Think cyclists are all in it together? Think again

Cyclists are not one single tribe – the potential divisions are endless

While many drivers see only ‘cyclists’ – sometimes before squashing them, usually after – we are, in fact, not one homogenous group. Far from it.

We are many small tribes, tribes that can show as much disregard for other cyclists as the angriest drivers. We’re roadies, mountain bikers or commuters; downhillers or cross-countryers, time-triallers or fixie-lovers, competitors not slackers, retro-suckers or Brompton folders, utility zealots against carbon-cuddlers. And so on. The divisions are almost endless.

I’m not sure what I think of that. Are we only really a collective of ‘cyclist’ togetherness when we’re under attack from outsiders?

Perhaps not even then. Perhaps even the possibility is a romantic dream, one for the likes of Ronald Reagan, who dreamed of an alien attack which would bring humanity together. It’s a beautiful vision – a deadly outside force (whether aliens or Audis) brings us together (kumbaya) just before we’re destroyed (splat).

“And when the Thetans land, I’ll wall 'em in and make 'em pay your taxes…”
“And when the Thetans land, I’ll wall 'em in and make 'em pay your taxes…”

Call me a cynic, but I don’t think humans can, even with a fantastical ‘Other’ to be afraid of. The Cold War offered a very real threat of nuclear annihilation, yet even Reagan couldn’t imagine us forgetting our differences without adding an alien megawar. It follows there’s unlikely to be anything that can bring millions of people together as one just because they own a bicycle.

Here’s the thing. Maybe that’s okay, and we don’t need to be some big happy club. And maybe if we were, we’d just be even easier to dismiss as an ominous mass of anarchists with no respect for traffic laws – traffic laws that drivers pay substantially more to ignore.

Face it. We’re all riding for very different reasons, wanting different outcomes, and enjoying totally different things. The bicycles are a red herring.

Welcome to the pain cave

It takes seconds to find significant divides in our reasons for cycling. Just look at the language we use. Roadies and XCers happily talk about pain caves, getting their legs ripped off and killer climbs. 'Gravel grinders' are a popular and trendy new breed of bike.

Does any of this – grinding out miles and hurting yourself – sound like fun to the average trail rider or downhiller? I’m going to cautiously answer for everyone and say, oh Jesus no, no no no, stay away from me.

It’s no coincidence that Strava urges you to ‘quantify your suffering’ and sites like The Sufferfest are popular. The Sufferfest includes a page of ‘Praise,’ where praise means words like ‘masochistic’ and ‘torture’. Even the link to it is a closeup of a man who’s face suggests he’s having his coin purse melted by a blow torch.

Not a small blowtorch either. A large and knobbly blowtorch, one hammered cruelly into his back door by a team of steelworkers caned on Red Bull and speed… you get the picture. When Donald Trump said he’d "bring back a hell of a lot worse than waterboarding", this – this face – was what he was talking about.  

We don’t take praise very well either
We don’t take praise very well either

Most roadies aren’t projectile vomiting energy gels over the bloody stumps of their ripped-off legs, any more than most mountain bikers are whipping 60ft canyons

In reality, of course, the grimacing man is just pedalling. Pedalling to the point where death would be a relief. Because pedalling is fun. If there’s an obvious line of logic running between those statements, you may just be a roadie. You might like a 'Pedal ‘til you Puke' T-shirt, because lunch is just weakness leaving your body.

None of this is to disparage The Sufferfest – an excellent resource – nor the self-flagellating masochists… I mean, fellow cyclists who benefit from it. If such painful language attracts you, you’re going to be very competitive (especially with yourself), keen to push your body beyond its limits and highly motivated to prove… whatever it is. Sometimes I’m too tired to get up for another biscuit, so I can’t really imagine what.

From horrible to insane

Meanwhile, move your search from ‘horrible’ to ‘insane’ and you start to see the mountain bike stuff – urban DH races that skim walls and rabid dogs; Danny MacAskill riding nightmare ridges; the Red Bull Rampage.

Here’s Kelly McGarry backflipping a 72ft canyon as if he could never come down, and everything before he even reaches the gap is a terrifying parade of NOPE. (A year later, McGarry almost didn’t come down, leapt 100ft and crashed so hard both wheels turned to kindling.)

Kelly McGarry's 72ft Canyon Gap POV - Red Bull Rampage 2013

If words like ‘rampage,’ ‘sick’ (not puke) and ‘canyon gap’ sound fun to you, you’re probably keen on adrenaline, willing to risk extreme pain (though happy to avoid it), and highly motivated to prove… whatever it is. That you’re immortal? God, I really want those biscuits. But whatever, you’re nothing like a roadie.

Of course, these people are the extremes, but we want to be them. Theoretically, anyway. Most roadies aren’t actually projectile vomiting energy gels over the bloody stumps of their ripped-off legs, any more than most mountain bikers are whipping 60ft gaps on their way round the trail centre.

(In fact, thanks to the Lycra, it’s easy to see that it's not just me that likes biscuits – many roadies do too.)

The mindset is more bodybag than skinsuit… this is not even the same sport
The mindset is more bodybag than skinsuit… this is not even the same sport

We’re all hoping a little of our heroes’ glamour, bravery and determination will rub off on us, but when those heroes’ drives and desires are so far apart – when we can’t even agree on what’s heroic or pointless – how can we be one big group hug of ‘cyclists’? We can’t. People who aspire to land jumps so hard their shoes blow off are not the same as those that aspire to climb so hard they sick up their own toe bones.

So perhaps all this tribal division is inevitable, a human thing. Perhaps it’s the ones who claim to see no divisions, that we’re all just ‘cyclists’, showing ignorance – ignorance of our individuality. I’m not sure what the opposite of kumbaya is, but whatever it is… well. That.

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