Practical Cycling and “Lifestyle” Choices

By Peter Moore

(this post introduces Peter Moore, a Bikerowave volunteer with a encyclopedic knowledge of bike lore who has previously written for the esteemed Rivendell Reader. – AT)

In the past ten or so years, there’s been a real boom in practical cycling. Partly thanks to Grant Petersen’s healthy manias and editorializing–for long reach brakes, fatter tires, greater frame clearances, braze ons for racks and fenders–and partly in reaction against relentlessly high tech ultralight bikes and parts, utilitarian steel bicycles, commuters, cargo bikes and flexible, multipurpose rides have all experienced a renaissance. Along with this has come a smaller boom in commuting and practical cycling: the use of bicycles to supplant some form of internal combustion urban travel.

This boom has a further and more important social result because it has helped raise the bicycle from plaything to useful tool that goes beyond “lifestyle accessory.” It has helped transform the sensibilities of practical riders. Through practical cycling, bikes develop in new ways, but more importantly so do their riders.   This practical cycling can help riders move beyond “lifestyle consumption” to an identity less superficial and more grounded, whose character is still undefined, but is more in tune with a healthy human life and an economy that allows this.

Outside of practical uses, bicycles are toys, though sometimes expensive or beautiful ones. Like snowboards, surfboards, and rock climbing gear, they exist as recreational adjuncts to life rather than as necessities. As consumer items they exist primarily to allow us to have fun, and to define ourselves through the specific recreational choices we make, an important function in the world of late-stage capitalism. But when someone uses a bicycle to do something more important than shop for discretionary-income funded items, this use ca become more than a consumer choice. Simultaneously that rider has a chance at an equally  important change: she–he– begins to transcend the precincts of consumerism, and engages in something verging on meaningful activity.

You do not need a bicycle to do this: you can walk to the store to buy dried pinto beans and tortillas without needing even shoes (though the market will probably evict you without these). But a bicycle makes travel through dense urban landscapes much quicker, and in many cases even quicker than comparable distances in an automobile. The glory of this practical bicycling, then, is that one can actually be an effective and fully human agent using one, assuming that you use it for some substantive purpose, rather than as a lifestyle accessory. Rather than exercising your human faculties of agency and choice only through deciding on the brands of consumer goods you “need,” you are instead exercising both a specifically human agency and your muscles by doing something for yourself, with a minimum of mediation.

In this sense, bicycles are intrinsically anarchic in the philosophical sense, or at least much more so than any more complicated piece of technology that requires internal combustion or electric motors. They allow you to act for yourself with minimal intervening layers of corporate or mechanical mediation. In this way, they are revolutionary and liberating. This characteristic is why bicycles were an instrumental cause of women taking their public place in European and American society in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

The working poor have exhibited this independence here in Los Angeles for decades. The late afternoon pelotons  of the “Ruta de Busboy” riders in their white shirts and black pants pedaling away furiously to restaurant jobs on too large ten speeds or big box store mountain bikes bear witness to  this. But we middle class folk (and middle class is an internal identity as much as a financial one) have had to learn this same lesson by indirect means. Middle class attitudes and affluence are great barriers to actually living in the real world, outside the blinkering of class and cultural assumptions. Paradoxically those busboys and prep chefs are all aspiring to owning twenty year old Toyota Corollas the minute their income rises to a sufficient level, which reveals how in our society belonging means depriving yourself of some measure of humanity: to sacrifice independence, agency, and even being a good human animal with healthy lungs and muscles (unless of course this health is acquired as a “lifestyle” choice in an expensive gym) for the sake of belonging to a consumption-defined group.

So while cyclists have long lamented that bikes are considered toys in the US, the real force behind their becoming more accepted lies in their practical use. Unless they are used for activities more substantive than recreational fun, they certainly do have far more in common with toys than they have with automobiles, which–along with utterly trivial uses, are used for commuting and picking up the day’s food. (Note that this is not to say recreational cyclists don’t deserve respect and equal protection on the road.)  The bicycle is not the only way someone can accomplish these goals. Walking, using a skateboard and other forms of muscle power also allow the same freedom, the same agency, the unmediated contact with the actual world rather than its ersatz consumer version; but the bicycle is probably the best suited tool for urban landscapes.

So: live in this real world, instead of the one you’re supposed to inhabit where you are only a consumer. Ride your bike, and ride it for use and joy. Certainly, joy has a place in life, but a riding life of only fun is like trying to live off of cake from the best bakeries: while it tastes good for a brief while, it soon cloys and overwhelms. By riding your bike in this way, just maybe you’ll claim a fuller measure of humanity.  You might also discover that your overall attitude to this strange world we call normal changes: the urban bicycle as a lens through which to see the manias of late capitalism is, if we allow it to be, a pitilessly accurate instrument, revealing our foolishness and myopia. These changes are difficult ones: even practical cyclists live in a world of consumption-defined identity. But important changes start small and root themselves deeply; and the transformation of ourselves and our built environment is worth patience and gradual, evolutionary shifts.

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19 Responses to “Practical Cycling and “Lifestyle” Choices”

  1. Amen! Welcome to BikeSide, heck of a first post :)

  2. Nicely worded post, slightly unfortunate choice of image.
    It’s a nice bike and all, but no rack, no basket, no fenders, no lights- not much of a practical transportation bike.

  3. @Cycler – I chose the photo from my archive. Practical is as practical does, and the owner of the pictured bike rides it all over the city, under all conditions, at least at the time this photo was taken. Single speeds and fixies are preferred by many urban riders for their practicality – less moving parts and simpler transmission means less to replace, less to maintain, less to steal, and less weight . . . so perhaps they are practical. And by the way – there are lights, you’re just not looking carefully enough – there’s a big honking one on the front bars.

    Great post Peter! It’s good to have some big thinking to accompany our posts on local minutiae.

  4. If I’m not mistaken, that is a post Freeway Ride II photo, so that would be as practical as you can get for a freeway ride! You definitely don’t want the extra weight in this case.

  5. @cycler I ride a fixed gear bike exclusively, all around LA (no other form of transportation), for most of the reasons that Alex mentioned. All I ever have to do is clean it every week. No adjustment of anything ever.

    In some senses, the fixed/singlespeed IS the bicycle.

  6. Mihai, it’s actually from the 2008 Winter Polo Picnic tournament.

    Who’s got something really mean and controversial to say about Peter’s piece? Let’s get some conversation going.

  7. I’m not a bicyclist, but I’ve been introduced to the two-wheel world by my interest in electric railway transit. You certainly hit some nails on the head–bicycles and cyclists won’t be taken seriously until they become part of everyday life, not a weekend activity. If bike routes that meet the “8 to 80″ standard were more common, old guys like me (who are at the age where injuries take a long time to heal) would be more likely to try a bike, rather than leaving cycling to the young, fearless, athletic and mostly male demographic.

  8. While I appreciate the sentiment, its important not to romanticize and therefore overstate the social role of practical cycling, in my opinion.
    First off, if practical cycling is inherently liberating, then can we say that countries with extensive practical cycling – many of the northern european ones – are more liberated from consumer capitalism? I think one can make a pretty strong case that they’re not, but even if they are, can we then say that that liberation is the result of practical cycling, rather than the seemingly more powerful differences in philosophical and political tradition (to take just one, the greater class consciousness, which leads directly to stronger labor movements)? It seems to me that practical cycling might be more a result than a cause of greater detachment from consumer capitalism, to the degree that that detachment exists.
    Second, the notion of the bicycle as an inherently “anarchic” (which means libertarian socialist) technology is a murky one. What does this mean? How exactly does an inert object contribute to the complex social dynamics that lead towards libertarian socialism? When US cities transitioned from horse drawn transport to bicycles, did they become more anarchist?
    At this point in time, practical cycling in the US is almost exclusively “voluntarist” – it depends on the individual will of the practitioner to overcome the many institutional and logistical obstacles which our dedication to a fossil fuel powered economy has placed in its path. Maybe in norther europe, it’s not, since the infrastructure and policies naturalize it in the way that the private automobile is naturalized here. So let’s not kid ourselves – here, it’s a lifestyle choice, and therefore part and parcel of consumer capitalism. As leftists and cyclists, we do ourselves a disservice when we imagine ourselves outside of prevailing ideology in such an impassible manner. Our short term goal should be to push through the infrastructure and policies that will de-naturalize the private automobile. Cycling will be one of the pieces that fills the resulting transportation vacuum, but we shouldn’t think that it will somehow transform consciousness to a significant degree.

  9. Erik,
    Thanks for your thoughtful response, and sorry for the delay replying; I’ve been out of town.

    First of all, cycling can be both a cause and a result of distancing oneself from consumer capitalism, since it’s a chicken–egg phenomenon in at least some cases. And your point about Northern Europe and consumerism is well taken. I try to point out that cycling *can* have a certain effect, and don’t claim that it always or even mostly *will* have this effect.

    Second: the bicycle as anarchic: I do believe that this is true compared to motor vehicles, because the technology to make a bicycle and to keep it running needs less centralization and size compared to the automobile or anything else of comparable complexity. I’m not sure about the bicycle leading to libertarian socialism (I’m not at all sure of any kind of precise cause and effect at such a specific level) but I do think that the bicycle allows for a relatively decentralized society compared to the common complexity of modern cities. The horse would be an excellent example of something that allowed much further evolution, especially in a community that had wheelwrights, harness makers, and so on as residents; but my judgment is one relative to the world we live in, with its centralization and complexity.

    Third: everything in global society is voluntarist; that’s really the problem, isn’t it, since everything just turns into one more form of consumer choice. But to get out of this bind, we’ve got to try and start somewhere.

    Finally: your general points about practical cycling being one more form of consumer capitalism is of course true; the article I wrote tried to convince people to use cycling instead to begin, however tentatively and with whatever baby steps, to escape from that bind that seems so utterly ubiquitous in the modern world. Yes, the essay may have (and I may have) exaggerated; but the essay was both an observation and an exhortation, and as such had to move in two rhetorical directions at a time.

    Thanks for the thoughtful response,
    Peter Moore

  10. Sorry; the words “The horse would be an excellent example of something that allowed much further evolution” should instead read “devolution”; it makes much more sense this way!

  11. Peter,
    Thanks for the response. I suspect that in the end we’re probably more in agreement than otherwise. However, I remain suspicious of attempts to address problems in political economy by recourse what marxists might call “superstructural” issues. This, not because of any inherently theoretical problems – I accept Gramsci’s acknowledgement of the importance of culture generally – within which practical cycling of course falls. Rather, it’s because many of us, in looking to address the many and serious problems with consumer capitalism, overlook the most direct means of dealing with the problems. Put bluntly, if you want to deal with capitalism, deal with capitalism. That’s what Wall Street does, and it’s served them pretty well. So if we’re looking to, say, decrease the toxicity of our fossil fuel combustion centered economy, then ending the subsidies that occur at every stage of fossil fuel extraction, processing, and consumption, will have a much larger effect than promoting practical cycling. If we want to move towards an economy more in tune with anarchist ideals, then we should focus on restraining the increasing power of the FIRE sectors, possibly through simple and direct measures such as the Tobin tax on speculative investment.
    In the end, I’m all in favor of bike activism and choosing practical cycling (I do both) but I’m more in favor of directly addressing the major problems that confront us collectively, so we don’t have to patiently wait for evolutionary change. Wall Street is revolutionary, and we should be too, but with the values reversed.

  12. Actually, the bicycle-oriented cultures of Northern Europe are less consumerist than the US, whose level of personal wealth they generally share or exceed. I was pleasantly surprised around 25 years ago when I visited friends in Amsterdam and found the small houses and apartments, bicycles everywhere, and street life based on cafes and squares rather than mall-crawling. When Lida was taking half a grocery bag of garbage out one day, I asked her how many days’ worth of garbage it held–she said “Three weeks’ worth”!

    Likewise in France, where I stayed a long time, domiciles were small, cars were small and generally used once or twice a week, meals were small, shops small, personal, and mostly independent.

    You find the same thing in Tokyo, where cycling is a common means of transport for middle class and even wealthy people, and houses uncluttered; the “Hello Kitty” culture that wed mostly see here is a minor phenomenon in Japan itself.

    Yes, there are huge corporations in all these places, but they don’t dominate the culture the way they do here.

    Japan and Holland have been cycling, low-consumption cultures for years, despite their wealth, and France has taken to cycling with mad enthusiasm in the last five years. All three countries have long histories of practical cycling.

  13. Very thought-provoking! Someone in the comments above asked for some disagreement, so here goes…. (although I certainly hope it doesn’t come across as mean-spirited).

    I started out writing a comment but realized it was far too long; instead it is now a post on my own blog (Evolution, not Revolution: All Biking Motives Welcome Part I, with Part II to follow,

    My context is that of a committed activist who started out as a lifestyle rider. I wouldn’t dismiss lifestyle riders out of hand as you seem to here.

    They may well experience the profound mental, psychological and political shift that comes from expanding use of the bike for transportation, but they don’t start there. Suggesting that they are somehow not part of the community of people who ride doesn’t seem useful to me if your goal is to create more support for biking.

    Based on years of direct political experience I’ll say that every time I have been self-righteous about my “more evolved” positions I have lost support and turned people off when I could so easily instead have started from our common ground and then built on that connection.

    I agree with much of what you say about the problems created by a consumerist system and mentality. I just don’t think looking down on it is going to shift anyone who isn’t already with you.


  14. Here’s an article which may be of interest to those wishing to engage with this topic:
    I tend to agree with this author’s take on the topic – US style capitalism is so intricately intertwined with fossil fuel consumption, and the transportation policies that are both a result of and a spur to that consumption, that simple advocacy of alternatives is bound to be ineffective. If we want to stay with capitalism, then we need to push towards a european style regulatory model in order to bring about the transportation changes we want to see. That means engaging with all of the various facets of that model – labor rights, restrictions of capital flows, understanding the role immigration policy plays in maintaining wage differentials, recognizing the difference between wealth and wages, etc. The central step will be to recognize that social utility is “worth” as much as profit, and that some policies should be enacted even though, and perhaps even because they’re unprofitable.

  15. >You might also discover that your overall attitude to this strange world we call normal changes: the urban bicycle as a lens through which to see the manias of late capitalism

    For this reason I love, love, love the ecology of recycling and DIY shops that’s sprung up in Los Angeles and elsewhere. Beautiful in a cosmic way.


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