, makes you disciplined to the extent that there is no way to see your friends a Friday night because you have a ride the next morning at 7am. You get into a cycling group, you change your friends, you go to bike-trips, buy tickets to expensive Gran Fondo’s, and, if you are crazy enough to also run and swim, you might also venture into an exotic Iron Man race in Hawaii. In the meantime, you post everything on social networks. You are now recognized by your results, your discipline empowers others, your latest photos with the valley in the background had tons of likes. If you are lucky and physically gifted, you’ll become an influencer and brands will even give you their merchandise to show them off. What can you lose by taking a photo eating a new protein bar or wearing some new shoes? And just if you manage to get into that elite, you’ll still have to fight to earn a living (that is, monetizing your Instagram account). But your hobby will become your job and, when a random Sunday morning you want to stay in bed hugging your lover, duty will call out.

Taking a striking photo (Photos by Dmitrii Vaccinium on Unsplash)

The problem, of course, is that you’ll never be a professional. You’ll never make a living out competitions. To do so, you needed to start with this intensity when you were 12, but now you are 23 or 35 and it’s physically impossible. Nevertheless, you are spending your money, time and energy going to competitions for the sake of being the best. Being the best is becoming more and more costly. The required level for winning amateur competitions is improving as people are willing to engage in this madness to keep a performance that ultimately is an illusion. After competitions, you’ll return to your house with empty hands, just with an experience that can only be sustained generating envy in social networks and increasing the rhythm of training. It never gives you rest; it never finishes. You are trapped in an endless cycle of training, competition, and exposition. A professional cyclist at least has the promise of retirement, the official end of a career. But you, can you really retire from it?

Of course you can, but it requires to abandon the façade of present-day cycling and return to what really matters: you, your bicycle and the surroundings on the road. To me, cycling has been a way to freedom since I was a kid. It showed me that I could do long distances without the help of my parents. It taught me that physical effort could be fun. It was a way out of a difficult reality when my family was hounded by a tough economic situation. It gave me independence, allowing me to move around, even with no money in my pocket. It connected me with the mountains of my hometown, Medellín. The feeling of air hitting my face when I roll down the street is how I better illustrate this freedom. Bicycles are silent and loyal partners, they become a part of yourself. Cycling becomes, with discipline and persistence, a personal process of understanding yourself and your environment, be it a city or the countryside. In its best, riding a bike is a personal journey of growth, discovery, and liberation with profound positive consequences for others.

Riding around Medellín, Colombia

Étienne de La Boétie wrote that being free, is above all, wanting to be free. But this process of letting go of consumption and competition requires not only the will to change. It requires the mindset of a disobedient. In the mid-1800s, Henry David Thoreau expressed the need to resist civil government when it has departed from the spirit of the law. This, later termed as civil disobedience, is primarily an act of resisting the passive inertia of obedience. However, this approximation to disobedience has over-politicized it and eclipsed all the previous process that occurs within a disobedient. French philosopher Frédéric Gros suggests it begins with a personal discovery of one’s place in this world. Disobedience implies obedience to our self. It departs from the ethical impossibility to be part of an external madness. It is an act of non-delegable and non-deferrable self-obedience. In the quest to reclaim the core sense of cycling, cyclists ought to disobey.

Competitive and consumptive cycling is missing the process of self-discovery and personal freedom that has rolled with bikes for a long time. You cannot buy your personal journey, neither with money nor with likes. There is not a problem in going to competitions, getting a better bike or recording our rides on an App. Nonetheless, the problem comes when this is done as a shortcut for a non-delegable process of growth, discipline, and empathy. Cycling becomes heavy, groups rides get boring and depressing. But, above all, cyclists burn out. No wonder why it is impossible to keep up this rhythm without relying on artificial energetic products. We need cyclists that resist the consumption and competition spiral. Cyclists that disobey as soon as they don’t find a point on following a training plan, buying a new bike, missing a key moment with a loved one, or keeping up a fast pace when others are being left behind and need help to move on. Old rabbi Hillel Hazaken had expressed it: “if I am not for myself, who is for me? And being for my own self, what am ‘I’? And if not now, when?”. Probably what we need is not more cyclists, but humans riding bicycles.

Ricardo Zapata Lopera

Written by

Urban, digital and civic affairs. I study Public Policy at Sciences Po Paris. Español & English.

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