I ride a bicycle. Practically everyday. I’ve stopped calling myself a “cyclist”.
Something happened when I crossed half the world from the US and started living in Copenhagen. I very quickly realized that something had changed. I still rode my bicycle everywhere, but so did everyone else. Riding a bike wasn’t a radical rebellion. It wasn’t a fist to “the man” or some kind of branded identity I wore proudly like a badge of honor.
I stopped carrying my one-of-a-kind San Francisco Mission-made messenger bag. Why carry things on your back when you have a lovely machine that can take the weight for you? I’m not racing to deliver parcels quickly. I’m just carrying my laptop.
I stopped wearing a bike helmet. No one else was anyway (although helmet use is now on the rise despite traffic safety here being at an all time high).
I gave my celeste colored Bianchi fixie to my ex-girlfriend (who subsequently quite reasonably put gears back on it). I left my bright pink chopper tall boy with some friends in Berkeley (who immediately got fined for riding a dangerous vehicle). I sold my Bridgestone 12-speed road bike on craigslist. No one rides any of those things here in Copenhagen.
I looked around for was the locals were riding and bought an old upright 3-speed Raleigh Club de Luxe. Later, when living briefly in Amsterdam, I bought a Dutch Sparta “women’s” stand-over bicycle complete with attached raincoat yellow messenger bags courtesy of my friends at FietsFabriek.
My bright orange REI jacket I had bought for “visibility” seemed suddenly radical and out of place amidst a sea of black clothing, which seemed a clear statement of the locals’ desire to blend in and become invisible amidst the crowd.
I slowed down. I stopped caring about how many PSI my tires are. I started following the traffic rules (well, almost all the time). People here say Copenhageners “ride like crazy”. In fact, “other cyclists” are probably the reason for what helmets there are- not other cars. Yet I find them to be perfectly tame, slow and mild-mannered compared with Americans.
Riding a bike became completely banal and everyday. This was not a transition that happened over night and was not without its challenges.
I have long built up an identity around thinking of myself as “different”. Perhaps this was a symptom of my own insecurities constantly surrounded by overachievers. Maybe it was due to being raised by semi-reformed hippies.
I still think I’m a bit “off” and different from the everyday person (whatever that is). But I’ve given up on worrying about my identity in relationship to my particular preferred mode of transportation choice. I even sometimes let myself take a bus or train when the weather is lousy or the distance seems too long- and don’t beat myself up over it too much. Why should I? I’m just a normal person going about my daily routine.
Often when I speak with people who come from a city where they have to fight on a daily basis just to survive on the streets, they develop a strong identity as “cyclists”- as though there were something particular that sets them apart from the rest of humanity because of the way they move through space. When they come to a more bike friendly city like Copenhagen, they don’t know how to respond.
On the one hand, they appreciate how their lives have been made easier and safer by a million tiny thoughtful gestures distributed throughout the urban design and traffic planning of the city. It’s all those things they themselves have been pushing for in their own cities. Yet they also seem to feel like their identity as an individual is somehow threatened. It’s almost like they actually like being ostracized.
These divisions and dichotomies based on how we move aren’t getting us anywhere collectively. We need to better understand and empathize with why the majority (in most other cities than Copenhagen) don’t ride their bicycle and then develop solutions to make them feel safe and comfortable to try it out. When those people ride, we shouldn’t lament that it is no longer “cool” to ride anymore because “everyone is doing it”.
Biking isn’t a fashion statement that’s “in” until the next thing comes along. It’s a fantastic way to get around town. We should delight in our successes in sharing that joy with others. We can’t let our desire to hold onto our individual identity stand in the way of others’ ability to join us.