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Through the Grapevine: The Nasty Cyclist, parts I-III

Published February 20, 2019

Editor's note: The following first appeared in the Feb. 1 issue of Bicycle Retailer & Industry News. 

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The Nasty Cyclist, I: Stick the word “nasty” in a sentence and it’s guaranteed to spark curiosity among our faithful readers. And tack on the word “cyclist” to “nasty” and I am near certain of the reaction: “Who the hell . . .?” What sparked my interest in nasty cyclists was a recent article in The Spectator, a British magazine that’s been published continuously since 1828. Content-wise it generally aligns with Britain’s Conservative Party, but it has a distinguished reputation for its eclectic mix of articles on politics, culture and current affairs. It can be cheeky, as the Brits say. A few months back The Spectator ran an intriguing piece by Mary Wakefield, a dedicated cyclist and enthusiastic commuter, headlined, “Yes, We Cyclists Really Are Nasty.” For those of us in the business, Ms. Wakefield’s article is must reading even if she is a Brit. But before I go further, a Tip of the Quill to Peter Pell who mailed the article to me. (That’s right, I don’t read The Spectator.) Many of you may know Peter. He spent years at Thule and was a perennial fixture at Thule’s Interbike booth. It’s fair to say Peter knows a slew of dealers. Thanks, Peter! Back to the article. For more than 15 years Ms. Wakefield has borne the brunt of those who view cyclists as a nuisance, if not a downright threat to all that we hold dear. She has argued on cyclists’ behalf, telling her many friends and readers that cyclists consider themselves innocent creatures who adore Mother Nature and all that’s warm and fuzzy. “Well, I’ve been wrong,” she writes. “I’ve realized that our detractors have a definite point. Cyclists are unusually unpleasant. We’re as vile as we are made out to be — perhaps worse,” she says. Wow! Where did that come from?

The Nasty Cyclist II: Ms. Wakefield, as a columnist for The Spectator, writes with a sharp pen. I took a moment to read some of her past work. My judgment is sound. She recently wrote a piece on smartphones and how foolish it was for her to pause while riding her bike to check the latest ding announcing a text or email. (Yes, I’ve witnessed similar behavior and so have you.) Journalists, like Ms. Wakefield, often are quite observant of what people do and say and how they behave. It’s fair to say she doesn’t suffer fools gladly — including herself. She notes that cyclists, particularly those heading into downtown London on what we would consider a superhighway for the cycling breed, comprise a miserable slice of humanity. They huddle at stop lights, never glancing left or right — ignoring their peers — instead eyeing the unnatural size of the calves splayed before them. (Yes, calculating calf size is rivaled only by eyeballing the bulging muscles some cyclists wrap around their knees. And scars count when tallying street cred.) She notes the standard cycling uniform — Lycra shorts, helmets, shades, headphones and water bottles. “Every rucksack is made by Osprey,” she observes. (BRAIN staffers sport Osprey packs; we’re apparently in the scrum.) Ms. Wakefield also notes the imperative among cyclists to overtake their fellow commuters and pass them no matter how unsafe the maneuver. They never waver nor fall back. “They play chicken. It’s terrifying.” All this is true, more or less. I speak from acute observation of cyclists who weave and dart around mothers pushing baby carriages, who dodge old folks meandering down joint-use paths as if they were markers in a slalom course, all at speeds far in excess of what a rational person would consider safe. (And no, I am not guilty of that, but I will accept guilt for any number of other indiscretions.) And then she writes, “I just don’t know of another road-using group with less fellow feeling.” Ouch!

The Nasty Cyclist III: Cyclists are generally hypocrites. And this is how she explains it: “We suffer horribly from what social scientists call ‘moral license,’ meaning that if you think you’re especially virtuous you give yourself license to behave badly.” It’s all very sad, she says. Too many cyclists, and it’s true, make light of traffic laws, rolling through stop signs and red lights; riding two or three abreast on two-lane roads (single file being the realm of the squeamish), flipping off those who we automatically conclude have wronged us. I could go on, but let Ms. Wakefield have her say. “Cyclists insult other people as a matter of course. If a car (driver) doesn’t see us, if a tourist steps into the road, they are a wanker or a dickhead,” she writes. “I love cycling. It makes London a joy. I’ll cycle till I’m too decrepit or too squashed to continue, but the more I look about, the more I realize we’re some of the least helpful citizens on the road.” Tough stuff and I’m uncertain to what degree I agree. “Cyclists just sail on, too nimble to catch, high opinion of ourselves intact.” And so she ends her disquisition.

The Good Cyclist: For the record, every cyclist has a horror story or ten to share, especially if they’ve been riding for any length of time. I have a few myself. But there’s no question that non-cyclists generally harbor a low opinion of us; that’s driven by the behavior seen with their own eyes, not necessarily from personal experience. Just chat with a few as I have over the years. Most would put us in the douche bag category. Nothing infuriates non-cyclists more than to witness deliberate flouting of generally accepted rules of the road. Weaving in and out of cars waiting for a light; packs hogging the road; the scary behavior seen all too often on multiuse pathways. And don’t get me started on what bike-share has wrought among the public attitude writ large. We’ve met the enemy and they are us. Let me put this in a sentence easily understood: Poor cycling behavior — we’ve all seen it and done it — is BAD, BAD, BAD for business. We need friends; we need sales; and we need to be in the forefront of changing attitudes about the benefits of cycling. Our behavior does not go unnoticed. Think about it. How friendly and respectful are we when on a bicycle? Think deeply; search your soul. Don’t engage in moral license. Question your own behavior. I’ve seen it all, so have you, and Ms. Wakefield definitely has a point.

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