Territorial cycling: does it matter if someone rides your turf?

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Every cyclist has their favourite roads to ride. Often they are quiet little car-free roads that only locals know about. And while it’s always great to see more people out riding, seeing “your” roads become popular can be frustrating for some riders. But does it need to be? Martin Toman considers the concept of “localism” in cycling, how cycling compares to surfing on this front, and what it all means for those of us that just love to ride our bikes.

One of my favourite films is the surf crime drama Point Break. In the film our FBI hero Johnny Utah cops a beating in the ocean from a local for surfing his wave. When he is again confronted in the carpark by Bunker Weiss and his hairy crew our hero says “Okay. I get it. This is where you tell me that ‘locals rule’ and that yuppie insects like me shouldn’t be surfing the break, right?”, before copping another beating (see video below).

The existence of territorialism in surfing is insidious and well publicised. In the water it doesn’t seem to matter who you are or what you’ve done as even world champions have been intimidated and bashed by locals who think their turf has been invaded. So what does this have to do with cycling?

Can you imagine, for example, a local ciclista in the Dolomites taking a frame pump to Contador’s front wheel for riding on the road outside his house? Or a swarthy French cycliste throwing punches at Spartacus for riding the pave in his village?

Of course not. However, there is a phenomenon in cycling where locals talk about ‘their roads’ and ‘their rides’. I’ve seen people get tetchy and insular when the best roads and trails in their area become common knowledge and therefore more heavily used.

In 2008 I moved out to the Dandenong Ranges. In the years before this I would get out there on the weekend to ride in what is, in my opinion, the best environment for cycling in the Melbourne area. Over time my knowledge of the local area naturally became broader as I found more hidden and beautiful roads, and as cycling has continued to grow in popularity, I have gravitated towards these newer rides where I would see fewer cyclists.

On the weekends I now deliberately avoid Mt Dandenong and instead pass through the Yarra Valley to the Yarra Ranges. I’ve got reasons for this, which I’ll explain later, but I sometimes wonder if I’ve become like Bunker Weiss myself and am ready to spray paint ‘Locals Only’ on the bitumen of Mountain Highway?

According to Clifton Evers of the University of Sydney territorialism or “localism” seems to stem from the concept of identity. In simple terms, people who live in an area identify with being part of it and therefore believe they have special rights and privileges that go with being from that area and community. “Localism is a process of dominating a territory, and policing its cultural laws … it creates an ‘us and them’ situation in which the ‘them’ is never as good or as right as we are.”

This is seen at its ugliest in events like the Cronulla Race Riots where locals felt their culture was being invaded and acted to protect what they thought was their space from whom they saw as outsiders.

To continue with the surfing comparison, while cycling and surfing share the reality that they are dependent on location (for example, I would rather ride in Bright than I would in Broadmeadows) I think there is a significant difference between the two sports that separates them.

In surfing you are dealing with a finite set of resources; there are only so many sets of waves per hour. In cycling, the land and the road are always there. You can ride up the hill as many times as you like regardless of how many people are riding on the road. Unless you are talking about the kind of numbers involved in a gran fondo, it is rarely the volume of cyclists that inhibits access to the road for fellow cyclists.

#wymtm #dandenongs

A photo posted by C Y C L I N G T I P S (@cyclingtips) on

However, what I also believe — and I think this is a widely held experience — is that there is a beauty in riding in locations where there are few other people. While I am not anti-social, I enjoy riding where there’s a chance I won’t see more than a couple cyclists and cars in the whole ride.

Author Alice Koller, who wrote of her self-discovery through deliberate isolation in her biography An Unknown Woman, commented: “Being solitary is being alone well: being alone luxuriously immersed in doings of your own choice, aware of the fullness of your own presence rather than of the absence of others. Because solitude is an achievement.”

I find that after the stress of life’s commitments, along with the complexities of modern living, there is something to be said for riding where few do and few will. But I am not so wed to this freedom as to be protective of it. After all, it’s just a road and I don’t own it.

If there is a real localism that applies to cycling, I think it is most relevant in terms of motorists and how they interact with riders, regardless of where they are from. What I’ve found while living and working in the Dandenong Ranges is that there is a very mixed reaction to cyclists from locals, ranging from acceptance to outright hostility. The general increase in cyclist numbers, particularly in areas where there is a reasonable population density, has led to friction.

Residents have had to adjust to these ‘outsiders’ in their neighbourhood, and some have done so better than others. I was racing at a Blackburn Cycling Club time trial up the 1 in 20 a few years ago when an outraged local jumped out of his car and told us in no uncertain terms that we weren’t welcome and no-one wanted us here. I thought it was going to end in violence that morning.

On that same climb there was a blue/silver Ford Falcon driver who would deliberately bunt cyclists of the side of the road throughout 2014. I don’t know if that driver has been arrested.

People are nuts if they think the grass is greener anywhere else. What a place. #Melbourne #dandenongs #wymtm

A photo posted by C Y C L I N G T I P S (@cyclingtips) on

My reasons for riding away from outsiders to the hills is mainly to avoid this set of circumstances. I don’t want to put myself in a position where by virtue of cyclist numbers I am exposing myself to greater risk. Of course, it’s important to remember that only a very small minority of people would go so far as to take matters into their own hands and confront or try to injure a cyclist. Most people up here are very pleasant; it’s one of the reasons I live in the hills.

One of the reasons I like Point Break so much (apart from the guns and violence, and the fact that a Red Hot Chili Pepper plays one of the local surfing goons) is the way the film explores the freedom of expression that can come from being outside and testing your body and skills at their limit. While it uses the medium of surfing to do this, it can easily be compared to cycling. But that is where the similarity ends.

I think for a cyclist to claim ownership of a place is pretty much absurd, and to use the language of social media: ‘outside is free’. That doesn’t just mean there’s no financial cost; it also means that outside is the place where you should be free to express your will, liberated of the constraints and complexities of everyday life.

Everyone is welcome to ride on the street that I live on, and if I meet you out on the bike I’ll be happy to show you some of the most beautiful and quiet roads that are a bit beyond the cycling mecca that is the Dandenongs.

What’s your take? Do you get protective about ‘your roads’? Why or why not?

About the author

Martin Toman is a cyclist and triathlete who lives and works in the Dandenong Ranges. He has written for a number of magazines, both sporting and otherwise, and is currently writing two novels, neither of which is yet to feature a bicycle.

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