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by Peter Flax
March 8, 2017
Photography by Byron Olsen/VinylMotion.com
It’s hard to pinpoint the exact moment I started hating “The Rules” and everything they represent.
It might have been the afternoon I was sitting near the back of a big weekly group ride, listening to a couple of middle-aged club riders ripping on a new guy in a sleeveless jersey within earshot. Or maybe it was the time on Twitter that I observed someone get slayed for expressing an affinity for ankle-length socks. Or perhaps it was that recent morning when someone I don’t even know insulted me for wearing fluro legwarmers.
To be honest, I have witnessed cyclists berated or scorned for seemingly innocent apparel, equipment or etiquette choices hundreds of times. It is 2017 and it’s time to resist.
As many of you will deduce, I’m talking about the Velominati and their now iconic rules.
Back when they first emerged — founders Frank Strack and Brett Kennedy launched in 2009, I think — the context was different. In the beginning, the list was shorter and served two purposes — to codify some roadie traditions and to simultaneously mock those same traditions. It was, in my mind, both a reference manual of sorts and a tongue-in-cheek joke.
Now, eight years later, the list has stopped being useful or funny. It has instead become source code for a culture of semi-clueless exclusion in the cycling universe.
The outermost layer of the problem is that many of the rules are empirically stupid. Telling everyone to stuff tubes and tools in jersey pockets sounds really clever until a group ride grinds to a halt because no one has a chain tool. Urging the masses to remain in the big ring and slam their stems and ditch frame pumps is neither smart nor droll. (But telling a demographic of hobbyists that spends thousands of dollars to buy bicycles that reduce road chatter to “Harden the fuck up” — now that’s funny.)
Digging a bit deeper, so many of the rules take this absurd leap of portraying fashion preferences as commandments. Let’s be clear: When it comes to sock length, sunglass choices, saddle and bar-tape coordination, recreational use of pro-team kit, weather thresholds for wearing shoe covers or a vest, and countless other personal or inconsequential choices that cyclists make, a few middle-aged white guys who do semi-hard rides on Sundays and maintain a web site don’t get to make the rules. Riders do. You do.
Look, I have my own sense of style and tradition and cycling etiquette, and many of my preferences line up with “The Rules.” I like black bar tape and I hang my helmet on my stem at the coffee shop and pay attention to the nuances of quick-release lever position. But I’m also just another middle-aged white guy with no authority to dictate how anyone should ride — plus I often wear intentionally mismatched socks and sometimes don’t shave my legs and have been known to wear a cycling cap to the beach.
I’ve come to realize that I don’t have to conform to a secret code to be a proper road rider. As long as you’re safe and having fun, you’re in the club.
I live and ride in Los Angeles, and my local bike lanes are full of women, fixie kids, riders of color, rebels, throwback granddads, artists, and other interesting people who are defining and redefining cycling culture in a good way.
I see folks on road bikes with mismatched colorful rims and helmet mirrors and triple chainrings and aviator sunglasses and miraculous medleys of technical and casual apparel. And the truth that we all need to get our heads around is that these people are not doing it wrong.
But that’s what it’s like in 2017. Cyclists telling other cyclists they’re doing it wrong. At a moment in time in which outsiders of many kinds face exclusion or prejudice in our society, this kind of behavior is embarrassingly off-key.
As time has passed and The List has gotten longer (and painfully more earnest), an insidious thing has happened: More people have started to take the document, and what it represents, too seriously.
In a 2015 interview, a Velominati cofounder bragged that “The List” was generating 850,000 pageviews a month. (To me, the habit of these guys calling themselves the “keepers” of The List is too pretentiously lame to approximate an inside joke.)
All that traffic might be great for monetizing banner ads, but it has not been good for cycling culture. Rather than looking for an inside line on how the pros and their imitators stow their glasses on a ride, a large segment of mainstream roadies has actually come to believe that riders who don’t follow these grandiose decrees are outsiders, or amateurs, or idiots. (Velominati co-founder Frank Strack did not respond for comment on this piece.)
It’s not just the Velominati, of course. In recent months, I have engaged in a semi-serious Twitter battle with the editors of a popular American bike-racing magazine over their repeated claims that cycling enthusiasts who don’t wear leg warmers in certain weather conditions are foolish. They have published display copy for a podcast that asserts that riders who don’t cover their legs below a certain temperature are “dumb, not tough” — and have doubled down on that contention when challenged.
On Twitter, I constantly see references to riders who are “doing it wrong.” All of these voices are reflecting and amplifying an element of cycling culture that needs to die.
Paradoxically, an attempt to celebrate the refined subtleties of road cycling is suffocating it. Look at how participation for recreational road racing is flat. Look at the struggle to get more women and minorities and young people engaged with riding as a sport. Look at the way so many potential riders look at road cycling as too exclusive or complicated or intimidating to try. In any case, the subculture that “The Rules” and its supporters inhabit is making itself increasingly trivial.
The solution is so simple it’s painful: Just do your thing and don’t tell anyone they’re doing it wrong. If you want to mimic the pros and reference Euro traditions in your everyday riding and abstain from wearing camo bibs or using spacers, Godspeed. One of the cool things about cycling culture is the seemingly infinite depth and nuance of its traditions.
But people don’t need a turgid 95-point instruction manual to find their way as cyclists. They just need other riders to open their minds and shut their mouths.
Peter Flax, the former editor in chief of Bicycling magazine, now works as features editor at The Hollywood Reporter. He often orders a latte after a long, hard ride.