Who is the typical British cycle-commuter?
Recently mid-way through a fairly banal conversation on commuting habits I shocked a co-worker by admitting to some fairly unacceptable office behavior. I had cycled to work in the same clothes that I was wearing that day in the office. She took a step back, transfixed me with an accusing glare and accused rather than asked, “Oh! But aren’t you all sweaty?!”. Muttering some excuses about not going too fast I retreated back to my desk, deep in thought about the differences in our cycling culture between continental Europe and the UK.
When you compare the Great British cycle-commuter with his or her European neighbour two things stand out. Firstly the stereotypical British cycle-commuter is a middle aged male who likes to ride as fast as he can, wear cycling specific clothing and take a shower on arrival. The continental European cycle-commuter, on the other hand, is a person of any age or gender, who wears any sort of normal clothing. Secondly in Britain the most common bikes for commuting in most cities are racing or mountain bikes, which were specifically designed for sporting use, whereas on the continent urban utility bikes, developed for transportation, are more prevalent.
Two Methods of Cycling
Personally I like to think that I have two modes of cycling, what I call ‘walking cycling’ and ‘running cycling’. Walking cycling is done primarily for the purpose of getting from A to B and involves pootling around at a leisurely pace and wearing the clothes that I intend to be wearing when I arrive. Running cycling, on the other hand, is not a form of transport but the main event in itself. For this I wear clothing that is going to accommodate the levels of sweat that my body is going to generate as I (attempt) to reach high speeds.
Now of course not everyone will think about cycling in a such a binary (and frankly abnormal) manner, but it does seem to me that the national pastime of walking cycling is in danger of dying out.
Why our culture has evolved
There are many possible reasons for this that are usually put forward in blogs and forums. One is that our rugged and hilly landscape on the British Isles means that we simply have to work harder than those continental types in order to get to our destination. The fact that Cambridge, one of the UK’s flattest cities, has the greatest ‘walking cycling’ culture does seem to support to this argument. However on the other hand this doesn’t explain why the many other comparatively flat city centres in the UK such as Manchester, Peterborough and others don’t have a higher proportion of cycle commuters. Most of central London also offers little more than gentle gradients but appears to be a bastion of the fast commuting lycra wearing running cyclist.
On a similar note data released by the online ride tracking service Strava revealed that the average recorded UK cycling commute in 2015 was 9.8 miles. This could explain the fast paced character of the British cycle commuter as in a moderately hilly area anything over five miles will trigger a switch from jeans to lycra depending on personal preferences. However personal experience suggests that the more impressive and lengthy a ride is the more likely a cyclist is to record it on Strava so the data is doubtlessly skewed.
To my mind both of these reasons and many others seem to hold a part of the truth but none in isolation is particularly convincing. I tried to put forward the idea with some Belgian friends that we in the UK simply have faster paced lifestyles and more to get done than the lazy Europeans, but even this compelling theory was in turn rebuked. The most likely explanation is probably that over time we have just evolved into our culture a combination of many small factors, just as Latin broke apart and became many different languages over time.
So is our lycra-wearing fast-cycling culture a good thing or a bad thing? To an extent it does create a visual marker of the divide between cyclists and ‘ordinary people’. It also appears to facilitate tiresome tirades in the tabloids that circulate every few months about ‘lycra-loonies’ or cyclists mowing down pedestrians. There is also a risk that wearing highly specialised gear presents cycling as an inaccessible and elite pastime, so serious that you shouldn’t risk it unless you have a shiny fast racing bike and a garage full of specialist equipment. This may discourage new potential entrants from joining in.
On the other hand are stacked the numerous performance and comfort advantages of technical gear and technical bikes that apply over short distances just as well as long weekend rides. If people want to ride fast and pretend they are in the Tour de France then in my humble opinion then they should be left alone to get on and enjoy it! (I have to admit that once or twice I have entertained a fantasy gliding down the London cycle superhighways that the peleton of commuters in front of me was in fact my lead out train for the big final sprint to the office).
I would be very interested to hear from you whether you think that this assessment of the British cycle-commuting culture is accurate and what, if anything, may have caused it to evolve as it has. At BlackFish we don’t care how fast you cycle or what you wear when you do it. We just want to make it as practical as possible for you to hop off the bike and into the office looking as sharp as you damn well feel.