Cycling struggles, 9

Have I painted too bleak a picture in this series of insights into the current state of British cycling? Have I made things seem worse than they are? Because we know many people – me and perhaps you included – happily cycle in British cities. Why haven’t I looked at them? The last in the series, in this post I focus on people who make cycling work. These people cycle regularly and routinely; they show utility cycling is possible. But do they show utility cycling is probable? And does their cycling make mass cycling more or less likely?

Please note, I’m not interested in further stigmatising the urban cyclist; quite the contrary. But as a sociologist concerned with how we produce a mass cycling culture, I want to investigate the potential unintended consequences of the minority of people who currently make cycling work for them.

9. A committed cycling story

This post merges the cycling stories of three committed cyclists. These cyclists are of a type, and I admit I’m brushing aside some of the diversity amongst ‘everyday cyclists’ here. By concentrating on three assertive male cyclists I’m suppressing the experiences of others, such as older, often female, cyclists who if you look carefully enough you’ll see riding in many British towns and cities. Jo’s a good example. In her seventies, she says:

“Very, very regularly I use the bike. I would say I use it just about every day really.

“I cycle to save a bit of time. I don’t do any cycling for pleasure, because I’ve only got an old Raleigh sit-up-and-beg bike, with the basket, with three-speeds – and they are a bit dodgy (I’ve never had a new bike, I can tell you that. I got it second-hand). I’ve discovered – keep your fingers’ crossed – that it doesn’t get pinched; if I take it into town it’s not attractive to anybody is it? All my life, not that particular one, but all my life I’ve had a bike.

“So I really use it to get to places more quickly, to make me less tired, and to save getting the car out, because [her husband] isn’t involved in quite a few of the things I do [and she doesn’t herself drive]. So that’s why I use the bike. I don’t use it for going out on bike rides.”

“Because I’m 72 now, you see, I’m getting a little, not nervous, but as the traffic gets worse on the roads to the city I tend to try and keep obviously to the little cycle ways and the alleys and keep out of the way of the busy roads.”

Jo tries to take direct routes and if they get too busy, and especially where there are lots of parked cars, she moves onto the pavement

“because it just isn’t fair on the buses and the other cars that are trying to move, to be honest … I’ve found it safer from everybody’s point of view, if there aren’t any pedestrians, because there just isn’t room for everybody. I’m not a nervous person but I do try to be sensible.”

Push bike

Like many people who cycle, Jo is happiest when her routes are clear and straightforward. When they become ‘messier’, and particularly when they become full of motorised transport (whether mobile or immobile) any sense of entitlement to limited space is diminished, and she feels she should give way. So Jo is an everyday cyclist, but unlike many everyday cyclists, she doesn’t have a strong cycling identity. She might move around by bike, but she’s not a cyclist. In this post I’ll be (implicitly) suggesting that she’s not become a cyclist because when it gets difficult to ride she stops riding; she’ll dismount and/or take to the pavement. The moment someone keeps riding when/where others wouldn’t dare, that’s the moment they become a cyclist.

I’m uncomfortable suppressing the voices of those like Jo; they’re already too silent and marginal. But I do so for a reason. I want to foreground assertive male cyclists because they have the strongest influence on cycling discourses; it’s their identities I want to examine and to some extent problematize. I’m silencing women like Jo, as well as other ‘cyclists of difference’ (non-white and non-middle class), but it’s the more general silence of these voices within (supposedly) pro-cycling discourses which produces a style of cycling promotion I’d call ‘male’ (and white, middle-class), which keeps British cycling gendered ‘male’ (and white, middle-class), and which makes – I’m afraid – women like Jo ‘a dying breed’. Jo is the kind of cyclist we should be producing but who instead we are losing. The cyclists we’re currently producing are like me and those I’ve chosen to focus on here. This is no way to get Britain cycling.

Committed cycling

Three committed cyclists

Fred is in his sixties, and retired. He lives a couple of miles from his city’s centre. He rides a Dawes Galaxy. In recent years he’s done some long-distance touring, but he also rides around town. He says:

“It’s my normal mode of transport. If I want to go somewhere, my first thought is I go on a bike. Shopping, going to see friends, whatever … I ride mainly for convenience because I can go anywhere I want, when I want … I can’t imagine a time when I won’t cycle.”

Rhys is in his early fifties. He’s a teacher. He rides regularly to the shops, to his allotment and to work.

“I always go to work on my bike, whatever the weather.”

Peter is in his mid-thirties. He’s always cycled and is a keen mountain biker. He rides to work, and deliberately uses his commute as a way of staying fit.

Fred has one bike. Rhys has two. Peter has three which are ready to ride and others in various states of assembly.

The style of committed cycling

For Fred, Rhys and Peter city cycling is relatively straightforward. They ride competently and confidently.

I accompany Fred on a shopping trip. We ride from his home towards the city centre. It’s cold and raining hard. Fred takes direct routes, and rides assertively. Here we’re negotiating a big roundabout near the city centre. Please as you read think about how likely it is that most people could be persuaded to do the kind of riding I’m depicting:

“We’re on the outside of the line of standing traffic, going down, riding towards oncoming traffic. Fred’s slowed down to do this. We were probably riding at 14 mph but we’re down to 10/11 mph. He’s being vigilant, watching out for movements, being careful of cars coming towards us. A car’s turning out of a side road. Fred’s seen it and has waited for it, to let it come through. We’re getting close to the roundabout now. Fred’s still on the outside edge; he might decide to move in – let’s see. Coming to the roundabout, there’s a tanker on the left, we’re just going past it and into the right-hand turn lane. Out onto the traffic island now, staying on the right-hand edge of the lane so that we can get back onto the outside of the vehicles as we head into the city. Overtaking buses, trucks, a long line of cars. The traffic’s speeding up now. Fred’s obviously very confident doing this. We’re riding in amongst the traffic, it’s now picked up to probably 20 mph and we’re just riding with it coming down to the lights, and now cutting back through to the inside, and onto the newly laid red tarmac as we get to the lights, going on the inside and up to the advanced stop line.”

And later

for a lot of the journey today it’s felt like we’re the fastest, most fluid moving vehicles on the road.”

Rhys describes the stretch of his commute along a busy main road:

“It’s a bit of a battle except that most times the traffic’s not moving very fast and so I’m going a lot faster than the traffic. So I’m going on the outside of the traffic and riding up the middle of the road basically, passing all the traffic for a lot of the way.”

Such riding is normal for committed cyclists, something which is done day in, day out. There are risks (such as the car pulling out in front of Fred, above), but through experience cyclists learn to negotiate them. And there are (admittedly grim) pleasures too:  the satisfaction of gliding past a standing line of motorised traffic; sometimes weaving in and out to maintain momentum.

Although they tend to have greater awareness of alternative routes, these cyclists are more likely than occasional cyclists to take direct routes along main roads. They are less frightened of doing so.

Confident road riding

Peter says:

“Main roads are a necessity if I’m late for work. I’ll take a nicer route if I’ve got plenty of time, because it’s five minutes longer, because it’s a mile and a bit more; if I’ve got time I’ll do it but if I haven’t I’ll go straight up the main road because it’s quick – that’s why main roads are main roads.”

Rhys could take one of two routes between home and work: one involves a dedicated cycling route alongside a main road, with controlled crossings to get across the major intersections; the other is through the city centre on road. He chooses the latter; as we examine the map together he says of the former:

“I don’t actually like this route. It’s not a pleasant route. It’s very exposed, and it’s got these irritating bits at the roundabouts where, for a cyclist, it just seems to disrupt your flow.”

So Rhys avoids this ‘stop/start’ route on his commute. But he’ll use it as a quick way of getting out of town for a long ride on his road bike; but then he’s moving fast and will ride and negotiate the roundabouts on the road (“especially when I’m on my road bike I don’t want to be stopping and starting, I want to keep moving”).

Cycling’s right to the road

All three cyclists insist on their right to the road. Rhys says:

My view is that even if there is a cycle track I’ve got every right to be on the road on my bike, just as much as a car or anybody else really.”

Peter says:

“I always claim my space in the road. I see some cyclists who stick to the kerb, right until the last minute and then put their arm out and go. And I’m thinking, ‘oh no! Why?’; I’m thinking ‘30 yards before, check behind you and go for it; if you’re changing lanes, go for it’.”

They particularly avoid off-road infrastructure if it will slow them down (as in Rhys’ commute) and/or is likely to bring them into conflict with pedestrians. I follow Peter along a stretch of dual carriageway busy with cars travelling fast. When I mention he could have ridden on the adjacent pavement, which has been converted to shared-use, he says:

“Yes I know, but at that time of day there are too many pedestrians, and even though I know I can ride through there and also through town – you can ride through there now too – I still think they’ve got right of way.”

Right to the road

Becoming a ‘cyclist’ – step one

For these men, riding on the road is normal, but it’s not always easy. Fred, Peter and Rhys have learned how to cope on the roads but the difficulties of road cycling haven’t disappeared; those difficulties are embedded within the prevailing road environment and will inevitably sometimes be confronted, and not always effectively negotiated.

In negotiating these difficulties by bike people develop identities as ‘cyclists’. This is a two-step process. The first step in developing a cyclist identity is in merely tolerating and learning to negotiate what to most people are intolerable cycling conditions.

Rhys says “I’m a confident cyclist so I’ll do battle with the traffic.”

About half of Rhys’ journey to work is along a busy main road on which it’s easy to get squeezed, so effective cycling depends on asserting yourself and riding in what is usually called ‘primary position’ – taking up the same sort of space as would a car, and making it impossible for motorists to get past. (When as a cyclist you consider it safe for following cars to pass, you move out of primary and into secondary position, to let them through. It’s a key riding technique (indispensable for fast and fluid city cycling in the UK, I would argue) which all three men use.)

Peter describes his journey to work:

I admit I’m quite quick. I can accelerate to 20, 25 mph and in the mornings when it’s bumper-to-bumper I can keep up with the flow of traffic.

“There’s a lot of turnings, and the amount of times cars come round, you’re coming up to a junction on your left, and they just ‘verumphhh’ – swing it –  instead of waiting two seconds for me to go … It’s bloody annoying. I do shout at people.”

Talking about mixing with motorised traffic, Rhys says:

“Obviously you’ve got to be pretty careful, you’ve got to be pretty sharp and pretty aware. I’m almost expecting somebody to do something stupid. I don’t ride and expect everybody to do what they should do. I always ride expecting they are going to get in my way or I am going to get in their way … It’s not the best thing. It’s not what you’d want to do.”

An element of difficulty and danger is normalised amongst these regular road cyclists. It’s a fact of life which they’ve learned to accept and cope with. Rhys again:

“I’ve had the odd time when I’ve been cut up by buses, things like that. You get the occasional time when people come in too close when they are going past you, even when they don’t have to be so close, but I think that’s just a general thing about people not having an appreciation of cyclists and about how much room you should give cyclists when you are going past. “

So in this first part of the process of building a cyclist identity, the kinds of experience which stop most people cycling are simply taken-for-granted and tolerated as the cyclist’s lot. And these bad experiences are typically put into the context of overall good experiences.

All three men also own cars and drive, but they don’t identify themselves as motorists in the same ways they do as cyclists because driving is easy and normal, merely something they do. They identify more strongly with cycling because they have to struggle to cycle, and struggles build identities.

Becoming a ‘cyclist’ – step two

The second step in developing a cyclist identity is in continuing to cycle despite experiencing dangerous incidents. In fact, often part of the process of building a cyclist identity is to convert these incidents into resources; I don’t want to overstate this – it’s a bit too ‘sensational’ – but for the resilient urban cyclist they become almost ‘rites of passage’ and ‘badges of honour’.

So conflicts, near-misses and getting knocked off are experiences which become part of ‘a cycling career’, stories in the building of a cycling biography. Obviously this is not inevitable; whilst some people tend to reinforce their cyclist identities via such experiences, others simply stop cycling, becoming ‘ex-cyclists’. The effects of these bad experiences underlie why cycling is so subject to ‘churn’ (people taking it up but soon stopping) and why the tiny minority who persist are so resilient.

Rhys tells me:

“I do have an occasional shout at some people. Like there was one occasion a few weeks ago, I was at the roundabout and I wanted to go round, so I was in the middle of the road, and some van driver came up behind me and told me I was getting in his way, from him wanting to go straight on. So we had a kind of little discussion about whose road it was and who had the right to be on the road.”

Such incidents could easily put someone off cycling, but Rhys is used to it.

Peter had many cycling stories, partly because he’s done so much riding, and partly because we worked with him more intensively than we did with either Fred or Rhys. You may find that Peter’s stories (below) sound a bit extreme; I think this is at least partly due to where we are ‘forced’ or ‘choose’ to ride. I don’t ride regularly in Peter’s city but I know it’s a much less forgiving cycling environment than my own city of Lancaster. And of course we must be careful here not to ‘blame the victim’.

During one conversation Peter and I shared experiences of riding the ‘End-to-End’, probably the most significant British long-distance ride in terms of ‘earning your spurs’. Peter was forced to abandon his ride after a few days with a suspected heart attack, which turned out to be a series of panic attacks. He describes his experiences the day before his abandonment:

“I nearly got hit three times.

“One was on a long ascent, a long crawl. There were these long artics [big trucks] coming down the hill, and I could hear this thing bombing behind me and there was a Range Rover towing a caravan, and he was trying to get in front of me before the lorries came.  And he cut in and I virtually had to force myself off the road.

“Then about twenty miles down the road, an artic this time. It was on a nice, perfect, straight bit of road – flat – with a good two foot past the white line so I was in, like, a cycle lane. And this lorry come past and I thought ‘that was a bit close!’. And also I could hear a second one coming. That time I had to jump off the road. Because what was happening, there was a car behind the two lorries overtaking them, and the bloke in the second lorry was paying more attention to him than to me and he was kind of steering to the left as he was going past me.  And that got within like 8 inches of me, that arctic did.  And he was fully loaded, he was carrying logs.

“And about 20 miles later, this car actually clipped my bar end. Just, it was like a millimetre, you just felt that [banging his hand on his bar end].”

For experienced cyclists such negative cycling experiences are brief moments which puncture longer durations of cycling pleasure, but that doesn’t make them inconsequential. They are hugely consequential; they stop most people cycling, and they ensure the minority who continue cycling develop powerful identities. By sharing them, we align ourselves with others who have had similar experiences. Have you ever enjoyed – almost thrived on – swapping cycling experiences (the good as well as bad), almost as though you’re feeding on/off them? In doing so we’re forging powerful identities and sub-cultures of cycling. I’ll be honest, these sub-cultures are part of the reason I love cycling – I know I can go anywhere in the world, find and meet fellow cyclists, and quickly build rapport, solidarity and friendship with them. Peter is doing this kind of work here; we’re standing in his garage, surrounded by his bikes, talking about the thing we share in common – love for cycling. It’s brilliant! I love fellow cyclists because our recognition and appreciation (in a word, identification) of each other is so strong. But if we’re serious about getting more people cycling we’d be foolish to be blind to the potential consequences of such powerful in-group formation.

In another cycling story, Peter says:

“I have been hit a few times. I’ve actually gone over the bonnet of a car before … It was partly my fault. Well, it was 50/50. It was at night. My lights weren’t effective enough. The battery was dying. He said he didn’t see me. He pulled out and I had my head down. I looked up and it was too late. I had no time to hit the brakes.

“Luckily I hit the front of the wing and cleared the bonnet, Superman over the bonnet! If I’d hit the door I think I would have been dead because I hit him at about 30 mph; and destroyed my bike in the process.

“I’ve been hit on about four or five occasions. That was the worst one. Sometimes a car’s just pulled out, never saw me and last minute hit the brakes, and just nudged me sort of thing, and I’ve had a bit of a wobble. ”

The obvious question to ask anyone who continues cycling despite such incidents is ‘why?’ Here’s my conversation with Peter:

“Why do you keep riding when things like that happen to you?”

“You’ve got to get back on haven’t you?”


“If you don’t get back on you never will!”

“Why do you want to get back on?”

“Because I enjoy it.”

“What do you enjoy about it?”

“Well you saw me coming downhill. I love downhills.”

Of course I accept Peter’s explanation; it’s what came into his head when pushed, and he clearly finds riding fast downhill tremendously thrilling. But as a sociologist I must add identity as an explanatory factor: Peter keeps cycling because he’s become a cyclist; and he’s not just built that identity, he’s earned it.

Attachment to a cyclist identity

A cyclist identity is earned by riding in places where others fear to pedal. Cyclists who survive the difficulties and dangers of urban British cycling have earned their cyclist identity by insisting on, then defending, and finally surviving their right to the road. Understandably then, they’re not going to give this right up lightly. But in insisting on their right to the road, do these cyclists make cycling a more difficult route for others to follow? Do they ensure their own identities remain exclusive? Do they perpetuate the status quo of a tiny minority of people cycling through prejudicial cycling conditions in an anti-cycling environment? Do they impede the creation of the kinds of conditions which are required for other people, people much less prepared to go through the journey which they have taken, to cycle? Unfortunately I think the answer to all these questions is ‘yes’. And I think the sooner we face up to that – individually as people who care about cycling and collectively as ‘cyclists’ voice’ –  the sooner we’ll develop and insist on strategies which can genuinely get many more people cycling, much more safely, much more often.


The key point is that strong cycling identities – which can then find expression in and through some (by no means all) cycling advocacy – result from conditions which keep cycling marginal. The strong identity of ‘cyclist’ and cycling as a marginalised and difficult practice are co-produced from the same stuff. Unless we as cyclists are reflexive about this, our advocacy will risk reproducing the situation (the institutional conditions as well as the actual environment for cycling) which keeps cycling so marginal. Unless we’re reflexive, as cycling advocates we’ll reproduce rather than challenge the status quo.

As regular cyclists cycling seems easy. We’re puzzled as to why more people don’t do it; it’s such a convenient, straightforward, cheap and healthy way of moving around. It might sound patronising to insist that many people won’t do something which we ourselves do, but better that than down-playing the difficulties of cycling and insisting it’s easier than people think. What we fail to realise is that by succeeding in cycling we have become different, and that such difference makes a difference.

Today cycling is ordinary to the few and extraordinary to the many. It’s not mainstream. Getting Britain cycling requires making it ordinary to the many (which might well be at the cost of making it extraordinary to those of us who currently ride).

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24 Responses to “Cycling struggles, 9”

  1. Sue Holden Says:

    A very excellent post!

  2. Gareth Rees Says:

    This seems like a good summary of the process of socialization that turns a person who rides a bike into a “cyclist”. When this has happened to you over many years, it’s easy to forget how alien you’ve become in the eyes of the rest of society.

    When I first got married, I used to tell my wife about the funny experiences I had on the bike (you know the sort of thing: “a taxi driver told me today that he didn’t care if he lost his license, he was going to kill me” or “some kids threw a half-full coke can out of the window of a car and hit me”) but I soon realised that she found these stories upsetting rather than funny, so now I reserve these stories for other cyclists.

  3. Simon Says:

    I am definitely a cyclist. But whenever resonding to public consultations, or in any debate, I take the position that we should have cycle-ways safe enough for an 8 year old to use. Yes, these things may slow me down, but ultimately I want my future kids to cycle in safety and comfort to school.

  4. Mrs S J Wilson Says:

    A very interesting article that shows a good understanding of the problems we face as ‘ordinary people’ who want to be able to jump on a bike and go. Incidents like the ones described are why so many people ride on the paths in Peterborough despite cycleways and quiet roads.

  5. mike Says:

    Oh dear, let’s take a tiny, unrepresentative sample and extrapolate to the thousands of people in the UK who cycle regularly.

    • Don Says:

      There are more than 60 million people in the UK. Thousands may well cycle regularly. Thoses thousands are a tiny, unrepresentative sample of the British population.

  6. martinbelcher Says:

    I do think that one of the big problems with trying to mainstream cycling in the UK is that that the majority of people involved and committed to it are cyclists and as Dave nicely points out, that makes them different from the people they are trying to encourage to take up cycling. I’m not questioning their motives or efforts.

    Let me give a couple of examples of what I mean in practice:

    – About 10 years back I was living in Bristol and involved in an initiative to set up some home zones. A couple of people from Sustrans (who do a great job and I’m not criticising them) came along to one meeting to explain how they could help and such. Great. Only problem was that one of them was wearing tight cycling shorts. They stood at the front of the room and were immediately different from everyone in the audience – and this was a receptive audience.

    – In 10+ years cycle commuting in the UK, I can only recall seeing a few well dressed people riding bikes. I vividly recall one bloke on a train with a Brompton, as he has a really smart suit and nice tie on AND a bike. I noticed his clothes as an exception. Practically everyone dresses as a cyclist and marks themselves out clearly as being of a different tribe. Great if you’re in the tribe but not so good if you’re looking for new members, especially if you’re wanting to expand to youth. I can see some criticisms coming about shallowness and the need to dress like this but….

    – I’ve been living in Sweden for the last 10 or so years and I could probably count the number of people I have seen dressed like British cyclists. From their dress, style of bike and riding style, I’d hazard a guess that most of them are actually Anglo Saxon in origin. Its dark, cold, wet and such here and yet (nearly) no one deems it necessary to dress up differently from anyone else. So that people who use bikes are just that. They are not “cyclists” in the UK sense.

    So what? Well. I think that one key issue in all this should be that anyone involved in trying to change the culture around cycling should be doing it from the perspective of the cultural norm of the target group and not the norm of the recipient group. Great people like Jon Snow should drop the day-glow trouser clips, get a chain guard but continue to wear his normal clothes when being involved in cycle related public events. Perhaps slightly facetious but I hope you get what I mean.

  7. fonant Says:

    I used to be a “cyclist”, and to a certain extent I still am. But having children, and watching them get excited about riding their own bikes but having nowhere safe to do so, has made me realise what we lack in the UK currently. As a family we’re more “bicycle users” than “cyclists”, but there isn’t an English word for that. We’re “fietser” in Dutch, a word I’ve love to catch on in the UK!

    This concept of “cyclist identity” ties in nicely with the whole meaning of the word “cyclist” in the UK, excellently explored here:

    This also explains why it’s so difficult to get, and keep, a local “cycle campaign” going. The people who are “keen cyclists” are actually mostly happy with the current road environment, and so aren’t interested in campaigning for facilities to make it easy for non-cyclists to ride bikes. Some may even actually enjoy the thrill and challenge of the risks they take. Meanwhile the people who would like to use bicycles for transport, but don’t, just aren’t interested enough in cycling to get involved.

    All very interesting: thank you Dave for your valuable insight!

    • Ian Says:

      I’m probably one of the ‘keen cyclists’ who don’t engage with campaigning for new facilities, but to be honest I don’t see any need for explanations involving group identities or seeking thrills.

      Simply, almost all the ‘facilities’ constructed round here (and in most places I’ve cycled in Britain) are badly designed, poorly maintained, uunswept, badly surfaced and thoroughly unfit for purpose, at least on a road bike and cycling at more than 9 or 10 mph. They are also frequently more dangerous than cycling on the road because of junction design (or lack thereof).

      They also aren’t designed with needs in mind of someone commuting by bike – they are almost ‘destination paths’ that people use at a weekend, frequently having driven to a convenient car park. Until I see some sensible attempt to design paths that actually make longer journeys off-road feasible and pleasant I’m not terribly interested.

  8. martinbelcher Says:

    Another issue that might be relevant is something that I have noticed about general road use behaviour (driving and bike riding styles) and how they perhaps map to cultural norms. I’ve noticed this clearly in the differences between UK, Swedish and Danish cycling…

    A feel that a key part of the UK cycling identity (that I share, at least in part) is well articulated by the 3 male profiles above and very visible on the streets (at least the streets of London where I spend much of my time when in the UK). I think you could summarise this as “the need for speed” or “me first.” Anyone who has cycled knows how similar these are to many (not all it must be said but a sizeable proportion) car drivers. So in many ways committed cyclists like these share exact cultural similarities with the car drivers that they often have to battle against – the me first, I’ve got to get there quickly, don’t get in my space, etc. norms. Basically being selfish and not considerate of others.

    If one has two groups with these similar attitudes but with easily visible differences and regular potential points of conflict then that is what you’ll get AND ingrained positions. In many ways I think these characteristics go much deeper than being a cyclist or not. I think they are an ingrained feature of British culture (to be safe, perhaps I should say English, as that is what I am basing my observations on). Maybe it’s another thing we can blame Thatcher for, but it does seem that the lack of regard for others on the road is a shared cultural trait of most road users and reflects a deeper malaise of British society?

    I accept that behind a fast moving lump of metal that has more consequences and there are many considerate cyclists but even so…

    Is this an element of culture that might go some way to explaining the different experiences of cycling in say Sweden and Denmark when compared to the UK? Those two countries are renowned for tolerance and socially inclusive policies and attitudes. Is that one reason why riding a bike is more pleasant? I would propose that it is.

    Combined with the lack of differentiation (there simply is no them and us here, just people that use bikes and those that don’t) then this could well be an important element.

    Of course that doesn’t help get more people using bikes in the UK. I’m rather pessimistic on that front – I think it is possible but it will take so much time and effort and require such large shifts in cultural norms, that it is a multi-generational process. Not to say we should not work hard at it. Just wear nice clothes and ride slowly whilst doing so.

  9. Glen K Says:

    Interesting stuff Dave. I try to steer clear of the “cyclist” term; my personal stance now is that “I’m not a cyclist, but I do often cycle”. Likewise when talking about infrastructure projects/programmes, I point out that we are trying to provide for “cycling” (the activity), not for “cyclists” (you know, that weird minority bunch of people who live in lycra, hug trees, don’t own cars, break road rules, and all those other interesting attributes that get ascribed to them).

    It is a deliberate strategy to point out that if cycling is to become an everyday normal activity, then “normal” people need to see it as something they can do. I use a vacuum sometimes to tidy my house – does that make a “vacuumist”?

    BTW, I think the above Alternative DfT blogpost covers it nicely; funnily enough I also explored this issue recently here:

  10. Anna Says:

    Thanks for this new piece of thought provoking writing. If you go out with any CTC group of a weekend, I think you will find plenty of assertive women cyclists as indeed you will also find on the streets of many UK cities from London, to Oxford, Cambridge and elsewhere. So I am afraid I find your representatives a surprisingly biassed selection and I feel a little affronted at your description of a supposedly ‘typical’ older female cyclist, or would you prefer bike user?
    Leaving aside the linguistics for the moment, the situation you describe could be dealt with by political willpower which imposed compulsory Bikeability training in all schools; financed free Bikeability training through all councils and ran a campaign to persuade the population at large that cycle training is not just for cissies but important in a crowded transport landscape; made a few hours of cycle training a part of driver training (just as some haulage contractors and I believe the London transport authority now require lorry drivers to ride a bike during training); invested more money in traffic police who were empowered to fine drivers on the spot for misdeamenours and trained them to protect the rights of the most vulnerable road users; and finally committed money to the building of infrastructure for those who want leisure routes or need supposedly ‘safer’ places in which to cycle (in my local CTC group there are plenty of women who snort derisively at ‘safe’ routes).
    There certainly is a culture of ‘I almost died’ bravado amongst cyclists (testosterone fuelled to a large extent) but there is also camaraderie and inspiration. I am in my late 50s, when I started cycling in my early 40s, having hardly been on a bike before, my inspiration was a CTC linked group called the Ladies Cycling Fellowship (ok, chaps, stop smirking). This was a group of middle aged women who organised monthly cycle rides with the emphasis on companionship and enjoyment and helping each other with puncture and repairs – I learnt a lot from them. No we didn’t hurtle down A roads but we certainly enjoyed ourselves. Most of them are still cycling and one, aged, 75 has been riding 100 miles on her birthday for the last 5 years. So, you see, not all older women are hiding terrified in the gutter when a lorry roars past 🙂
    From looking around the city where I live, it seems to me that similarly, the more people cycle, the more others are encouraged to cycle and to become confident – Critical Mass stuff.
    Of course the conditions on UK roads put people off but we are all different and confidence can be taught and learnt. Bikeability is a tremendous force for good and I am disappointed that you have paid little attention to it. Finally, for the record, I have 5 bikes of different types and I have three daughters who own at least 2 bikes apiece and who are all keen to be on a bike for both utilitarian and leisure purposes. I really don’t think we are that odd. Did you not find any keen women cyclists/bike riders to interview during your study?

  11. Anna Says:

    And just to bang on a little further about cycle training, ie. Bikeability, it’s really worth it and not just for kids. It gives confidence through teaching awareness of how to cycle on modern roads – that means understanding use of speed, road positioning, communicating with drivers by your own behavior and by looking at them (when you look at someone, eg. waiting in a side road, they know, they will look back at you!). You will also be given an opportunity to improve your control of the bicycle, to learn how to keep your balance, look over your shoulder and give clear signals and move about the road when safe. It really isn’t difficult and it’s a darn sight better than shrugging and cycling on the pavement (though of course kids are better off away from the roads till they are older).
    I wonder how many ‘cyclists’ are aware of cycle training. How many of them have even heard of Bikeability? There are lots of training organisations out there and they do a damn good job. Find them through the Bikeability website or find individual cycle trainers through the CTC website.

    • Don Says:

      Anne, I think you’ve missed the point. I think Dave deliberately discusses three male (and white) cyclists precisely because they fit the common profile of most regular cyclists today. He does express some discomfort in suppressing the example of the older lady Jo. There’s no doubt that there are confident, assertive female cyclists out there, but I don’t think that alters the points he is making.

      Additionally, I think the training issue is a red herring when it comes to ‘normalising’ cycling. Bikeability may well be excellent training, but no amount of training will ever persuade the masses to cycle in traffic. Surely that’s obvious?

      • Anna Says:

        I only feel familiar with a small part of the UK so I can’t comment on whether most cyclists are ‘white’ but it’s probably true. However, I do not agree that confident males make up the majority of cyclists today even though men might like to think it is so. Men often simply fail to see or acknowledge women. One of my daughters recently did an internship in a community bike workshop. She talked about how so many men couldn’t handle the fact that there were women working there who actually knew how to mend a bike – ‘they’d take the tools from my hands and then not know what to do with them!’ She said.
        In club cycling, there are lots of men. however, around town, I see women cycling all the time, it’s mostly women who cycle their kids to school. It’s probably true that women in general tend to be more careful than men and would have no problem avoiding A roads or getting off if conditions warrant. I would call that common sense not a characteristic specifically of women. Indeed, it is something that cycle training would teach – taking care of yourself! Does that make them into non-cyclists. I wouldn’t say so.
        We live in a busy, car dominated culture. We will never return to a 1930s England full of quiet roads, neither will we ever have the money or space to develop a separate, fully functioning and maintained separate cycle infrastructure. The change to a more cycling friendly culture will only come by changing mind sets. I see that already happening through Bikeability, Sustrans Bike It officers working in schools and similar schemes. Children are getting back on bikes these days. I was once a not very confident cyclist but thanks to the Cycle Workshop in Bristol trainers, I will now happily cycle round busy roundabouts. I am not unique, I just decided that I wanted to be a better cyclist.
        What does piss me off though is the number of men who practically give themselves heart attacks reovertaking if you happen to pass them on the road, the one’s who assume you don’t understand gears or don’t know what you want when you go into a bike shop. I find the description of ‘Jo’ a little patronising. People have different reasons for cycling at different times in their lives and I’m afraid the presence of all those Lycra-ed confident males may actually be off putting for many women!

  12. The Ranty Highwayman Says:

    Bikeability is good, but it won’t make the A118 in East-London any safer for me or a child to use…

  13. Robin Fitton (@inrepose) Says:

    I think it is hard to become the bold risk taking person that can make their own space on a busy rush-hour multilane road.

    I also don’t like seeing the term cyclist defined, broken down and attached to individuals that can deal with the stress of a fight with the traffic. As a regular rush-hour commuter I know very well that it is a stressful fight and on a good day I have someone cut me up, on a bad day a white van mirror knocks me off my bike.

    “We’re puzzled as to why more people don’t do it; it’s such a convenient, straightforward, cheap and healthy way of moving around.”

    I disagree with this summary. My cycling experience has been expensive, often inconvenient, not always straightforward and has even caused me some health issues – there is no doubt I am causing wear and tear on my body (but no doubt there are health benefits). However every day at 6:30am I face my cycle to work and most often I enjoy it. A reliable bicycle can be cheap compared to a car but after 3 years of 3000miles a year commuting I have discovered that I need the good bike kit, lights, regular expensive services and parts but that might be due to 6 miles of my 10mile route being on a muddy trailway. It has not been the lean, clean super cheap alternative to the car that I was hoping for.

    I don’t think a commute is easy, cycling is hard work and a challenge in urban environments and I am not sure that trying to define the difference between a real cyclist that owns the road and those that step off at a tough junction is going to help improve the roads for cyclists.

  14. Problematizing the white-male cyclist … « Bicycle Geek Says:

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  15. Rosalind Says:

    I’ve started using cycling as part of my commute several days a week. I have never cycled so much before – about 4 return journeys a week for the last 6 months – and I use country roads. What I’ve realised is how annoying it is to slow down and stop when you are in “full flow”. (Not so bad when you’re puffing up to the traffic lights at the top of an incline!) I’m a 49-year-old woman but the 12-year-old tomboy in me wants to stand up on the pedals and zoom along. It’s fun. And I think commenters above are right that the speed, the zooshing along, the pedalling rhythm and the sheer freedom can actually make you a dangerous commuter. You can get into a sort of zone – it’s interesting that one of your case studies had an accident because his head was down at 30mph. But the essentially anarchic nature of cycling, and the low technology of the bicycle, means we couldn’t regulate cyclists’ speed if we wanted to. Yet, 30mph and not paying enough attention is a potential recipe for disaster, even if of a lower order than the potential disaster of an inattentive motorist.

    I know there is a strong argument that cyclists need speed to stay out of trouble and to keep their space in fast urban traffic, but I worry that speed then becomes an imperative, a right and a habit, when actually the point is to get from A to B safely.

    I laughed at the comment above on the Sustrans guy alienating his audience by wearing cycling shorts… perhaps indeed there are cyclists, and there are bicycle-riders, and ne’er the twain shall meet?

    • psychobikeology Says:

      I also laughed at the anecdote of the sustrans bloke in the shorts. Perhaps a good rule-of-thumb as to whether someone is a “cyclist” or a “person who rides a bike” is the ownership of a pair of cycling shorts. They are, of course, blissfully comfortable.

      Which last remark, despite the fact that I tend to walk most journeys under two miles, does make me a “cyclist”.

  16. Dave Horton Says:

    Thanks everyone for such thoughtful responses, comments, descriptions and criticisms. I’d like to respond to everyone individually, but right now I don’t have the time. But suffice to say, that although obviously I strongly agree with some and radically disagree with others, they’re all much appreciated.

    Perhaps the key motivation for my writing this post was to suggest that:

    1) prevailing conditions which regular and resilient urban British cyclists confront …

    2) encourage the development of specific kinds of identity (which you cannot simply wish away) …

    3) and these identities make it difficult to advocate for ‘the right things’ when it comes to getting Britain on its bike (i.e. mass cycling).

    On Wednesday I was invited to give evidence to the current Parliamentary Inquiry into ‘Getting Britain Cycling’. It was of course an honour and a privilege, and a pleasure, to do so. But perhaps what struck me most of all was *even here* (a room full of people who are all (I assume) very pro-cycling), how little ambition there seemed to be for ordinary, everyday cycling. It felt like we still don’t, actually, know how to talk about it; as though as cycling advocates we reproduce our own enforced marginality in every utterance we make. We’ve ourselves been oppressed by the structures which have oppressed us (or at least, oppressed our practice, of cycling). At the current historical conjuncture, British cycling advocacy, to be effective, needs to be bold, ambitious, strident and – above all – united. But it is not because we’ve learned too well how to appreciate crumbs from the car table.

    We still haven’t figured out what we want. And so there’s too little conviction when it comes to first articulating, and then demanding the resources required for, the way forward.

    I would argue (though I would need to apply more critical thought in order to make a convincing case) that one of the reasons we have such crap, ineffective and little-used ‘cycle facilities’ across the UK is because those campaigning for them (committed cyclists who quite rightly want to retain their right to ride on the road) *don’t actually want them*! So at the very outset we have a tremendous ambivalence about their value and likely use. This is no way to run a rail road! And it’s no way of getting Britain cycling either!

    This is why a new organisation such as The Cycling Embassy of Great Britain is such a necessary breath of fresh air.

    If we are serious about advocating for mass cycling in Britain (or indeed elsewhere) we simply must stop perpetuating our own marginality every time we open our mouths, by refusing to articulate and demand what we know is actually required to get people cycling; that has very little to do with what will keep us cycling, if we already cycle. And it involves technocratic and bureaucratic discourse (important though those are) much less than it does political and cultural discourse.

    To make cycling mainstream we simply must break out of our own marginality, but we can only do that if we first see it, acknowledge it, and recognise the ways in which just perhaps we inadvertently are contributing to it.

    That’s all more of a rant than a reasoned analysis, but I want to put it out there, to see if there’s any response?!

    Thanks again to everyone for taking the time to read, and sometimes to respond. It’s really appreciated.

    Very best wishes

  17. Ian Says:

    I disagree I’m afraid – I think the crap comes first, followed by the disillusion and ‘not wanting anymore’. As illustration, our councillors, and other elected and unelected officials were (maybe still are) very proud of one ‘facility’. To use this facility to replace 1.5 miles of road, I would have to :
    cross the road
    give way at seven minor entries (over all of which the main road has priority)
    climb (and lose) an additional 20 metres
    negotiate two ‘choke gates’ (presumably intended to keep motor bikes off the path)
    cross the road once more (even though this links to NCN 7 the crossing is not signed or controlled)

    As you’d expect I tend to ignore the facility, thus incurring the wrath of some numpties whio use its existence as an excuse to demand that I ‘get off the road and on the path where you belong’ (with added sweary words)..

    I know this facility gets a lot of use at weekends by families (who often drive to the start of it), because it goes through some fine scenery. Of course that it could have met both my needs and theirs, but the great and good seem, as I said, very happy with it as it. My feeling is that if this facility is the best we’ll get, there really is no point to bothering, In fact I’d probably campaign against such things, because all they achieve is to make my life harder than it need be.

    To be complete, I do know (having lived in Switzerland) that it can be done better than this. But I’ve never seen it done better here.

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