What is “bike culture” and who is it for?

(The following guest editorial was written by Beth Hamon.)


Slug Velo - Fall Colors Ride

Beth in October 2005
(Photo: Jonathan Maus)

In Portland, we recently saw the 12th running of Bridge Pedal, the second-largest community bike ride in the country.

Bridge Pedal has long touted itself as an important “doorway in” for new bicycle riders, and a part of Portland’s much-hyped “bike culture”. These claims, plus my experiences working at a bike shop that sees more than its share of poor people, have led me to ponder about bike culture.

Here are my thoughts, in no particular order:

  • What IS bike “culture”? And who decides? Is bike culture simply the collection of extra-curricular, non-commuting bike events that our town seems to be able to organize ad nauseum? If you go by the press, this would seem to be the case. If that’s so it shuts out everyone who rides for transportation, and shuts out the whole concept of commuting by bike.
  • If bike culture includes bikes-as-transportation, why are so many people NOT involved, or welcomed, or invited in? I go to some of these bicycle events and I am hard-pressed to find anyone who doesn’t look at least a little like me: white, educated and reasonably employed. What I don’t see in the so-called “bike culture” are people of color. What I don’t see are the very poor who depend on their bikes for survival. What I don’t see are people who think of themselves as “bicycle riders”, rather than as “bicyclists”. These missing segments represent a larger population than many bicycle activists recognize or are willing to admit, yet they are not being effectively reached by the “bike culture”.
  • [Sidenote: One notable exception to this is the Community Cycling Center, which has based its entire existence on reaching underserved populations and getting them onto bicycles for health and happiness. I remain proud of my involvement with the CCC, when I was the lead instructor for the Create-A-Commuter Program, which taught low-income adults bike safety and maintenance and provided them with bikes for transportation (to jobs, housing, etc.). Many of the adults I taught are still riding and more are following their example today.]

  • Is there a way to perhaps deemphasize some of these larger, more costly bike “events”, in favor of promoting more public service by those who see themselves established in the “bike community”, so that more people can be welcomed into a more bicycle-dependent lifestyle? Is there a way the city or state governments could help with this effort? And what are we doing to reach out to those who don’t see themselves as part of “bike culture”?

I fear the rise of an “us-and-them” mentality. It’s already there, of course, particularly if you race or work as a messenger. These two subgroups are definitely different from the rest of the bicycle-riding population. In fact, they are part of what I think gives rise to the way we use language in the bike scene.

There is a world of difference between calling oneself a “bicyclist” or “cyclist” and calling oneself a “bicycle rider”. Language is loaded in all sorts of ways that can exclude and divide. I try more and more to define myself as a “bicycle rider”, so that I will become more accessible to those around me who don’t ride much, or at all. It’s a deliberate choice and I’d like to think it makes a small but helpful difference.

It’s hard. Because I work in a bike shop and basically have the “key to the candy store” (and my finger on the pulse of many things bicycle), I represent bicycles to the world. That means I’m part of this thing called “bike culture” whether I like it or not. How do I navigate the tricky dance between elitism and inclusion, continuing to enjoy my own brand of bike-geekiness while also making sure that others are not put off by my admittedly extreme bike-love? It’s a question I wrestle with regularly, and I hope I do a good job of of it, at least most of the time.


(This article has been edited for brevity. The original version is posted on Beth’s blog, bikelovejones.)

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pdxrocket
pdxrocket
14 years ago

I believe Wikipedia explains bike culture best: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bicycle_culture
I have never thought of myself as part of the \”culture\” as I am one of the spandex clad, weekend warriors, that does it for the athleticism than the \”scene.\” When I think of culture I think of Alberta\’s Clown House, ZooBombers, bike jousting, and the like. For them it\’s a scene, a lifestyle, what they wear on their sleeves.

bicycledave
14 years ago

Others have already suggested this, but I think a cyclovia would be a great way to include everyone.

D Rock
D Rock
14 years ago

In my opinion bike culture exists in all walks of life representing all races, ages and status. The \”bike culture\” we see most frequently, whether online or in the news, and tend to associate most with \”bike culture\” is as Beth described. Mostly white, mostly with good jobs and mostly not biking because it is the only means of transportation. Many of the riders you see associated with the \”bike culture\” also have a lot of ideas behind why they ride whether it be political, cultural or ethical. Whether they acknowledge it or not many carry a chip on their shoulder while they ride and look at cars as evil or think of themselves as saving the world by promoting a Green activity (just to note I do the same thing when I ride even though I use my car quite often. I don\’t know why I have these feelings but on the bike I just feel like I\’m a step above someone who is wasting gas by driving) It is these kinds of views and ideas that make for good stories on the news. The side of \”bike culture\” that isn\’t seen as much are the children riding just because its fun. The people who are riding because that is the only means of transportation they can afford. While these people make up a large portions of bike riders and the bike culture they garner very little interest because there is no back story. No hot button topic to push when they ride. They just ride to ride.

Jean reinhardt
Jean reinhardt
14 years ago

Beth, you\’re thinking too much and worrying too much. Just ride, dang it.

bArbaroo
bArbaroo
14 years ago

There\’s more to defining culture than identifying or defining a group. Sometimes culture arises from general group behavior and transcends being tied to one demographic. When I think of Portland having a bike culture I don\’t think of a group or event or \”scene\”. Instead, I see it as a way others see us. Bikes are percieved as integral enough in the community to partially define our whole community. As I see it, if you have a bike you are contributing to Portland\’s bike culture. How you and I define ourselves as \”cyclists\” or \”bike riders\” is a different question.

Jeff Ong
Jeff Ong
14 years ago

Perhaps the \”very poor\” can\’t afford to spend $25 for the privilege of riding their bikes on public streets. I hope this doesn\’t sound too harsh, but events like BridgePedal are a frivolous luxury for many people.

Look around and you\’ll see plenty of people riding bikes who aren\’t \”well-educated\” or well-off… the can-and-bottle collectors who ride up and down my street, for instance. But they\’re certainly not going to trade two loads of bottles for a ticket to ride over the bridges….

I appreciate your desire to be inclusive, but I\’m not entirely sure what your point is… why does someone have to attend cycling events to be part of the \”bike culture\”? I attended BridgePedal this year out of curiousity, but I don\’t think I will again — I felt endangered the whole time, and was actually sort of shocked not to be hit. And I don\’t have health insurance….

John C
14 years ago

Beth, I enjoyed your thoughts and your writing. I have recently moved from Portland to Honolulu, and can tell you most cities are not like Portland. Every place has it\’s specific issues concerning the bicycle way of life, and Portland has a wonderful bicycle way of life. Other cities only wish they had the dilemma that you write about (us vs them, who decides what \”bike culture\” means). I personally am less concerned about what I call myself to define my place in the Bicycle culture, and more concerned by just being a bicycle rider. Showing others the virtues being car free or car-lite by living it. Here in Hawaii I stand out as a bicycle rider, using the xtracycle for shopping and commuting, and riding the race bike on the weekends, but many have asked about using their bike for more then weekend riding. I can feel the momentum of bicycle commuting in Honolulu, and it\’s exciting.

In my view Portland bike culture is defined by anyone who rides a bike, at any event, at any time. From zoo bombers to OBRA racers, recumbent rIders to commuters. They are the bike culture, and are linked to one another. Any ride, organized or not, will stimulate people to think about riding at every level and lead to their own conclusions as to what bicycling means to them, and what is possible. Now that I am in Hawaii I understand that getting people on bikes is the deal, either commuting, racing, or riding a big event. That opens a whole new world of possibilities, and strengthens the bicycle community as a whole by getting more people involved at every level.

Coop
Coop
14 years ago

I don’t understand. Many people who you maybe call “cyclists” who sometimes like to go to “events” are also the people who advocate for safer bicycling infrastructure in the city which benefits what you call “bike riders” who need to commute because they can’t afford a car. I’m not sure what the issue is.

Alicia
14 years ago

Perhaps something to come out of this musing and contemplation is the realization that there is more than one \”bike culture\” in Portland.

I commute by bike and do pretty much everything I can on a bike, but at the same time I feel rather uncomfortable at the bikey events. Bridge Pedal was fun, but I felt endangered most of the time and had some good talks with friends who wanted to do it, but couldn\’t afford the $25 fee, but were a bit dismayed because it is a fundraiser and they could have paid $5 or $10. I wouldn\’t have done it if I weren\’t fortunate enough to have a friend who could get a group of us in for free. I volunteered at the Multnomah County Bike Fair, thinking I\’d meet some rad bike-centered folks like myself, but was dismayed again when I had a rude interaction with one of the organizers who didn\’t even bother to introduce himself and there was a general feel of machismo that is so prevalent in and around bikey events (and shops! oh! the shops and they\’re inability to realize women have brains and can be mechanical too) that it makes me want to scream. Makes me wonder about a group that claims to be inclusive.

I guess my \”bike culture\” is defined by my group of friends who love bikes, go on rides together, and have fix-it sessions in each others\’ garages. I don\’t need a formal group to have a culture…and I guess that\’s what culture is anyway.

I like what you\’ve said, Beth, and I appreciate you taking the time to publicize your thoughts. I have had similar experiences as you and I am not sure if there is much to do about it, but I won\’t stop trying. I don\’t think you are thinking too much. Whomever said that must not think enough.

tonyt
tonyt
14 years ago

I agree with Jean. It is what it is and will be what it\’ll be.

Jessy
14 years ago

A while back, Bicycling Magazine ran an entire article called \”LA\’s Invisible Riders.\” You can read it here:

http://www.bicycling.com/article/1,6610,s1-3-12-13639-1-P,00.html

The article has really stuck with me. I think the point is well-taken. But I also appreciate the fact that this means that there are people for whom riding is a luxury. While those people are great, I think it\’s easy to overlook the people that ride because they have no other choice. They\’re just as valuable to our \”bike culture\” as anyone else.

SKiDmark
SKiDmark
14 years ago

Think most of what people consider \”bike culture\” (post # 1) is actually \”bike counterculture\”. Everything else is bike culture, I suppose that includes the counterculture as well. But all of it: commuting, road racing, mountain biking, freeride, cyclocross, BMX, flatland, trials, fixed gear, messengers, freak bikes, vintage bikes, Zoobomb, it\’s ALL bike culture.

BURR
BURR
14 years ago

IMO this is all a tempest in a teapot.

sure, \’diversity\’ is very PC these days, but no one is being deliberately excluded, and everyone is welcome to participate at whatever level they want.

what I hate is the sniping between the roadies and racers, the messengers, the commuters, the bike punks, etc., etc.

I also think that anyone who breaks cyclists down into \’serious cyclists\’ and \’bicycle riders\’ is actually part of the problem rather than part of the solution.

we\’re all in this together and if we can\’t speak with one voice at least occasionally, we are diluting our political clout, among other things. I still think that the person who unifies \’the bike community\’ could easily become the next mayor of Portland…

DK
DK
14 years ago

Bike riding and interacting with like-minded people is what I get into. Like Alicia said, there are those who sometimes shoot my idea of who I am and why I ride a bike down, because they\’re doing it for different reasons. Those that need to be affiliated with a certain group, tend to try too hard to be included, rather then be who they are and find their people…or be found. I\’m not into the riders with all the latest gear and attitudes to match. So I don\’t emulate them. If anything I get a good feel from the real people who have nothing to hide behind. Useable bikes and comfortable duds to ride with. People who actually smile while they ride. That\’s my idea of my bike culture.

jeremy
jeremy
14 years ago

Beth-
if you\’re looking for riders \”of color\” I think you may be in the WRONG city…
Portland is obviously a VERY white place to live..moreso than any other city I\’ve visited in general. its changing…but that change is slow and as older communities are gentrified around town, you\’ll see less and less…
if you\’re looking for multiculturality in the cycling community..I doubt that you\’re going to see it here.

less think, more pedal. 🙂

Brad
Brad
14 years ago

Why do we need to have or define \”bike culture\”? Why the necessity for bike labels? I see myself as a person who chooses to ride a bike for commuting/fitness/racing and really no different from those who choose to run, play soccer, work long hours, volunteer, etc. It is an activity I freely chose to engage in and it doesn\’t make me any better or more special than anyone else.

Is riding a bike the most definitive attribute of my life? No. I\’d like to think that being a good father, spouse, son, brother, and friend are what defines my existence / legacy as opposed to \”he rode a bike\”.

Passion is great. Taking ourselves too seriously is annoying and pretentious.

Jack
Jack
14 years ago

Bike culture is the same as any culture… full of different types. It has shining stars, bad apples, hard-cores, wannabes, outspoken advocates, etc. all with different ideas, priorities, and goals. I, for one, am happy that such a culture exists as it makes it possible to debate its future.

I\’ve been riding off and on for 15 years and am only a recent convert from the exercise-only use of a bike. Sure, I still strap on the spandex, but now I also run errands, commute, etc. on my bike. I\’ve spent a lot of time wondering why I went so many years NOT using my bike as a vehicle. Maybe I had blinders on and I simple didn\’t consider it. Maybe I was wrong to limit my use of a product to its marketed purpose. I\’ve bought, sold, or donated about a dozen bikes in my life and it\’s only very recently that I see the bicycle being marketed as a vehicle.

I realize that bikes will probably never replace cars as the mode of transportation for the majority of people. But fortunately, I also think that it will probably never fall off the radar of urban planners. In other words, the first major battle has been won and things can only get better. Great people and organizations work very hard to ensure that all of us get what we really want – to use our bikes as often as we want, and in any capacity in a safe and planned environment whether it be a bike lane, trail, back road, path, half-pipe, or bmx park.

I wrote earlier that I wondered why it took me so long to use a bike as a vehicle. I don\’t know, but I know exactly what got me thinking differently. Ready for this? A guy I know suggested I use my bike as a vehicle. Pretty simple, right?

Sites like this go a long to toward building confidence to would-be riders looking to use this incredible device more in their everyday lives. Keep spreading the word and support the people that try to make your next ride better than your last.

nuovorecord
nuovorecord
14 years ago

This whole notion of \”Bike Culture\” is interesting to me, as I see it as similar to the way people identify with cars.

There is a broad spectrum of car owners, ranging from those who see them as simply a means of transportation. At the other end are those who are totally immersed in car ownership, spending huge amounts of money on them, joining clubs, participating in events, etc. I own a car. I change my oil and do other simple maintenance on it, give it a coat of wax now and then, and would probably cringe a bit if it got a nasty scratch or ding, but it\’s 15 years old, so it wouldn\’t be the end of the world. Bottom line – it\’s a tool that I use to move me and my family and our stuff around.

There seems to be a similar spectrum that exists for cyclists. And, I think that\’s fine. Personally, I ride a \”city bike\” to work almost daily and have a couple Campy-equipped racing bikes for lycra-clad, racer-wannabe weekend rides. I\’m afraid I don\’t identify with hipsters, messengers, car-freers, tall-bikers or the like, and they don\’t probably identify with me either. But the suburban, BridgePedal crowd aren\’t my people either.

But that\’s OK. I\’m glad that we all share a love of bikes and make them a part of our lives. There\’s a lot of room on the road for people on bikes, no matter how much of themselves they actually identify with cycling.

SKiDmark
SKiDmark
14 years ago

Brad said: \”Passion is great. Taking ourselves too seriously is annoying and pretentious.\”

Words to live by.

Mr. Viddy
14 years ago

Bike culture. Funny that you mention it. Today on my commute home from work some rude lady and her friend (on bikes) yelled at me to get out of the bike lane. I was on my bike at the time. I don\’t know what her problem was as I was spinning a lot faster than her and her friend. It ruined my daily commute.

I don\’t own a car, I bike every possible place I can but I am not cool enough or hipster enough to say I am part of the bike culture because after all it is really about people trying to be cooler than everyone else.

Ian Clemons
Ian Clemons
14 years ago

The fact that there is such diversity in Portland\’s overall bike culture is testimony to how mature it is becoming. We Americans love our sub-cultures. There is some super-specialized world for anyone and everyone out there – Pause to consider the Trekkie conventions, the Monster Truck rallies, the Portland Browncoats, Shetland Pony societies, the Futsal clubs, the Beenie Baby conventions. It\’s pretty amazing how we choose to define ourselves.

I bike to work. I Xtracycle my kids to school (my 7 year old is on a 2-wheeler this summer! Rock on!). I try not to wear my cycling on my sleeve and try to realize that my gas-burning bretheren are slaves to a system they were born into and have yet to break free of their chains – so far, it\’s still to cheap to drive.

I have never zoobombed, jousted or even critically massed, but I\’m in mostly in support of all of that. I\’m a pretty vanilla rider, but log hundreds of miles on Portland\’s streets every year. It\’s just practical, considering alternative of sitting in the rush hour traffic which seems to start earlier every year.

-Ian Clemons

Dabby
Dabby
14 years ago

I have been trying to compose a response to the above article, and keep erasing it. I started this afternoon, and had to go out on a ride to clear my head. But now I am back to say:

The negative, \”woah is me\” tone of it, combined with the self gratifying side note, lead me to wonder where this is article is really coming from. Then add the remarks about the \”race\” of cyclists at events, and the \”poor not reached by bike culture\”, and it leaves me even more confused, for the following reason.
Beth chose two examples of who may be part of the problem. These she has labeled as the them, in the proverbial \”Us against Them\” game.
I guess Beth is obviously \”Us\”. I am obviously one of \”Them\”. Which makes us them, but I am just confusing the issue.
I digress.

The racer. The racer is generally perceived as the money maker of cycling. Nice bikes, nice clothes, nice cars.
The thing that people do not know is that it takes so much time, work, and money to have so much. Then to still take the time away from work and the family to go out and race.
Elitist? Hell yeah, and power to them.

The messenger. Alongside the racer, the messenger, in our town, is the grandfather of bike culture.
Not only do they throw the funnest of events, and help this city run itself effectively, they are also the poorest of cyclists, many times spending next weeks wages today, to get the bike running for work tomorrow. 9 hours a day, 5 days a week, year round? (Don\’t forget riding at night and on the weekends!)
Once again I ask: Elitist?
Hell yeah.

\”What is “bike culture” and who is it for?\”

We all are bike culture. Collectively.

Many of us are involved in bicycle sub cultures, some so deep seated as to be conceived as elitist, some so open as to be blatantly corporate (Bridge Pedal, Cycle Oregon, etc).

Is there something wrong with being on one end or the other of the Culture scale?
Not at all.

Is there something wrong with liking your subculture small, contained and manageable?
Not any more than there is advertising the hell out of it, hoping everyone shows up.

But there is something wrong with labeling, and, as in the above \”us and them\” statement, putting up walls around, a subculture that is not yours, and that you do not understand, simply because you may not be a part of it.
I could go on and on, but really, I think you get it already.

My point.
Ride your bike.
Be a subculture of two.
You.
And your bike.

Bringing it \”round the turkey and into your living room\”,
Dabby McCrashalot

beth h
14 years ago

Nothing \”woah\”-ful [sic] about it, or about my life.

I\’m happy with my choices, most particularly the choice to sell my car nearly 20 years ago and ride my bike everywhere. But for me, it was a conscious CHOICE, something that was an option (I could have kept my car). I recognize that for lots of people riding a bike is something they do because they can\’t afford a car, or because they can\’t drive a car. According to a fellow blogger, Portland throws an average of 7 bike events a day during the summer months. Where are the riders of necessity at these events? Is their presence important? Missed? I don\’t know. That\’s why I\’m asking.

I have lost count of the number of customers who\’ve come to my shop in the last six months and have told me they recently moved to Portland in large part \”because of the bike culture\”. I have\’t yet formed a clear opinion about this phenomenon but it\’s surprsing enough to have stuck in my head.

All of the above is the primary basis for my thoughts, which were originally published at my blog and which Jonathan asked to reprint here. I\’m happy that my essay has provided another basis for thoughtful discussion.

bArbaroo
bArbaroo
14 years ago

Yah Dabby – I like it, subcluture of two…might I add: or twenty, or 20,000 -it\’s all good.

SKiDmark
SKiDmark
14 years ago

Mr.Viddy said:
\”I don\’t own a car, I bike every possible place I can but I am not cool enough or hipster enough to say I am part of the bike culture because after all it is really about people trying to be cooler than everyone else.\”

Maybe you could stop worrying about being \”cool enough\” and just be yourself?

Most of these people you think are so \”cool\” are really uber-nerds. Having technical interest to the point where you are a walking wikipedia on the subject makes you a nerd, even if it is track bikes, fashion/style or the latest music.

JM
JM
14 years ago

I liked the article.

As for bridge pedal, I considered the $20 (it was less if you got it in advance) to be paying to ride car-free on the bridges. Since I couldn\’t afford it, I volunteered at a post and smiled at all the nice riders that zipped by me. Maybe next year I\’ll save the nickels and dimes in advance!

jeremy
jeremy
14 years ago

\”According to a fellow blogger, Portland throws an average of 7 bike events a day during the summer months. Where are the riders of necessity at these events? Is their presence important? Missed? I don\’t know. That\’s why I\’m asking.\”

Beth-
I believe that blogger was speaking of OBRA racing events (unless there is some other organizers out there throwing daily events)…riders of necessity at these events? they\’re not there because most cyclists don\’t race..your average cyclist is NOT missed at these events as total carnage and chaos would probably ensue if many unexperienced riders decided to throw on a racing number. Am I being elitist? NO..I\’m being realistic. I race at a Cat. 3 level and I would be very fearful for my safety (more than I am typically) if new riders didn\’t come up through the appropriate channels (novice racing, group rides, etc.) and all of that takes time..more than most \”riders of necessity\” are willing to give. With that said, OBRA is not elitist and does its damnest to attract new riders to the sport..I\’ve never seen anyone turned away at the registration table. As to what happens to them or is said to them during a race depends on their actions…if they\’re squirrely and apparently on the verge of control, they will be verbally reprimanded by others…is it harsh? sometimes…is it for others safety? definitely. but its all part of the culture….and I think cultures change depending on what group of individuals you\’re referring to..lumping them into one \”culture\” would be naive…but your question is however a good one.
I mean the local chop-bike (CHUNK 666?) group could probably care less about the social norms or tactics of OBRA racers….and I doubt that your average bike commuting PSU student or city worker could care less about either of them…

am I long winded? definitely. 🙂

Joe Millionare
14 years ago

I ride bikes every day, and they are fancy ones too. I go to messenger races around town and all over the US. I am not part of \”bike culture\”. I merely enjoy riding and have made a living doing it. I don\’t care about other people\’s petty language dramas (just don\’t call my track bike a fixie) and I don\’t wanna be part of any of your scenes. I want to see people riding bikes, commuting and having fun. If you wanna act tough or talk big, that\’s okay too. But you better be able to ride hard.

Dabby
Dabby
14 years ago

\”According to a fellow blogger, Portland throws an average of 7 bike events a day during the summer months. Where are the riders of necessity at these events? Is their presence important? Missed? I don\’t know. That\’s why I\’m asking.\”

OBRA things aside, it would be easy to find 5-7, unsanctioned or sanctioned bike things a day in Portland.

I mean, the number of regular rides a day could number in the 20\’s at least, and a group ride, even for training, is a bike event.

Let alone the after work pubcrawls, and the little races everyone is throwing now.

It could be more realistically 20 bike events some days, with only a small percentage having to do with OBRA.

I also believe, Jeremy, Beth was speaking of racers themselves, not racing organizations.

And, we all know that racers can be quite elitist, (for good reason) as even you accidentally proved in your paragraph explaining why they are not.