When I was at the Specialized Global Press launch recently, I attended a presentation on the Specialized electric bike called the Turbo. I also had a chance to ride one. The experience of riding the bike came into direct conflict with what have traditionally been my views on electric bikes. Case in point: there’s a guy I encounter from time to time on the bike path near my home. He’s in office casual dress, wears a ginormous motorcycle helmet and when he seems me, needs to race me. Even if I’m only going 14 mph. I can’t help but think he’s being a bit of a putz. Of course you’re faster than me, dude; you’re on an electric bike. And no, I’m not going to race you, even if I’m pedaling hard. The thing is, none of that thinking is helpful.
Allow me to digress: I feel like I know the struggle of the werewolf not to shift form in the presence of a full moon. The most interesting literature of werewolves holds that they are, among all the bad creatures of the horror world, the ones least at peace with their evilness. Victims of werewolves, they are slaves to the power of the moon and lack the ability to choose their victims the way vampires do. No one, not even a loved one, is safe in their presence. A great example is the John Landis film, “An American Werewolf in London.”
Somewhere along the line, I was bitten by the creature that imparts snobbery to its victims. This is the dark side of refined taste, the ability to appreciate excellence. Somewhere along the line, the appreciation for greatness becomes a hunger for it. It’s that space where, after seeing The Who live, your buddy’s garage band will not only no longer do, it downright hurts your ears.
I can be as much the elitist roadie snob as anyone you’ve met. I know I came by that as a result of being a student of the sport. I watched how the pros pedaled, how they sized their clothing, when they shifted, how the braked and all the rest. From tube socks to jerseys so large the pockets hung down over the saddle, I catalogued all the sins not to commit. As a result, I’ve got a keen eye for all the violations. This isn’t just a matter of style; I can give you several objective and even helpful reasons why you shouldn’t wear a windbreaker that is two sizes too big for you. The trouble is, it’s not enough not to say anything to the offending rider. I’m aware that each time I judge another cyclist as having fallen short of the rules, I’m being a prick. I don’t like that guy. Every day when I roll out, I have to remind myself that anyone on a bicycle is one of my people, even if they don’t identify with me. They can think me a MAMIL all they want; they don’t have to be friendly to me. I just need to be friendly to them.
I’ve had to work at that acceptance, and it really has been work for me, but I had a little recently when I was out for a mountain bike ride in Annadel State Forest with Greg Fisher of Bike Monkey. We encountered a woman new to mountain biking, at least as far as doing it off-road. She was gingerly picking her way through some rocks and apologized for holding us up, then in her own defense she said, “At least I’m not at home on the couch, right?”
We can forgive her for wanting a little reinforcement, can’t we?
In response I said, “You’re out here; you’re on a bike; you’re one of us.” At that, she smiled. I did, too. I had a couple of reasons to smile, the first being there was a time when I really couldn’t have welcomed her the way I did. She was in cotton, had tennis shoes on, needed to drop 50 pounds … I could go on. But where a cyclist might see a non-rider faking it, all the rest of the world sees another person on a bike. And this is an occasion when the rest of the world is right. We may see incandescent cycling clothing as what separates the devoted from the dilettantes, but it’s really just another reason for non-cyclists—real non-bike-riding people—to dislike us.
I bring this us vs. them mentality up because hostility to cycling is rising with the addition of bike sharing programs and more people choosing to commute by bicycle. The conservative punditry has made this crazy leap that the desire to make cycling easier for people—thanks to bike sharing programs, bike lanes, sharrows and minimum safe distance passing laws—is, in fact, a subversive grass-roots effort to take away cars. By making the world safer for bikes, we’re going to take away cars. I can’t begin to tell you how much I despise this variety of fear mongering.
It’s hard to parse a fear, chiefly because fears are largely rooted in irrational thought. Hard, but not impossible. My suspicion is that these folks, as characterized by The Wall Street Journal‘s Dorothy Rabinowitz and John Kobylt of the John and Ken Show, see us as early adopters. We are the non-smokers who are going to complain to government about all the cancer that cigarettes are causing and we are going to force our nonsmoking-ness on those poor, freedom-loving smokers and deprive them of the simple pleasure just having a few puffs of a butt. Think of all the deaths cars have caused. Surely cyclists—those evil, non-job-holding, non-tax-paying, light-running rebels to decent, civilized society—will use traffic deaths as Exhibit A as we make our case for why we should stop burning fossil fuels, save the planet, wreck the economy, destroy our way of life and then demand everyone grow a handlebar mustache, Rabinowitz included.
We really are the bane of society, aren’t we?
My point is that there is a real us vs. them split, and for my part, I’ve realized that it would be helpful for me to do what I can to welcome everyone I see on a bike as a cyclist. In calling inexperienced riders cyclists, we help them begin to self-select as one of us. I think that’s important because as cycling and cycling infrastructure becomes a bigger political football, we will be well-served to do all we can to convince every Huffy owner they are one of us, that their riding matters, not just to them, but to us as well.
Thanks to electric bikes and bike share programs, cycling is increasing in numbers. This is a good thing, full stop. Clueless new riders are going to weave in bike lanes, blow lights and generally frighten everyone nearby, whether they are other cyclists or drivers. In my mind, I’m telling myself this is just part of the learning curve and that in the long term this will be good for cycling in general. And I’m being careful not to use the term “sport.”
I no longer see people on electric bikes as the other, as having more in common with drivers and motorcycle riders than with bicycles. In my mind, we need them. The us of cyclists can never be too big; that tent can grow to accept everyone on two wheels and as a friend once said to me years ago when I asked him how many people I should invite to my party, “It can never be too big. The bigger the party, the better the time.”