I’ve taken my cycling up a notch since moving to Devon. It’s been a combination of mammoth Sunday rides and cycling as part of my commute.
It’s been properly lush. There’s a bit of a mindfulness thing happening, where having a slight focus on riding my bike and avoiding potholes gives my mind enough to whir over, (no pun intended) but also a bit of space. The sense of calm combined with the dopamine of exercise is pretty amazing.
Norms and culture
Before the car became our primary mode of transport, cycling was the norm. Convenience has won out as roads have been purposely designed for cars over bikes, and for passive over active travel.
Cycling is no longer the norm, and therefore neither are cyclists. As a collective, cyclists are not seen in a good light. Sarah Storey has recently called for the invention of a new word for commuting cyclists as the associations with ‘cyclist’ have become toxic, with more than half of Australian car drivers for instance thinking that cyclists are “not completely human.” Hatred of cyclists has become a cultural norm as opposed to an irrational standpoint.
Of course, Lycra also doesn’t help perceptions. whatsthepont’s post on MAMILs and Social Practice Theory perfectly captures the unease that people have around it, with a colleague saying that “if they think I’m going to join in with a bunch of sweaty blokes in skin-tight leggings, they can forget it.”
It’s interesting to consider cycling using the theory that Chris outlines in his post:
- Materials: These are the physical things needed for a social practice.
- Know How: The skills and competency needed to perform actions that fit with the social practice.
- Meaning: The understanding of what it means to perform that social practice.
Ernest Gagnon is on a fantastic journey where the materials and meaning clashed for him. He wasn’t expected to wear lycra as he’s looking to lose weight. But he’s built a supportive online community around this. He has flipped conventional thinking on its head with his theory:
“I’m a big guy trying to live in a world that is not really meant for big people. I have learned quickly that big guys are not accepted and should generally not be doing or wearing certain things.
“Wearing spandex when I ride gives me the freedom to be me. I am not ashamed, not scared and I am not going to run and hide.
“I started to love myself and fix my self. It also helps me deal with my depression because spandex is honest. It makes me honest with myself and with others. This is why I think the cycling world is so open; when people can accept themselves for who they are they can also accept others and help them to be their self.”
Even as a lanky so and so, I still struggle with lycra. My arms look like two strands of spaghetti hanging off a torso. I grew up in alternative music circles where baggy clothes are built for comfort and to mask the idiosyncrasies of our bodies. I still feel uncomfortable wearing lycra, to the point where I wear baggy shorts over my cycling ones on my commute. Even at 36, I’m not comfortable with what I look like, and as Ernest says, lycra gives you no place to hide. It’s been pouring down over the last few days, which makes riding in cotton a soggy and unpleasant experience, so this at least has prompted me to change my habits. My challenge is to maintain that and to remind myself that there’s nothing more punk rock than not caring what anyone else thinks.
Ditching active travel has obvious implications in terms of fitness, but there are also the unintended consequences in terms of social interaction. There’s the “hello”, “morning” and “evening” exchanged with other commuters, but also the coffee culture that comes with cycling. On my longer rides I get to smash a massive chunk of cake over a few cuppas whilst dissecting the fortunes of various sports teams or the current political carnage. John Wade shared a beautiful illustration by Sarah Lazarovic on Twitter that shares the power of these small interactions, and he’s also captured it perfectly in his post on Stratford parkrun — Average run times are down, productivity is down, start times are later, cake consumption is up…what on earth is going on?
“Lots of people make cakes to bring along, either to celebrate a parkrun milestone or birthday or just for the hell of it. It means people hang around after their run. They chat, swap stories, catch up with old friends, take selfies, put their name down to volunteer the next week.
“We’ve built a strong community that welcomes people in from the edge and lets everyone participate and share whatever they have to offer.”
I could bamboozle you with Strava stats around how I’ve become fitter and healthier. I could share the miles that I have under my belt or my improvement on climbs that I would previously have baulked at. But it’s the way that it’s given me the time and space to socialise and make new friends since moving to Devon that’s been the biggest upside to cycling. That and the cake.
We seem to be at a particularly critical juncture around this given the discussions that are taking place around driverless cars.
My choice to commute by bike and train is made despite the ease of jumping in the car, which is a bit quicker. Commuting by bike adds friction to my life as it’s not the easy choice. But often we know that doing the easy thing and doing the right thing are not the same. Neil Tamplin shared a really usful Twitter thread around this in the context of fast food, where he highlighted how McDonalds steer people down well-worn paths, not necessarily the right ones.
The convenience of automation may make further inroads into our active travel and use of public transport, which can often bring us all together. I found this great piece by Xavier Brice in one of Neil’s brilliant weeknotes (Season 2, Episode 6) on the future of walking and cycling.
“This is about more than just connecting places and enabling people to travel without a car. These paths connect people to one other. In times when almost a fifth of the UK population say they are always or often lonely, these paths are a vital asset. They provide free space for everyone to move around, to be, and spend time together. It’s the kind of space that keeps our country more human and humane.”
It’s not easy to wear lycra or jump on a bike for the first time. I still struggle with this, even though it’s made my life better in so many ways. But, it’s widened my social circle, improved my mental health and made me happier and healthier. At the very least it’s worth thinking about how we get about, and how our choices can help us to live our best lives.