Terminology Needed

I came across a post (thanks to Spokes ‘n’ Folks) made on the Copenhagen Cycle Chic blog entitled “Terminology Folly.” Go ahead and read it; it’s a good article and it holds a core truth.

Waltzing around the cycle blogosphere it seems odd that so much terminology has spawned regarding what is, in fact, a simple pursuit.

Is it a result of the decades old tendency in North America and other non-bike culture countries to nerdify cycling because it has primarily been viewed as a sport or a hobby for closed groups of “enthusiasts” – and not a reasonable and basic form of transport? Perhaps. 

Let’s straighten things out, shall we? What you see in the photo above, taken in Copenhagen, is something we call a “cyclist”.

Not a “bicycle commuter”, nor a “utility cyclist”. Certainly not a “lightweight, open air, self-powered traffic vehicle user”. It’s a cyclist.

Read more.

Now, in general I do agree with the inherent message of the post: a true unified bike culture will only be created when we stop thinking about the differences and simply accept the commonalities. But, as someone living in one of the most unfriendly cities in the US for cyclists, I have some things to say in reply.

While it might be redundant in Europe, over here terminology works, and is actually helpful at times. Yes, ideally I could just say “bike” and everyone would know what I mean, but anyone reading that word, “bike,” instantly got a mental image that is probably different than the one I have. That’s because on this side of the world a “bike” is not as simple an artifact to identify: did I mean a mountain bike? A racing bike? A hybrid? A BMX? A cruiser? Maybe even one of those European-style bikes? This applies just as well to the term “cyclist” (and for the record, no, I don’t use or own any spandex, though I do have some comfy excercise pants that I do use from time to time). 

When I walk into a bike shop (of the specialty kind) and ask for a bike I need to be able to identify what I want (and don’t get me started on the discount dept. stores), and that’s where terminology comes in handy. Most average people who own a bike have a mountain bike that they purchased cheap at a large discount store like Target or Wal-Mart, not because they are doing some two-wheeled off-roading, but because that’s the cheap standard (at most they may get a cruiser), regardless of the fact that they are buying the wrong vehicle for their needs.

Yes, blame it on the nerdification of cycling in the US. Every single bike store here in Miami caters primarily to the speed cyclist or the mountain biker (see, we can’t help it, we love naming categories), with only minimal attention to the commuter cyclist, something I already commented about in a previous post.

That’s why, at this point in time, at least over here in the US (and for sure specifically in Miami), we need the terminology because that’s what helps us get the message across about what we want out of a bike culture. I need to use that terminology to state that I could care less about going 1000 miles per hour on two very thin tires while wearing brightly colored Lycra; that I could care less about braving uneven rock-covered downhills and root-strewn dirt paths on a frame with more shock absorbers than a monster truck. I ride my back to do errands, to go to places, to go out for a spin and enjoy the city in which I live in. I want a bike to ride on paved surfaces, with a front basket or rack that I can use to carry stuff like groceries and a sturdy back rack that I can strap down a box to if I want to, something comfortable that I can spend a good amount of my time on without assuming a pose that makes me look like I’m skiing downhill or doing yoga, a bike to run on the very flat paved roadways of Miami Beach that can handle the occassional bridge. How do I accomplish this the quickest? By stating that I am a “commuter cyclist” and I want a “city/Dutch-/European-style” bike.

I agree wholeheartedly that the ideal is a place where we don’t need the terminology, or at least where the default is the regular-joe example and not the sports specialty. In the meantime, the same terminology will allow us to begin to change the perceptions around us towards the creation of a normal, day-to-day bike culture.

One comment

  1. Actually, I think it says a lot about the bike culture or lack thereof in this town, that when I said I was in a “bike” accident–nearly every person I spoke to thought it was a MOTORCYCLE!!!!

    I wish we didn’t need terminology but as you state, here things are so bike-unfriendly that it does actually help. Although ultimately the idea is to get rid of the stratification that breeds elitism (speed cyclists think poorly of commuter or “slow” cyclists, mountain bikers think the old dude riding to the supermarket is a loser and a nuisance rather than a fellow cyclist)–as well as the idea that bicycles are only for specific uses/places. It’s going to take a while but with gas prices showing no sign of going back to the $1 a gallon we knew just several years ago, I have seen more people taking to two wheels, and am certain more and more will do so, ultimately causing us to look back at this stratification and laugh. I hope.


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