If Bicycling Goes Mainstream, Does Bike Culture Just Go?

Most groups that believe they both stand for important values and suffer the scorn of mainstream society, create an in-group culture.  Bicyclists are no exception.  One component of bike culture is an activist orientation that has placed cyclists in the forefront of grass roots campaigns for road improvement starting with the “Good Roads” movement in the early 1900s.  It is possible that just as paved roads ended up setting the stage for an auto-centric culture, today’s push for more bike facilities may lead to the swamping of “bikey” culture by “ordinary” people.  But, so what if it does? 

As long as America’s transportation infrastructure does little to accommodate the needs of bicyclists, as long as American culture treats cycling like a risky non-standard if not abnormal activity, then most of the people who bicycle will be risk takers — people who enjoy feeling a bit estranged from middle-of-the-road culture.  And, like any group that feels both self-righteous and snubbed, and that has sufficient resources to organize themselves, cyclists stick together.  It is not surprising that a “bike culture” has emerged.  In fact, cyclists relish their outsider status, partly because they believe they represent better values and lifestyle choices than the surrounding SUV-society.

What is bike culture?  I don’t pretend to have the definitive answer.  In my own life, it manifests itself in the sense of camaraderie that I immediately feel whenever I see another bicyclist, in my knowledge that another cyclists will stop and offer to help anytime I get a flat, in the general accuracy of my naïve assumption that the people who I join on group rides share some important values and positions on political and social issues.

But the core of “bikey culture,” writes Jeff Mapes in his book, Pedaling Revolution, consists of people who “bring their lives, passion, and art to bicycling.”  It emerges from the bike messenger world, the bike racing and BMX-stunt-riding worlds, and the current version of punk-youth-anti-authoritarian counter culture.  At this level, it is an “outlaw” culture of dare-devil racing through traffic, body piercing, part-time jobs, cheap apartments, all-night parties, and lots of energy.  Its politics are anarchistic; its activity visible in disruptive Critical Mass rides and Messenger Festivals, but also in the “straighter” but equally intense scene surrounding bicycle racing  —  even though, at the highest levels, bicycle racing is just another entertainment business.

On the other hand, the more expansive and mellow world of “bike culture” that I inhabit extends to the adults who commute by bike, to the environmentalists fighting climate change, to the concerned citizens trying to save our cities from congestion, pollution, and noise.  It includes the people who, perhaps because of all the publicity surrounding Lance Armstrong’s incredible string of Tour de France victories, have rediscovered the pleasure of and health benefits of recreational cycling.

This sense of being an insider in an outside-but-virtuous group is an essential part of every movement.  Every movement has a core of true believers whose faith supports the commitment of time and energy needed to survive the years of discouraging effort that it takes to build momentum.  But – unless there is a revolutionary collapse of established authority structures – as movements grow, as they become more mainstream and attract more conventional supporters representing more established interests, the fanatics become less influential.  The core of hard-core advocates remains and has some degree of influence.  But they do not control the negotiations and compromises that allow the movement’s vision to be partially incorporated into existing society.  (Usually, the major compromise is not so much that the incorporation is only partial; it is that the process occurs with the minimal possible disruption of existing power hierarchies or even of the underlying economic and cultural dynamics that created the protested-against problems in the first place.  This is always the bitterest pill for the advocates to swallow.)

At the same time, the alternative culture that once nourished the movement also dilutes, perhaps even to the point of becoming just another fashion trend – just as the ripped clothes of the punks evolved from an expression of anger to an element of designer clothes, the protest music of the 1960’s counter-culture evolved from a statement of principle to an advertising theme song.

(There are exceptions.  Somehow the fundamentalists and right-wingers whose activity is funded by incredibly rich businessmen and foundations, whose world view saturates the talk-radio and Fox TV media, whose partisans run the Republican party and dominate the judiciary because of their eight-year control of the White House – somehow these people still see themselves as a persecuted minority and have become more rather than less extreme over the years.  But I’m not sure that’s an example we want to emulate.)

Is this what will happen to bikey or bike culture and bicycle advocacy?  We should be so lucky!   It will mean that the vision of a multi-modal transportation system might actually become national policy, that cycling’s short-trip mode share might grow from the current 1% to 5% or 20% or even more.  Already, bikes have become high fashion accessories.  Already mainstream politicians, even some Republicans, are supporting “complete streets” and changing the federal funding language.

These are positive developments – but they don’t mean that the radical vision of a society that fully incorporates healthy, active living through a non-polluting and social interaction-encouraging transportation system will be realized.  It only means that we are likely to take important steps in that direction.  Like small business owners who discover they have to sell majority control in order to get the capital needed to survive and grow, bicycle advocates are learning that they have to give away control of their issue in order to realize the changes they desire.  It is one of the most painful parts of growing up.

And what about bikey culture?  In the short run, it will grow along with the bicycle movement it has helped spawn.  Bicycle racing will expand (although we should remember what happened to NASCAR as it evolved from its roots in moonshine running to mass entertainment).  In the long run, bikey remnants will probably survive although it may become a less vibrant and cutting-edge mini-society.  But the spirit of rebellion will not go away – even if it needs to find some other niche to inhabit.

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