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A Cyclist by Any Other Name

If you are a person who rides a bicycle, how do you refer to yourself? As a cyclist? A biker? A bicyclist? Or simply as…a person? Who rides a bicycle?

As riding a bicycle for transportation has become more common around the country, the question comes up more and more often. The word "cyclist," in common usage, has long meant someone wearing Lycra, often riding for recreation. (Back in 2008, Bike Snob NYC came up his own definition: a person who rides a bike even when he or she doesn't have to, and who also owns a floor pump.)

Many people who ride bikes shy away from the appellation because they don't identify with hardcore roadies who never get onto their bikes without donning special gear. The cycle chic movement -- popularized by Copenhagenize and Copenhagen Cycle Chic -- has been fed by people like this, people who just want to be themselves, riding a bike in their own clothes. People who don't want to put on what they perceive as a cyclist costume.

Streetsblog Network member blog 4onaQuarter, who writes from the Orlando area, talked about the "cyclist" conundrum in a post yesterday that highlights another problem -- the hostility many drivers feel toward large groups of recreational riders on the road, and how that hostility can get transferred to anyone on a bicycle:

475105794_8ee6d53f72.jpgWe're guessing these people are probably OK with being called cyclists. Photo: ImageMD via Flickr
I struggle a lot with the term "cyclist." It feels dishonest to use it when referring to myself, but lord knows "biker" is all wrong, too. Although I’ve dedicated myself to riding my bike, I don’t feel like I am really a part of the bike community. This isn’t some sort of high school drama feeling -- it’s more that I feel too new to identify myself that way.…

For me, riding is as much an act of advocacy as it is of pleasure. I do enjoy riding my bike, but it’s not part of my history. Maybe I’m a late bloomer, but I guess I’m forging that love affair only now. I ride because I sincerely believe my riding can make a difference, no matter how small. I ride because not only do I want my community to be healthier and greener, but also because I tend to think that having a progressive bike culture will lead to all kinds of other cultural progress. Somehow I think that tolerance is woven in with a general sense of community goodness -- whatever that means.

So, finding this article [about problems between drivers and weekend groups of recreational cyclists] headlining my local newspaper the other day really peeved me. Now today, I saw this article [a response from a proud Lycra-wearing roadie] and I can’t decide which article peeves me most.…

If that’s what a cyclist is, or how it’s perceived by the "masses," I’m not sure it’s what I want to be. Bike lady is kind of nice. I suppose I could just be a person on a bike, but that’s no fun. Any other suggestions?

Let us know what you think in the comments. Does nomenclature make a difference? If you ride a bike, how do you identify yourself? Do you care what others call you?

Related: CommuteOrlando Blog on efforts to protest a particularly hateful Facebook group that incites drivers to hit cyclists (or people on bikes -- we don't think the folks who run these groups make semantic distinctions). 

  • http://www.thecarwhisperer.blogspot.com Brian

    Jesus Christ. What a bunch of mental masturbation. Some days I wear spandex, other times I don’t. Many reasons. Who gives a shit how the “masses” perceive you? If you want to ride for an hour in skinny jeans and live with unbearable chafing and ingrown butt hairs in order keep your identity, who am I to tell you’d be a lot more comfortable in Lycra? Have fun with that.

  • http://fouronaquarter.com/ Angie

    Thanks for the mention! I forgot to include that I kind of dig “Velo Vixen,” though I think it might need to be something more like Velo ViXn while riding around on the X.

    @Brian I care how the masses perceive me because they happen to surround me and my five-year-old in their two-ton vehicles. I kinda’ prefer they have as positive a view of me as possible. :P

  • Steve Davis

    People can call me whatever they want, but calling me a biker or a cyclist is like someone who drives a car automatically being called a race car driver. I guess it’s more natural to label something when it’s a minority activity, but good god I don’t call friends or people that I meet who drive cars “drivers” or “automobile owners” on a regular basis. I’m just a guy who decided to ride a bike one day because I’m too impatient to walk, it got me to work quicker and I enjoyed the time outside each day. I think there’s a difference between people who ride a bike and “the bike community”, just like there’s a difference between someone who drives a car to get around and an auto enthusiast.

  • http://www.thecarwhisperer.blogspot.com Brian

    And Lycra is automatically more negative?! I’ve been treated just as boorish and carelessly when I’m in my cargo shorts, Angie.

    Sorry, I just get so sick of people’s knee-jerk rejection of bike clothing. It is actually quite practical. Yes, I like to dress up and play bikes as much as the next Cat 3 but it does have its purpose when I am riding 15-miles one-way to work in the suburbs as well.

    I’ve really not noticed a difference of how people treat me, and if they’re snickering (drivers or hipsters) at how I look, they’re well past me anyways so what do I care?

  • http://fouronaquarter.com/ Angie

    It’s my personal opinion that to some degree, yes – lycra can be more negative (at least in my locale). I think when many drivers see it, they automatically think of those cyclists that get out there and disregard the law and thus become more aggressive. I believe they feel justified based on their experiences with the roadies. Maybe that’s just my perception.

    Do I personally care about what someone wears? Of course not. I don’t have a judgement on what someone chooses to ride in. As you alluded, it’s all about practicality. For me, since the safety of my kids is the most important factor, riding in street wear is the most practical (since I happen to believe lycra tends to create more aggression). If that wasn’t my top priority, then maybe some other clothing would be more practical.

    Clearly we differ on what we think about motorists perceptions. But just as you aren’t a roadie for riding in lycra, neither am I a vapid dress-up doll for riding in street clothes. Though, I don’t do skinny jeans–way too short for that. :p

  • http://www.thecarwhisperer.blogspot.com Brian

    I guess. They can call me whatever they want. I think this whole discussion is pointless but I enjoyed the rant.

  • http://www.livablestreets.com/people/Traff Andy Trafford

    I hate the clunky “bicyclist”, and “biker” calls to mind leather and facial hair. I’m a cyclist. Whether I’m wearing spandex on the road or body-armor in the woods.

  • Edward

    Bike Rider

  • not a racer

    i ride bikes everywhere, and have put on stretchy cycling-specific clothes for long rides or weeks-long tours. i think it’s probably wise for livable-streets-identified people to put some distance between themselves and the recreational cyclists described in the orlando sentinel articles linked above. though there’s obviously a distinction to draw between cars & bikes — due the lower level of carnage that bikes are likely to cause in a crash, relative to motorized vehicles — the idea that public roadways can function as a proper venue to “race”, on any mode of transport (even foot), is kinda fucked up. this is of course just as true for alley cats as well as roadies. but at least alley cat racers have some self awareness, reflected in their typical dress, of their flouting of social convention. that windy-road hill-climbers with computers and shit installed on their $5000 bikes go around wearing sleek, tron-esque looking uniforms with faux corporate sponsorships … they’re faking an appearance of legitimacy and order when what they’re doing is arguably … bad.

  • http://www.flickr.com/photos/bicyclesonly/collections/ BicyclesOnly

    When asked to characterize my cycling, I sometimes call myself “an everyday cyclist.” It’s not technically true–there are probably one or more days every month that I don’t cycle–but I think this phrase captures the mundane nature of my cycling for transportation. I have no special clothes for cycling, aside from my helmet.

  • Andy

    I refer to myself as a cyclist, and I put two meanings with that. Anyone that grabs a bike more often than their car keys is a cyclist to me. I also put that term with those that race or ride long distances because they know how to handle a bike (presumably). To me, “cyclist” is not just someone who happens to be riding a bike currently, they know how to bike and do it often.

    I try not to use the term biker, because I always associated that with motorcycles. I usually don’t put a specific term to someone that is riding a bike. I’ll say something like, “I saw someone riding a bike…”

  • James

    this piece is indeed filler/mental masturbation. One day I may be a commuter wearing cargo pants and lugging my folding bike onto the train. Another, I’m wearing my team’s kit and doing intervals to prepare for Saturday’s race. I’m also building a fixed gear, which would ostensibly put me in yet another camp. I’m a livable streets advocate and TA member. My point is that it’s possible to have more than one identity on the bike and there’s nothing at all wrong with that. No need to create false dichotomies.

  • http://www.thecarwhisperer.blogspot.com Brian

    As evidenced by “not a racer”‘s comment, there is a lot of hate out there for roadies.

    This is too bad. It’s a fun sport, one that has it’s share of problems, of course. There are group rides out there that are horrifyingly rude and clueless. But there are other that are paragons of good behavior.

    The sport also does a lot of good for cycling, or riding, or bi-cycling, or whatever the hell you want or don’t want it to be called [shaking head].

    My team is a fantastic grass roots organization that coaches woman’s and juniors development programs (including World’s Silver Medalist Rebecca Much and Paralympian Greta Neimanas) in addition and top national level elite squad (Reid Mumford of Kelly Benefits domestic team), and is an integral partner with the Active Transportation Alliance, the largest cycling (among other modes, as well) advocacy non-profit of it’s kind in the country. We do a lot of good. And we need sponsors just like any other team. And those sponsors do a lot of good in turn by giving us money to race and been good members of the Chicago community. And we repay those sponsors by wearing our kits so their logos can be seen.

    So please spare all of us your egalitarian, working class hero act. Judge not and lead by example. Because we all know you’ve run stop signs, too.

  • http://www.livablestreets.com/people/ben Benjamin Running

    I have no problem with ‘cyclist.’ I use it like I would ‘pedestrian.’

    I do have a problem with the media equating ‘cyclist’ with ‘activist’ and implying that people only ride a bike to send some kind of political, environmental, or lifestyle message.

    Never a mention that it’s almost always faster, healthier, more enjoyable, and cheaper to go by bike.

  • Kwyjibo

    Re the mental masturbation/filler comments: I disagree.

    Like it or not, words matter. Maybe not to us here talking amongst ourselves in a safe space, but out there where bike riding for any reason at all is largely considered weird, unnecessary and even provocative, the word “cyclist” does have a dehumanizing, one-term-fits-all effect. I’m not fond of “pedestrian,” for the same reason, and I suppose “driver” or “motorist” could just as easily be said to insulate a person-who-drives from his or her actions behind all that steel and glass.

    I don’t know what the answer is, but it’s myopic and naive to belittle the discussion.

  • http://www.flickr.com/photos/bicyclesonly/collections/ BicyclesOnly

    What Kwyjibo said. I don’t want to be linguistically lumped with the spandex crowd (even though some of my best friends wear spandex!)

  • http://www.thecarwhisperer.blogspot.com Brian

    Fine. I’m still calling you a cyclist. That’s what’s so great about language, because you ARE all cyclists.

  • http://www.livablestreets.com/people/jass jass

    I didn’t realize that bicyclist and cyclist meant different things. Bicyclist is just an ugly word, so I prefer cyclist.

    Biker, of course, brings up an image of a pack of large men on harleys.

  • http://walkbikejersey.blogspot.com/ Andy B from Jersey

    That commentary from Mike Thomas in the Orlando Sentinel (second “article”) was horrible and HIGHLY counterproductive. He advocates what is in essence illegal bicycle street-racing and all the law breaking activities that come with it.

    As a “cyclist” I find such lame excuses for breaking vehicle law damaging to the cause of advancing bicycling for transportation and recreation

  • whistler

    “Bike living”. I’m a passionate commuter, but “bike commuter” is clunky. BicyclesOnly’s “everyday cyclist” isn’t bad; and Edward’s “bike rider” is simple. In almost all respects, “bike living” is nearly the perfect description to me; and I have a “bike life”. Unfortunately, in one respect, it doesn’t work: I live a bike life; I am bike living — but am I a “bike liver”?!? Well, I guess, I’ll call my passion “bike living” — but I’ll have to call myself something else.

  • Ian Turner

    I am not a cyclist.

  • http://thecarwhisperer.blogspot.com Brian

    Who cares? I thought this site was about breaking down walls. This discussion is building one.

  • http://thecarwhisperer.blogspot.com Brian

    cyclist [?sa?kl?st] US, cycler
    n
    a person who rides or travels by bicycle, motorcycle, etc.

  • Nick

    Wow. Why are people getting so upset about what is really a simple and invitatory post? The words we use are very important and reveal our cultural assumptions and values. We should talk about this on streetsblog.org.

    One of my favourite turns of phrase has to do with the VERBS we often use. People say “riding a bike” and “driving a car”; these two I routinely reverse to indicate that a person is actually the driving force behind a bicycle but a person in a car uses no effort.

    The words I tend to use to describe myself change depending on the context and what detail of bicycle culture I am trying to emphasise. My favourites are ‘driver’, used when I am trying to emphasise the legal equality between cars and bikes, and ‘pedestrian’ (despite its latin root in pedester, this term carries a derogatory meaning) when I want to emphasise the practical and ontological but not legal equivalency between people travelling by foot and by…foot? Cyclists are just pedestrians on wheels, I say.

    There’s an interview with Mikael from copenhagenize.com at situp-cycle.com in which he says, “There are no cyclists in Copenhagen. There are half a million people riding bicycles but that’s just a tool between your legs that helps you get to work.” He then compares the bicycle to a vacuum cleaner. Check it out.

  • http://www.customhomedetailing.com Ron

    Progressive bike culture,culture progress and cummunity goodness. That sound good to me all positive. Good stuff nice blog.

    Ron

  • http://www.flickr.com/photos/bicyclesonly/ BicyclesOnly

    Brian,

    I’m sure you mean well but the “Kumbaya moment” you are advocating is a long way off, at least in my neck of the woods. We’ve got “cyclists” in NYC who like to ride in the loop on Central Park in pacelines at 20+ MPH and will scream at people with the right of way–including pedestrians and little kids on bikes–to get out of their way. Not just at 6 a.m. when its arguably acceptable for them to do it, but on weekend mornings in relatively fair weather. These guys are more responsible than the delivery “cyclists” for giving cycling a bad rep. I’m not going to defend them or even associate myself with them by using the same term to describe myself as I use for them. (Out of courtesy, I won’t publish here what I do call them :) ).

  • http://thecarwhisperer.blogspot.com Brian

    No kumbaya advocated. Just common sense. George Carlin would be on my side.

    I see people act the in Chicago on the lakefront path. We don’t call them cyclists. We call them “pathletes.” There is no place for that kind of behavior on our team’s ride while we exercise our legal right to the road, legally. 2 abreast or single where required. We are also no drop for the first 25 miles to Highland Park, so that those new to the sport may experience the full joy of a club ride without the hammer dropping first thing.

    Stop generalizing roadies. There are dickheads to be found using all forms of transportation.

  • BicyclesOnly

    I agree, let’s not assume people are inconsiderate or worse, based on how they’re dressed or kitted out. But if there’s a visible community of cyclists where such behavior is regularly condoned, and sometimes practiced in groups, do I call them “brother?” No. Sure, I will (and have) joined with that community on issues of common interest, but I’m going to distinguish them from myself linguistically for the reasons in my last post. And all kidding aside, the worst thing I ever call aggressive roadies in the park is “those spandex racing guys who . . .” (and then describe the behavior). Honest.

  • Speck

    Pedalist

  • http://www.zeropergallon.com kit

    I love you all, and I love the finer points of English language but this is ridiculous. If the term cyclist has earned a bad name so be it, we don’t just need to call ourselves something different, we need to act differently. Someone who passes by me on the road doesn’t know what I call myself, they just know I’m on a bike. What’s important are my actions on the road. This is the way to redefine a term. Otherwise we’ll be hopping our way around from term to term, with only those of us the inside of the debate knowing what the difference is. You can be damn sure the average driver has no damn idea this conversation is going on right now.

    @Nick: This semantic argument about Driving versus Riding is making a big assumption. I would posit that the word “driving” is a legacy of the horse-and-carriage setup. People don’t say they “drive” motorcycles, either.

  • http://blog.intersection911.org Steve B

    I think there’s a use for genre labels such as motorist and cyclist, but I think we have to be more conscious of how we use them.

    Ultimately, we need to remember that in the end, no matter what your mode, WE ARE PEOPLE. Human beings.

    This is especially important when reporting on crashes and injuries. These are people hurting other people. Not accidents. Not one mode vs. another. People.

    When I write about people and modes, I tend to mix up my language for the sake of readability. I’m trying both. People in Cars or Drivers. People on bikes and bike riders. I think it’s especially important to emphasize the people-before-labels aspect when we are talking about equity or justice.

    Sometimes, it can be useful to galvanize and create solidarity around a label or identity. Something great happens when groups proudly identify themselves around a commonality, in order to organize and implement changes.

    Ultimately, we’re more successful in changing attitudes when we make personal connections to people who oppose us. That’s reason enough to make more conscious language decisions.

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