“Young men in spandex”: cycling stereotype dies hard

Editor’s note: The following piece originally appeared in the author’s own blog,”The Incidental Cyclist

Somehow, even though I know it’s been a growing focus for the local media, I’m still pleasantly surprised when I hear a story on cycling pop up on the radio or in the paper. Hey, I think, they’re talking about me! Which is what I thought when I heard Kathleen Petty talking to an urban planning expert from Copenhagen this week on CBC’s Ottawa Morning about bike facilities in the city.

Not that either of them said much that I didn’t already know. “Your bike paths are beautiful,” said the woman from Copenhagen, “but crossing the Portage Bridge was the scariest thing I’ve done in my life.” There was the usual conversation about how healthy biking is – every dollar spent on cycling infrastructure gains back something like $1.80 in saved health care expenses, or so they claim – and how good for the city, with businesses along bike routes gaining something like 10% profits (tell that to the Somerset Street BIA, who put the kibosh on the proposed test route that would have run east/west along Somerset.)

And there were the usual observations about the state of cycling in Ottawa: which is improving, I have to say, but could still use work compared to some other places (cue the golden light, quick audio clip of a choir, and the word “Copenhagen.”) Sure, the infrastructure here is still clunky, since most of our facilities were built for recreation, not for getting around town on errands. And sure, in Copenhagen over a third of the population commutes by bike, while here, apparently, only 2% do. (I’d heard 5% a while back – but the fact that I’m quibbling over 3 percent tells you something.) And that observation came with the refreshing sound of dialogue that did NOT assume that because only 2% of the population uses bike facilities, there’s no point in building them. No, instead the underlying assumption of the conversation was that the city needed to figure out how to raise that number; and of course raising that number can only be done by making cycling more convenient, safer, and more comfortable.

All this is stuff I know. So it was kind of gratifying to hear this piece on the radio as I munched my breakfast and got ready to pedal off to work. But in retrospect, maybe they weren’t really talking about me. Sometimes these media spots make me wonder if I’m more unusual than I feel I am: they talked about how to change people’s perspectives on cycling so that it wasn’t assumed to be for “people who already lead a very active lifestyle (i.e., young men in Spandex),” how to get more women on bikes, how to make it easier to get from point A to Point B, with the usual female-cyclist benchmarks of picking up kids and doing the groceries. They talked about how cycling year round was only for “the truly dedicated.”

Sidebar: As I stare down the ugly face of winter, remembering what it’s like, feeling that chill in the pit of my stomach, that was a point that particularly drew my attention. But then I thought about it a bit more. Whenever I hear someone say, “Well, in Europe people cycle year-round because in Europe it doesn’t snow six months of the year” I get annoyed. It does in Denmark, people. Take a look at the relative latitudes of Ottawa and Copenhagen. And in fact, last year the snow didn’t actually stay down, or cause any real biking problems, till December 9th, and I was back on the River Path (which was once again passable) by Saint Patrick’s Day. Three months, folks. Three months. But in Denmark, they don’t think of biking as a recreational activity: and when people here are talking about cycling, there’s usually this underlying assumption that it’s “healthier” or “an alternative” or “nice to do when the weather cooperates.”

Not an alternative for me, any more… it’s just how I get around. And as for the claim that “right now the majority of people cycling are young men in Spandex,” I actually have to disagree. Out on the long-haul rec paths, and some of the major streets like the arteries running in from the suburbs, there may be more men. But in the main, the people I see biking around are male, female, young, old, families. I see 50-year-olds on recumbents, parents and children on tandem bikes (those tandem-seat extensions are catching on.) I see, especially downtown, young women in skirts, men in their forties in suits. There’s a wide range of people out on bikes. Apparently they’re not all carrying a change of clothes and requiring shower facilities at their offices.

Am I – a female cyclist who travels a bit over seven miles to work and bikes year-round, rain or shine, and does it in jeans and a T-shirt – that unusual? I don’t think so. That’s not to say that I don’t agree with what they said in the interview – cycling needs to be made more convenient and more comfortable to get more people doing it. And it seems pretty clear that more people doing it is a good thing, for the city (although it’ll clutter up my commute, but sacrifices must, I suppose, be made.) I’m still glad to see cycling issues getting covered, and things have, generally, been getting better around here. But the cycling community is already a lot more diverse than the news pieces will have you think.

Photo by Ed Yourdon

2 comments

  1. I agree that the cycling community is diverse. My husband is a middle aged guy who bikes in street clothes, mostly on the bike path, but his commute is 17kms each way. I’m 52 and I bike everywhere I go and wear stretchy pants for the longer than 10 kms rides (or in the rain) but that’s just for comfort. My neighbour had a stroke some years ago so he gets around in street clothes on his tricycle. You only dress like a billboard and don’t have fenders when you are a recreational cyclist. If a bike is your main mode of transportation, you do things differently.

  2.  i would even go as far as to say the dudes in spandex are sending out negative stereotypes that biking is hard to not-yet cyclists. They make it look really hard and its actually really easy, so its sort of crazy. it would be like if suburban drivers only drove nascar style with the fireproof and the helmets!
    the workout is not why we bike, its because you can get places sooner, and so the bicycle is a tool to bend space in your favor in the time – space continuum, therefor giving you more time. and its fun.
    the whole exercise bit is complete bogus, i mean ya its healthy, but so is sex; health benefits are not the reason we do that!
          biking is going to work, its going to a friends, its just totally normal and easy.
       its sort of like when Shawn Micallef said that when you become a cyclists you become political, so what you wear means stuff. he was talking about helmets, but his point could also be stretched to everything you do and wear while cycling. you should always try to make it look easy, and to look damn good while doing it, so that other people will see you and see how awesome you are and they’ll be like ‘ i want that too”.
     and then they will buy bikes and they WILL get it, and then we’ll get a more shared street system, and then living in the city will get easier and happier (although it is already the best city in Ontario obvs)

    -p.s i dont mean to rip on the spandex guys, they mostly do it because the fabric feels awesome on their skin. and also a little bit because they think they look really cool (which is true).

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