August 05, 2014

Is Biking Only for Fit White People?

by: Taz Loomans

9 Comments

Apparently. The biking community in Portland is overwhelmingly white and seems to be comprised of the ultra fit who routinely go on 300-mile bike camping trips or insist on biking long and hilly distances in town, scoffing at those who choose easier, multi-modal ways of getting around. Don’t get me wrong, this level of fitness and dedication is laudable, certainly. But it’s also very intimidating and unusual.

The biking community in Portland, at least the biking community I have been exposed to, tends to skew heavily (or should I say muscularly?) toward fit and environmentally conscious white people. Granted, biking will make you fitter, but the truth is, you don’t have to be fit enough or even interested in biking the 241 miles to Crater Lake from Portland to get on a bike.

Bikier than thou

Some of my friends who bike have found the biking community in Portland to be too exclusive, homogenous, cliquish and a little out of touch with reality. They feel judged for not being “bikey” enough, for perhaps owning a car or not being perfectly environmentally conscious in their transportation and occasionally taking a plane to travel around the country instead of doing it on their bikes. A friend of mine owns a car but he keeps it secret from his bikey friends. He makes sure to bike not drive to parties that will have bikey people there so they don’t see his car. What does it say about a community when you have to hide a part of your life to feel accepted?

The biking community emerged from a group of long-time bike advocates that have been around since the beginning of Critical Mass in Portland and who deserve a lot of credit for making Portland the bike-friendly city it is today. But, this same group of people has unintentionally excluded a large majority of the population from joining the world of biking and instead has attracted other people who are similar to them – environmentally concerned white people who are immersed in the biking culture which includes having a variety of bikes, bike accessories, going bike camping, moving house exclusively by bike, going to a lot of bike-related events, etc.

But what if you’re not an environmentally concerned white person who wants to be immersed in biking culture? Can you still be welcome to biking? Can you enjoy biking, even be a bike commuter, but be a little overweight and slow going up the hills, just own one measly bike, no bike trailer, have a car and still be welcome? Or do you have to be the perfectly accessorized bikey person with athletic endurance who composts and only eats organic food to be embraced by the biking community?

Sustainabler than thou

I am environmentally conscious, but not nearly as conscious as many of the people I’ve met in Portland. Yes, I believe we must all radically change the way we do things if we are to slow climate change and rectify the wrongs we have committed to our planet over the last couple of centuries. I think we all need to be much more environmentally conscious. But environmental consciousness becomes a problem when it is used to elevate and separate ourselves from other people. It is a problem when we use it as a measure to judge people’s morality and the worth of people. It is a problem when we use it as a way to exclude people from our communities. Sadly, when we become environmentally arrogant, we prevent good practices from taking hold on a wider scale. Instead of becoming ever more stringent and obsessive in our own practices, we could stand to learn to speak the language of marginalized populations, the poor, ethnic communities that aspire to have cars and others who aren’t on board with environmentalism to affect equitable change that benefits everyone.

Less judgment, more acceptance

The biking community could open its arms a little wider and accept people into it who are not perfectly fit or perfectly sustainable or perfectly white, not only in their skin color but in their culture. And it could stand to be a little less bikey.

Imagine that to feel as if you belonged in the car-driving population, you had to become a car enthusiast who mostly talks about car stuff, owns the latest car accessories, and goes to a bunch of car events. That is largely the state of bicycling in Portland. Our goal should not be for the bike community to become ever more bikey and self-referential, but for the biking population to become as widespread, as diverse, and as “normal” as the car population is. You don’t need to have special car accessories, be a NASCAR-level driver, or know everything about cars to feel accepted as a car-driver. All you need is a driver’s license and a car and you’re in. Biking in Portland, and in the US in general, needs to get to the level of openness and accessibility of automobiles – all you need is a bike in your possession and you’re in. Biking isn’t just for the environmentally conscious or for the fit or for one ethnic population, it’s for everyone. It’s imperative we shift bicycling from being an exclusive hobby for enthusiasts to being a normal, everyday tool for everyday people of all walks of life.

Photo Credit: Photo by U.S. Navy photo by Photographer’s Mate 1st Class Aaron Ansarov. [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

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9 Responses

  1. Regena says:

    I agree with you, Taz. This is my impression of the local biking community, albeit from a distance. I also feel like the community prides itself on being Portlandia unique. I’ve never before witnessed the array of costumes and events associated with biking. It makes me feel like I can’t be a part of this culture as a recreational biker who has a job and drives a car to work. Thanks for your great perspective! #nojudgement

  2. Michael says:

    So what do you want, then? Do you want people who enjoy going on bike rides to not go on rides that might be beyond the comfort zone of people who aren’t interested in going on bike rides? Do you want people who are enthusiastic about bikes to just shut up and talk about the stuff you’re interested in? The reason the “bike scene” seems cliquish is because, for many of us, you have to be pretty passionate about cycling in order to put up with the shit that you have to deal with as a cyclist. Your semi-veiled assertions that the reason why you don’t see more people of color is because cycling enthusiasts are either too enthusiastic or just plain racist are offensive.

    I am literally the guy who rode from Crater Lake to Portland (just got back yesterday.) I did it because I wanted to have an adventure and a challenge. I did not do it to prove any bona fides, or to make me bikey-er-than-thou, or to show anyone up. That’s in your head. I have nice bikes and nice biking equipment. That’s because the kind of riding I do demands it. I don’t want something to break down when I’m on some single-lane forest service road with no cell reception. It’s not to make you feel bad about your own bike. In most peoples’ heads, a bike might be priority number 177, so for me to spend more than a couple hundred bucks on a bike is an extravagence. But bikes are a lot higher priority than that for me, and I wouldn’t spend a single red cent on a car, which would be priority number 3 or 4 for most people.

    This is not all some show that people put on for your benefit to make you feel inferior. The truth is, nobody thinks about you that much. I love talking about bike setups, I love talking about beautiful roads that I’ve ridden on, and I love talking about adventures that I’m planning to do in the future. And I’m not going to stop doing the things that I love or talking about the things that I love. That means that I am going to associate with people who share those interests. That may be exclusive towards people who are bored by hearing me talk about those things. But unless you’re so deadly afraid that I might accost you about your “Q-factor” or “gear ratios” if I so much as see you on a bike, and the thought of that is too much to bear, there’s absolutely nothing about my passion for bicycling that is preventing you from choosing your own level of involvement.

  3. Mateo says:

    Thank you Michael!

    As an avid cyclist and bicycle commuter I was somewhat offended by this article. The writer assumes an awful lot. Not everyone fits into the clicks that exist. I for one consider myself an outsider to the bicycling community, but I still ride my bike everyday and could not care less what anyone else thinks of my bike, clothing, abilities or physical appearance.

    If you want to ride your bike alone then do so. If you want to ride with others of like mindedness then go start your own group. And most importantly stop applying race to how you think as it has nothing to do with any of this. There is nothing stopping you from doing what you want on your bike and no one that really matters cares.

  4. Walt says:

    Thank you, Michael, for a reaction that shows exactly what Taz is talking about.

  5. roger noehren says:

    Michael is a cycling enthusiast, just as someone who has an array of cameras that use film or state of the art digital and spends time with others with a similar interest pursuing and discussing their hobby, which is fine.
    I’ve been riding bikes and taking photos for over fifty years and consider myself both a cyclist and a photographer, terms that I would also use to describe you, because you ride a bike and post beautiful photographs.
    These days anyone with a cell phone has the means to take gorgeous photos, does this make them “photographers” or members of the “photographic community”?
    The number of cyclists in Portland has increased significantly since I moved here in 1981. Most people’s bikes were quite basic then and there was little in the way of fancy equipment available. That has obviously changed radically in the interim as bicycling has become a multi-billion dollar industry catering to casual and serious cyclists alike.
    But, the “cult of the ordinary bicycle” (a term I coined in 1985) survives and indeed thrives in Portland and throughout the world, its members nonchalantly going about their daily routine, using their utilitarian nondescript bikes (or not) without any concern for their components, clothing or the rest of the so-called “cycling community”.

  6. Libby says:

    Taz, I certainly can’t begin to understand your lived experience in Portland. But I’m concerned that you have made this so focused on ethnicity (yes, Portland is white…we all know that), and haven’t dealt with more complex issues of intersectionality.

    My experience in Portland is that it was a place that empowered women, particularly queer women, to ride bicycles, work as bike mechanics, and occupy roles traditionally held by men. And yeah, there was something really amazing about a group of women riding their bicycles to San Francisco for pride weekend – but they wouldn’t have judged you for choosing not to.

    Also, it enabled a lot of my friends to be able to transport themselves around the city without having a car – not because they chose that, but because they couldn’t afford a car. (Many of them also couldn’t afford to live alone, have health insurance, etc…but that had more to do with them trying to survive on the crappy wages of a service-based economy, but that’s another issue).

    I never ever experienced a singular bike culture in Portland. Just look at the calendar of events for Pedalpalooza and you’ll see that there are a zillion different bike communities to choose from.

    Also, the tone of this is a little snarky. In telling people to not be judgmental, it comes off as awfully judgmental! Sorry!

  7. Dan says:

    I guess I’d say that if there is a level at which a person wants to participate in social or commuter bicycling, there is a place out there that will welcome them. At least I hope so. If not, there is work to do. For myself, in all the places I’ve lived, I’ve never felt more general welcome than from the Portland “bike scene”, however one might define it. I agree too with Libby that there is not just “a” bike community in Portland, there are many. AND yes, there is a lot of bikier or sustainabler than thou. Or maybe there *isn’t* a “lot” but a perception based on certain individuals who really stand out in that regard.
 I like to ride my bike, and use it for both social and utilitarian purposes. If biking *is* to become completely normalized and no-brainer in the way that it is in Holland or Denmark, it will require even more dedicated activism and group effort, and that sort of thing is typically led by the edge-dwelling enthusiasts. Yet those people need to know how to appeal to the “interested but not quite there” demographic. If some rides or scenes seem unwelcoming just on the basis of being costumey or party-oriented, what I’d say is that the people who organize those rides are generally very welcoming to anyone who shows up, and no one is stopping anyone from getting on a bike and thereby enlarging what constitutes the bike community. But those who now bike *could* do a better job of actively encouraging those who do not, but might wish to, to get on a bike a begin to make it part of how they get around. And if there is unwelcomingness anywhere, it’s up to all of us (maybe especially “fit white people”) to take a look in the mirror and see how we might exercise greater hospitality.

  8. […] community and that it is open to anyone who wants to join. Just look at the comments on my post, Is Bicycling Only for Fit White People? And a lot of people will insist that there are certainly no racial barriers to bicycling. This may […]

  9. Greg says:

    I’ve noticed in the past decade a definite trend, among those who want to spread the cycling word, towards distancing themselves, and cycling in general, from the Spandex-clad type of cyclists who represent much of what this article is about. It appears that a lot of people are easily intimidated, so fit, stern-faced athletes in colourful Spandex suits riding expensive carbon-fibre bikes are seen by some advocates as damaging to the overall effort to get more regular folks on bikes.

    The logic goes that these ‘elitist cyclists’ are scaring people off because they are creating the impression that cycling is only for certain types of people and you need all kinds of expensive gear to do it. So, the trend I refer to has a lot of photos of people riding bikes in suits, heels, and other non-cycling attire, using sit-up bikes with clunky, home-made accessories, and God forbid the public relations push should fail to show a ton of bike with front baskets adorned with flowers!

    So, now the Lycra louts are somewhat vilified and the grassroots, “anyone can do it” thing is The Way we all are supposed to think about cycling. All this because we’re afraid to scare some potential cyclists away with our severe and intimidating figures should we be seen sporting too much flash and speed. We are living in the time of great gearhead backlash. This article may even be written by one of them: the anti-Lycrites.

    I love riding to my one job, a mere 3 km away, in my suit, looking very civilized and modern-urban-dude, and if that turns some people in the bike direction, then wonderful. My other job is 15 km away, so it’s a 100% Lycra deal for me on that commute, and if some random onlookers see me and decide that I’m, emblematic of everything contemptible about cyclists, then, that is too bad. I am not going to change for anyone.

    And so, if you’re one of those cycling advocates who champions the bread bags around your feet as ‘booties’, insists on wearing cotton, wool and leather despite the wet and cold, eschews bright colours as too Euro-garish and chooses the more understated brown and black of your thrift shop pea coats, wears a new-school skater-style helmet because it looks more folksy and less elitist than a multi-vented road helmet (and suffers the heat and sweat that results), rides a retro bike with tons of charm and very little performance…then HOORAY! I’ll bet you’re making converts all over the place! I, on the other hand, will wear and ride whatever makes sense to me, and at my advanced age and weight, will continue to wear good quality, padded, Lycra shorts, a helmet with lots of holes and all the other gear that people apparently find off-putting, because without all that expensive gear I’m simply incapable of making it through my 35+ km days!

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