Cycling Stereotypes: Why the Bike Snobbery?

One of cycling’s greatest strengths and beauties lies in its its diversity, yet lately I have been noticing a disturbing undercurrent of bike snobbery emerging. Against who you might ask? Believe, it or not, it’s against roadies.

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Vancouver is a funny place, it is a cultural mosaic if you will. Decide on an ethos, find a group that exudes this ethos, then eye suspiciously everyone else. Part of this is human nature and part of it is distinctly a Vancouver (or West Coast?) trait.

pexels genaro servin 7633981
Photo by Genaro ServĂ­n. Although this was taken in Italy, it feels like cycling in Vancouver.

A friend who moved here recently, noticed this trend. She wanted to live by the ocean, so she chose Kits. However, she had no idea the implied lifestyle that went with the rental unit (i.e. you wear Lu-lu Lemon and own a VW).

Similarly, as she got out and experienced more of the Vancouver cycling community she noticed a similar arbitrary grouping delineated on what bike you ride and what clothes you wear. I would have to say, I agree with her astute observation.

Personally, I am all over the map. I commute, I tour, I ride mountain bikes, I have ridden a fixed gear bike for years and, believe it or not, I am a hard core roadie to boot.

When I am not working, in my spare time I am usually putting in miles or racing. I love road riding (the style, the bikes, the work ethic) as much as I love the idea of doing everything by bike, a decision I made many years ago at the ripe age of 19.

It then dismays me when I come across statements such as:

“This can be a problem for Lycra-clad roadies who gauge their manhood by the slimness of their saddles and the sheen of their freshly-shaved legs…”

-Practical Pedal summer 2007.

Hey, I am for a little ribbing just as much as the next person, but recently I have been hearing more and more negative comments. For example:

“All racers are selfish, they are just trying to exert their supremacy over other people.”

“I went to a Tuesday Night-er (the local training race), and saw some guy yelling at another. The races are just an agro affair.”

Then the other day, while on the bike route, I was amazed by a statement a friend made when he found out a lot of people who race bikes also commuted by bike. To quote, he exclaimed,

“I thought they just drive their bikes to the nearest coffee shop and sit!”

Given the rise of such sentiments, I figured I would do some work to dispel the myths.

Dispelling the Myths

Myth 1: Thin saddles = Manliness?

This is plain madness. Just as there are different strokes for different folks, there are different saddles for different body types. The majority of hardcore roadies are quite thin, to the point of almost being too thin. This is of course a generalization, as I have seen all types of body types at all levels of competition. But, if you are making saddles and selling to your market you have to generalize a bit. And if you are a thin skinny roadie, the thin, narrow saddles tend to be much more comfortable than the “comfort” saddles currently in the market place. Just because something doesn’t work for you, please don’t assume it is the same for everyone else.

Myth 2: Shaved legs?

My favourite is the disdain I hear is over shaved legs. Most cyclists like to consider themselves mavericks and anarchists, a person who brings societal norms into question. Well guys shaving their legs is not a societal norm, so why the hate?

There aren’t packs of roadies, with razors in hand, waiting at the nearest coffee shop to jump on the first commuter they see with hairy legs. I have shaved my legs for years and I like it. It’s part of a roadie tradition and to me indicates that you have made a certain commitment to the sport. When the hair comes off, its time to go fast.

Myth 3: Roadies don’t commute, they just drive their bikes around in their fancy cars.

I have no idea where that one came from. Racing road I have noticed there are people from all walks of life, from construction to law, from students to +55. Some have expensive cars, many do not, while others do not own a car. While some sort of automotive transportation is often required to get to races (either renting, car pooling or ownership), the majority, when asked, would rather be riding their bike.

In order to compete you need to train about 12-20 hours a week. Since most also work a full time job, from a practicality standpoint commuting is a great way to put in time in the saddle. But, it goes much further than that.

Sit back and think about how much riding 20hr/wk works out to be. That is four hours a day, five days out of seven. That is a lot of riding. Pure desire to exert your manliness cannot sustain that kind of time in the saddle. You are there riding your bike out of the pure love of riding your bike.

That is the same love that gets the fixed gear rider, the commuter, the weekender, the chopper, the whatever rider out on his/her bike everyday.

Myth 4: All roadies want to race 24/7

I think this is one of the biggest myths going. Many urban cyclists see a rider in the full regalia or “kit” — roadie speak for the tight form fitting spandex uniform you see bike racers wear — and instantly see that as an invitation to race. You can be riding along on the bike route, minding your own business when out of no where a non-kitted cyclist comes by and gives you an informal challenge to race.

You have done nothing to invoke this challenge except wear the clothes. The challenges are never spoken, but pretty clear. As they pass you can hear the pedals mashing, they give you a glare, nearly run you into the gutter, then repeatedly check back to see if you are chasing.

I have heard some funny lines during these informal challenges

“Took you long enough to catch up”
-Older gentleman

“Don’t you hate it when some one passes you like this?”
-Squeaky bike man

The second quote is my personal favourite, as it has to do with this fellow who was continually passing me on my way home. I was spinning at a constant pace with no desire one way or another to catch up, pass or otherwise exert my manliness. Suddenly, this fellow on a squeaky bike would just hammer, blow by me, then a few blocks later slow completely down. I would of course catch up by riding my same continual pace. Once caught he would hammer again, pass me and then slow down.

This pattern happened all the way from Burnaby to Vancouver. Finally after something like the 7th time he scowled at me and made a number of derogatory remarks about my bike and “my type.” Then came the climax, he said

“Don’t you hate it when some one passes you like this?”

The statement caught me so off guard I was seriously trying not to laugh at the absurdity of the situation.

Finally, the kicker came at a recent favourite at critical mass of all places. A place that is supposed to celebrate love, acceptance and diversity. I was riding a fixed-gear at the time so I was privy to the following

“Yeah, I just blew by this dumb roadie. You should have seen the look on his face when I handed him his ass.”
-Agro fixed gear rider at July’ 2007 Critical Mass.

I saw the whole incident and I suspect the roadie was giving him the look of horror because he was run off the road and nearly into oncoming traffic by the fixed-bragger. Passing someone in critical mass, is not the point of critical mass.

What Roadies Really Want

I can’t speak for all roadies, but most that I know do not want to race random people on the street. The reasons are pretty simple:

  1. Most of the time, when we are riding in the city we are cooling off or warming up or simply getting from point A to B — remember, we commute too.
  2. We usually have some sort of training schedule and are not out on the hunt for competition.
  3. Even if we were, we have no idea if the “challenger” can ride in a straight line. The last thing you want is to be taken out while doing something silly like racing on a bike commute route.
  4. Finally, probably the most important, the desire to “prove” yourself all the time just isn’t there.

I have even heard a number of women roadies complain that guys are continually challenging them whenever they are riding on the bike routes so much that they feel they can’t just ride at a comfortable pace or they hear all sorts of snide, negative comments. Some of them even make it a habit to avoid major bike routes so they don’t have to be exposed to the negativity.

Myth 5: All roadies are selfish or snobs

Probably the biggest quasi myth is that all roadies are snobs. To some extent we are, for example see this post.

Most bike snobbery has to do with a right of passage to becoming a full blown roadie. Anyone can buy the gear, but have you put in the time in the saddle to be fast. However, everyday is not a race, so one way to those who have earned their star is by looking at the details. This doesn’t mean everyone needs to follow these rules just the ones that want to claim “roadie” status.

In addition, the snobbery label probably comes from the fact many are focused when on the bike. Quite often those that are on their road bikes and in kit are training. Athletes tend to be focused people. It’s nothing personal, it’s just who they are.

Interestingly, I make it a habit to wave to other cyclists while riding on the bike route while wearing my kit. Most ignore me outright. Likely they are thinking about a billion things. I don’t take it personally.

Myth 6: Liking expensive bikes means you hate the poor (The Bike Snob)

This is less a myth and more a personal experience. A number of years ago, a girlfriend at the time would see how I looked longingly at bikes and how I would vocally criticize the K-Mart bikes. My disdain mainly comes from the fact these bikes offer poor value for the money. In an effort to bring them to market, K-Mart or whoever, puts on cheap shocks and other unnecessary equipment. As a result you are left with bikes that, to the untrained eye, look like more expensive bikes, but are in fact more heavy than they need to be, ride like they have square wheels and quite frankly are a danger to the rider as much as to society.

If these manufacturers wanted to create quality affordable bikes, they should worry less about styling and create a much more rideable bike for the same dollar value. Instead, they take advantage of the poor by offering non-functional knock-offs.

However, she translated my disdain into the “truth” that I somehow hated people who couldn’t afford expensive bikes. Then all of a sudden I was labeled as being against the poor, when in fact I was against shitty marketing tactics. I suspect part of the problem was that at the time, she owned a K-Mart style bike. A little later, she ended up buying this nice used bike that was fairly high end. She marveled at how light it was (easy to carry up stairs) and how easy it was to ride. I never heard another word again about being a bike snob.

Myth 7: All roadies are rich

While there is a plethora of expensive gear in road riding, that does attract its share of tech hungry gear heads. Most roadies are probably not as rich as you think. If you race, you are probably part of a club/team and as such get deals on gear.

But that is not the whole story. Life is about choices. For many “roadies” it is a lifestyle decision. Fancy music player or a wheel set? Hmm… wheel set it is.

Many I know do what they can to cut costs so they can swing the gear. Some of it may be gear envy, but truth be told at a higher levels of cycling the gear does play a large role. For example, in a time trial (Point A to Point B, quickest time wins) an aerodynamic helmet can shave a minute off your time. When a minute can mean 10 placings, you save up for that new aero helmet.

I am not condoning or justifying mass ownership of gear, roadies could learn a few things, but the stereotypes are somewhat uninformed

Is History The Problem?

I suspect the majority of the disdain towards roadies started from how cycling has been promoted over the last couple decades, that is through its worth as a sport. What was lost was the fact cycling first and foremost empowers people with the simple pleasure of freedom.

Unfortunately, most of the previous big cycling booms in North America have come from different forms of competitive cycling that caught the main stream eye. In the 70’s it was road riding and with it a boom of cheap 10-speeds. In the late 80’s and 90’s it was the inception of mountain biking and with it the proliferation of cheap mountain bikes in the city.

Most of these bikes were built for a specific sport, not for commuting per se. The result has been people have been riding the wrong bikes for them (they wanted a city bike all the time). That combined with the fact mass media pushes the cycling as a sport over a form of transportation or personal empowerment, has left a lot of people feeling marginalized and even more resentful.

While this may seem rather grim, have faith my cycling brethren. The media and public are finally waking up to global warming in the last couple years. People are thinking more about alternative transportation and finally North American manufactures are waking up to this possibility.

I believe we are all on the cusp of a new renaissance. Where we don’t look at what type of bike you ride, but instead celebrate the fact you are riding in the rain, sleet, snow, spring sun shine and cool summer nights. So hang in there, your time is now.

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