Practical Cycling and “Lifestyle” Choices
(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.