JRA with the Angry Asian: It’s time to cut out some cancer of our own
My first two bikes were too big for me (one was a 56 cm; I ride a 52 cm). I had a laughable number of accessories installed. I knew nothing about nutrition. I had two pairs of shorts, two jerseys, and two pairs of cycling socks, and none of it matched. I had a Lycra helmet cover that was black with pink rectangles on it. I recall quite vividly doing one of those charity rides wearing cut-off jean shorts (with no chamois underneath) and running shoes. I believe I paired those with Spenco gel gloves with a crocheted back because they were in the bargain bin at my local bike shop. I bonked so hard during my first century that a total stranger had to buy me a Snickers bar.
You know that quote about ignorance being bliss? In hindsight, I was not only an exceptionally oblivious teenager, but a gloriously unaware new cyclist as well. I had no concept whatsoever of my painful lack of coolness; all I was noticing was how much I was enjoying it. It’s that unadulterated sense of pure joy that we should be encouraging in other cyclists – no matter what they’re riding or what they look like.
I consider myself quite lucky for being so clueless. But with the proliferation of social media and the generally callous nature of the internet, that’s unfortunately harder to do these days, and the rise of tribalism that has afflicted the political world certainly hasn’t spared the cycling community.
The full quote I referred to earlier is actually, “Ignorance is bliss, ’tis folly to be wise.” I’m guessing Thomas Gray wasn’t thinking of cycling when he wrote that poem in 1742, but it’s surprisingly apt, anyway, because for whatever reason, cyclists feel somehow compelled to tell other cyclists what they’re doing wrong, or why one type of riding is superior to another, and so on. Just because you know more doesn’t mean everyone else has to know you know more.
The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines a bicycle as “a vehicle with two wheels tandem, handlebars for steering, a saddle seat, and pedals by which it is propelled.” Along with that, it defines a cyclist as “one who rides a cycle.”
If you look at those dictionary definitions again, you’ll see that nowhere in either of them does it suggest that mountain bikers are somehow better than gravel riders, that roadies are more proper cyclists than bikepackers, that commuters heading to work aren’t “real” cyclists, or that folks aren’t really pedaling because they might be getting a boost from an electric motor. Nor does it say anywhere that Dura-Ace is the requisite price of entry for acceptance before you’re allowed to buy a Rapha jersey, that your socks are too long/too short/the wrong color/the wrong material/the wrong pattern/the wrong color, or that you’ve earned the right to decide what anyone else riding a bike is supposed to be doing because you had enough free time to rack up 20,000 kilometers last year.
The notion that mountain bikers are somehow better than gravel riders is garbage (or roadies versus gravel riders, people on recumbents, commuters on e-bikes, and so on). The idea that gravel is better than road is garbage. The fact that everyone seems to make fun of recumbents and triathletes is garbage. It’s all fucking garbage. And if cycling has a snowball’s chance in hell of surviving in this viciously motorized and increasingly impersonal world, we need to throw all of that out.
As you’d expect, I’ve got all manners of stupidly expensive “curly bar” bikes in my possession right now with all the latest and greatest features. I have all sorts of matching kits in my closet. I have a strong preference for white road shoes. If I’m carrying two bottles, I have a weird need for them to match (although that probably just says more about my borderline-OCD personality than anything else).
But I also have a park bike with 180 mm of travel at both ends that I relish tossing around on lift-accessed terrain. I ride gravel bikes in t-shirts. My trail bike has four-piston brake calipers with 203 mm-diameter rotors, and I’m constantly playing with the air pressure and spring curve. I love casually cruising around bike paths on my old Electra townie. I derive nearly as much satisfaction in bringing home a shopping cart’s worth of groceries in my Urban Arrow cargo bike as I do after finally nailing the transition on that jump that’s eluded me all season.
Point being, I’m a cyclist because I ride bikes. Not because I ride a road bike, or a mountain bike, or a gravel bike, or whatever.
And the same goes for you or anyone else.
But looking back, had enough riders who were more seasoned than myself felt the need to chastise me for my god-awful Descente stars-and-stripes bib shorts, or the giant saddle bag dangling under my Avocet gel saddle, or the silly Gargoyles sunglasses I wore (the same ones that NASCAR driver Dale Earnhardt used to wear, I’d eventually come to learn), or how I should have been spinning up that climb instead of mashing, or maybe how I was stupid to be riding a road bike instead of a mountain bike in the first place, there’s an awfully good chance I would have quit riding altogether. Another new cyclist bites the dust.
It’d be quite the understatement to say that American politics is pretty heated at the moment, with the leader of one of the major parties even going so far as to boldly describe a member of their own as a “cancer”. It’s an extraordinary proclamation, and as an outside observer, an incredible escalation of internal turmoil. Regardless of your opinions on the matter, it’s safe to say that the kumbaya days of everyone figuring out how to work together are clearly over.
As far as I’m concerned, I’d argue that this sort of infighting in cycling is a similar form of cancer, and it’s time to do some major surgery before it kills us.
We have enough issues to deal with. Drivers are mowing us down on the road. We’re constantly battling for trail access for mountain biking. Everything seems to be getting stupidly expensive. With the current state of affairs due to the pandemic, a lot of us are having issues getting outside at all, and none of us are able to find any of the gear we want or need because everything is apparently out of stock until the end of never.
I’m profoundly tired these days. Physically. Mentally. Emotionally.
I’m tired because of a whole lot of things right now, and what I don’t need added on top of that is to be tired of all of this utterly stupid condescension, especially from sources that should know better. Bikes are supposed to be fun, dammit. I ride them because I want to get away from all the judginess, not be consumed by it.
Cut it out already. I believe we can all still work together, and that we need to (arguably more than ever), but we first need to cut out the disease that’s eating at us first.
In the meantime, go ride your bike and enjoy it, and to hell with whatever anyone else thinks.
(For the record, I don’t actually ride my park bike in white carbon-soled road shoes with Time road pedals – not because I think it’s uncool, but because it’s demonstrably a bad idea. But if that’s your jam, have at it. I won’t make fun of you.)