30 August 2009

History Repeating Itself

An Australian journalist has written a piece in which she voices displeasure at the distinct drawbacks of having to share the road/bike lanes with "lycra losers". 'Voicing displeasure' is probably a gross understatement.

This woman says:
"I cycle to work on my poverty-pack hybrid in my work clothes, cruising along at a leisurely pace as the lycra brigade whizzes past with audible groans of disgust at my clear lack of cycling style.

If I dare get in their way with a wobbly start at the lights, the verbal abuse would make your hair curl.

I just smile politely and totter along like a happy little tortoise, invariably catching up to the lycra brigade at the many sets of lights between home and office."

Reading the whole article is necessary to understand her point, her humour and her rage.

"It's all downhill for the lycra losers"

She has a personal aesthetic perspective about cycling clothes - she hates them and thinks they look ridiculous. She rages against the sub-cultural attitude of what she calls 'the lycra losers'. Basically, this woman in Melbourne just wishes she could ride her bicycle to work in peace. Enjoying the ride, as it were.

She rips into the lycra crowd on her streets and bike lanes with venom. You can think what you like about her point of view - and I'm sure everyone who reads this has an opinion about it.

What is interesting to note is that this is merely history repeating itself. Let's back pedal a bit.

In the mid to late 1800's, two-wheeled contraptions appeared with a variety of names. Among them, the Ordinary or 'Penny Farthing'. They were an instant hit among the wealthy, who were the only ones who could afford them. The young men of these upper classes, not having much else to do with their time, quickly figured out that it was rollicking good fun to race the machines and prove themselves to be the most daring daredevil on the block. 'Breakneck' speed originates from the early days of the bicycle, in particular the Ordinary.

For a couple of decades the bicycle was the domain of the wealthy, in particular the young men, and hardly anyone else.

Enter the Safety bicycle. Quicker than you can mount and set the machine in motion everyone was queuing up to buy one. There are countless references to how the Safety bicycle proved to be a fantastic democratizing tool. It liberated the working classes - giving them in the process the opportunity to thumb their noses at the Dandies - and it is even said to have improved the gene pool. In rural areas the bicycle gave labourers the opportunity to extend their travel radius and find work in towns and on farms farther away. The widened radius also gave them the chance to find wives in those now not-so-distant towns.

The bicycle liberated women as well. There was no "men only" or "wealthy only" signs hanging on the bicycles in the bike shops. Only a price tag with a number that was accessible to everyone. Women hopped on board.

“The safety bicycle fills a much-needed want for women in any station of life…it knows no class distinction, is within reach of all, and rich and poor alike have the opportunity of enjoying this popular and healthful exercise." "A Blessing for Women," The Bearings magazine, 5 September 1895.

All this popular embracing of a previously elitist hobby was not welcomed by the Dandies. There was a - mostly verbal - uprising against labourers and women who chose to ride. There was much mocking, spitting, threatening to be had. All over the world.

Fortunately, the draw of the bicycle and its democratic values were too strong and it soon entered the public domain. Liberation for all.

Back to Melbourne. The journalist writing this piece has an advantage over the women and labourers in the late 1800's. She need not bite her tongue like women in the past. She has the power of words and the media.

But her rant against the elitist cycling sub-culture who have enjoyed, in many countries, a sound monopoly of two-wheeled enjoyment for at least three or four decades, is understandable. Her reaction is merely history repeating itself. You can take her tone and wit or leave it, but her reaction is important.

Incidentally, here's another reaction, this time from San Francisco, referring to the 'hornets'.

There is so much chatter on the internet in the same vein. The slough of copycat sites emulating Copenhagen Cycle Chic is a testament to the fact that we are well on our way to redemocratising the bicycle. The Slow Bicycle Movement, as well. The Australian's article nevertheless underlines that while we have a tailwind, there is still a slight incline ahead.

Cycling is still growing, but marketing bicycle culture is paramount if we are reinvent our cities and place the bicycle back in its rightful place as BOTH a hobby pursuit and sport AND a feasible, acceptable and equal transport form for the masses.

Thanks to Mike Rubbo for the link.


Just a cyclist said...

Interesting. Bicycle history repeats itself in other ways as well, here is a quote from a bicycle historian by the name John Pinkerton: “Think of a new idea in bicycle design and someone will have already invented it, probably in the nineteenth century.”
Link: www.jimlangley.net/ride/bicyclehistorywh.html

Frits B said...

Remember, however, that 20 pounds for a lady's safety was not exactly cheap, in times when the average labourer earned 1 pound a week, and 200 pounds was considered a respectable yearly income.

m e l i g r o s a said...

this is an interesting post. Im not a huge fan of lycra and def. not a fan of their stereotypical assh*le attitude esp. when they bike only on the weekends and make you feel like ur 'on their way' pffft, whatever I have better things to worry about, like coffee...

my super partner in crime nicely captured this pic of me vs. the 'hornets' and a good picture of her, chilling after a hill, that is typical the territory of such lycra hornets...

we've been yelled at the stupid loud bossy 'left' but honestly we could care less, after all slow cycling is like slow food. just better for you

cheers & luv from SF /xo.meli

Mikael said...

fair enough, fritz. a bad example of an advert... that one from 1899. there were cheaper brands available. New Rapid Cycles was, from what I gather, a rather upmarket brand.

Su Yin said...

Great post. Thanks for writing that, Mikael!

We're a bit luckier here in Auckland. The lycra bunch tend to shy away from the city during weekdays. They like to hang out along the beach roads more and can't say I blame them

SteveL said...

1. On my reading of it, the author of the article is really complaining about men wearing skin-tight stuff when they are too overweight to justify it. They should get over to their MTB shop and get some baggies instead.

2. Amusing that she views cycling as "the new golf". Not yet.

Frits B said...

@Mikael 08:51 - The ad is excellent, it's the sense of relativity that often plays tricks on us. Just look at house prices. My parents bought a house in 1962 for 33,000 guilders. That is only just 47 years ago. It was sold recently for 300,000 euros, or at the conversion rate used when we changed over, 660,000 guilders. And I remember my first office computer which had 2 disk drives and 256 MB memory; no hard disk, nothing but an empty box. 25 years ago, at a cost of 4,400 guilders, or 2,000 euros nowadays. Inflation is a deceptive factor.

kimharding said...

I feel it say more about Australian culture, than democratic values of cycling. Rather it can be seen as progress, she is complaining about middle-aged men taking up cycling as a way of dealing with their mid live crises. It has to be an improvement on them rushing out and buying a sports car...

Mikael said...

better than sports cars, sure, but does she really deserve to be mocked and ridiculed by the male-dominated sub-cultural groups?

same battle, a century later.

Anonymous said...


I didn't get what you did out of that article. She was asking folks to not wear lycra if you couldn't look good in it and ridiculing the new male manifestation of attempting to get away from their wives.

Of the entire article,one paragraph was relevant to your take on things, leaving me to think you've put a bit of spin on the link.

I don't wear lycra, but I don't care really what people wear.

Spend your efforts on pointing out the horror of bad commuting structure, please.

kimharding said...

Mikael @ 11:56

As I say it says more about more about Australian culture, than democratic values of cycling. Your comment show the differences in values between Danish and Australian culture. For what it is worth, I prefer Danish values.

Anonymous said...

Although the writer makes brief mention to lycranauts rudeness and twisted snobbery, the meat and potatoes of this article was about them looking like idiots and mocking them for dressing like fools.

This was hardly history repeating itself, unless there was a high incidence rate of women on safety cycles mocking middle aged dandies on penny farthings for wearing brightly colored wool cycling clothes covered with Bromide sponsorship adverts.

Somehow you and I read two very different articles.


Mikael said...

we got different things out of the article. she took the piss, sure, but did you catch the part - basically her entire point - about how she didn't fancy being ridiculed at stop lights, etc. she was tired of it.

and this riducule of a regular woman on a bicycle by a small elitist group is history repeating itself.

fortunately, we're moving in the right direction.

Anonymous said...

"basically her entire point"

Basically, her entire point was that lycranauts are dorks. She mentioned their condescension only to highlight their dorkiness. That she ever rides herself was barely mentioned as an aside.

This wasn't an example of a stoic stand against elitism on any level. It is an example of elitism. It happens to be one that I agree with, and I thought it was awfully funny, but let's not ennoble snobbery.


Trolly said...

Oh, yes, wonderful tolerant Copenhagen, where people are mocked for wearing "funny clothes."

The more that I read this blog, the more I realize how European it is—for better and worse. Most of us can agree with the notion that biking should be a "normal"—in the sense of "everyday"—activity. What rubs me the wrong the way, however, is the *normative* and *conformist* use of "normal" against certain subgroups of cycling culture.

I understand the argument that the lycra-wearing "freaks" drives "normal people" away from cyclings, but I have to admit that it offends my pluralistic, American, live-and-let-live sensibilities.

Peter said...

Don't know how well the Australian piece ties in, but the Copehagenize piece on the history of bicycling from a rich dandy sport to transportation for all, and the resulting impact on people, is very well done. And the bicycle ad, with the women looking expectantly as a cherub brings them the gift of bicycling, is the perfect illustration. Beautiful.

Mikael said...

strangely, i would have thought that the concepts of class equality, equality of the sexes, equal access to cycling as a transport form were regarded as being rather universal and not merely 'european'.

oh, and thanks, Peter.

Trolly said...

Turning this particular woman's dislike of lycra-wearing road cyclists into a woman's rights issue beautifully illustrates EVERYTHING that's wrong with this blog.

If you want to promote women's rights, go fight female circumcision or rape in Africa.

But lycra? Surely you can't be serious.

Trolly said...

Oh, and by the way. I have *never* seen a lycranaut ridicule another cyclist. Pure projection, I suspect.

The Beaufort 8 Group said...

Its true!
I too am in Melbourne and lycra domi9nates....


George said...

The Australian love to start fights, get people angry. If they can get people angry and bothered about cyclists, they will. They're pretty anti-anything which is progressive. This isn't an article of cyclechic positivity, it's a person disliking amateur sport cycling.

Also, she's regulating gender, by saying mens bodies should be hidden behind layers of clothes. That's pretty regressive too.

I agree that cycling should mostly be about normal people doing normal things - but the point should always be that we don't have to look like them, not that they're bad people for their fashion choices, or that they eat lunch on streetside tables after their exercise.

kfg said...

". . .it offends my pluralistic, American, live-and-let-live sensibilities."

You must live in a different America than I do.

didrik said...

I agree with kfg. Trolly must live in a different America than I do and I live in allegedly "progressive" California. There is no live and let live here. There are an amazing number of people who seem to have an abundance of free time and spend it trying to get laws passed to get people to do things their way. There's a lot of sniping and judging too. I think Europeans live the American brand better than we do.

I haven't experienced outward aggression from the full-kit cyclists but I have been snubbed numerous times. I was astounded to find out that the only thing I needed to do to get a return nod or hello from this lot was to wear a lycra jersey myself. I'm not kidding. For years I cycled in a plain old t-shirt and would rarely get a return nod from a passing cyclist. When I finally earned enough money to afford these expensive plastic shirts I thought I'd give one a try. Wow! Suddenly I existed. They nodded back. It was nice to be acknowledged by members of the same species again. But alas, I didn't find the plastic shirts that comfortable so now I am in exile from the cycling community again. =P

Mikael said...

i have recieved so many emails from readers over the past couple of years who tell me about this ridicule and animosity towards everyday cyclists.

Not only from lycra-clad cyclists but from the staff at bike shops.

Read the third comment on this list, just for one. This is typical of the issue that the Australian is reacting to.

Just a cyclist said...

It looks like there is a lycra war emerging along with the helmet war.
How futile.
As far as I know there is no lobbying for making lycra bibs and jerseys compulsory apparel for cyclists nor any official promotion of it, not yet.

Mikael said...


Xander N' Dante said...

what a great history lesson... makes me wonder how the fashionable spandex craze started... actually no.

Adrienne Johnson said...

It isn't the clothes, it is the attitude that so many who wear them project on others. When the weekend hits, the weekend warriors come out in droves, kitted out, with nothing but speed, heart rate and performance on their minds. I respect that. There are those who want to push themselves, physically, or who are training for events... but they forget that just because they are in a hurry, that does not mean that the rest of the world needs to accommodate them at every corner.

An example- crossing the Golden Gate Bridge into Marin on a Saturday morning, a group of kitted cyclists rode up behind me and my 14 year old son. My son had never crossed the bridge by cycle before and was riding an upright bicycle. Needless to say, he was not breaking any land speed records. At certain points on the bridge, the path narrows and there is less room to pass. My son did not realize he was blocking their path until they started to yell at him "Left! Move over! Left!". He was unsure what to do as there was no way to really move over for them without stopping at the side. I was riding in front of him. On hearing this, I turned in the saddle, looked the lead rider in the eye, and told him " you can pass when I decide it is safe for us to let you". He yelled "we are in a hurry! You are in the way!" I turned around and kept riding as before. When the path opened up, my son and I moved over and allowed them to pass. Each of them, maybe 10 in all, had something rude to say.

If there are those who ride en lycra, and you do not like to be spoken of this way, then the solution is to not ride in a way that intimidates others. No one person or group has a greater right to the road, path, bridge.... sometimes you have to slow down. Demanding the right of way, ignoring the fact that no one likes to be pushed around, refusing to acknowledge that those who do not race are legitimate cyclists as well (who is less Olympic, the sprinter or the speed walker?), insisting that your speed is more important than my safety.... does nothing to give "lycra" a better reputation among those who choose not to don it.

lagatta said...

I was injured by a lycra lout several years ago. Like Adrienne, I was riding on a long, high bridge - Pont Jacques-Cartier between Montréal and the south short of the St. Lawrence River (Fleuve St-Laurent). The cycle path across the bridge was new (just a repainted pavement/sidewalk) and not wide enough. It has since been improved and widened, though problems remain on the south shore side.

I was riding from my home in Montréal to Longueuil, where I was teaching adults at their workplace (a ministry office), dressed for work. Lycra lout came barrelling along in the opposite direction in one of those bicycles with handlebars like a bull's horns. Jerk hit me hard - I was bruised and bleeding; fortunately no broken bones - or worse, sudden death by being thrown over the bridge to the waters far below. (The railings have also been improved, also because this was a popular site for suicides).

Jerk did not even stop, much less apologise. Obviously, anyone can cause an accident, but the way he was cycling there was very hazardous, and his behaviour was unforgiveable.

kfg said...

". . .makes me wonder how the fashionable spandex craze started..."

I lived through it, and observed it with a critical eye while I was living it. I could probably write a rather long essay, or even a short book, on the subject; and even tie it in to the helmet issue (the issues aren't directly related, but they are cousins, as helmets have become part of the "uniform").

The short version, however, is that for a very long time, measured in decades, cyclists (actually virtually all sportsmen) absolutely refused to wear synthetic fabrics, because they were, well; "icky."

In the 70s the general populace nearly abandoned natural fabrics (can you say "Saturday Night Fever" and "Leisure Suit" boys and girls? I knew ya could) in favor of synthetics; but the cyclists refused. The synthetics were cold when it was cold out, hot when it was hot, felt gross when it got sweaty and stank to high heaven.

This annoyed Dupont who launched a major campaign to take the market. The first thing they did was to remove the words "polyester" and "nylon" from their own vocabulary, replacing them with new trade names (Coolmax (tm)) and referring to them as "technical fabric," promoting them as if they were a machine part, rather than clothes.

At the same time sponsors of professional teams were chafing at the rules of cycle racing, which strictly regulated team colors and sponsor displays. Shorts and shoes HAD to be black, just because it looked better that way. Sponsor logos had to be simple and restricted in size and placement. A certain amount of tastefulness was actually written in the racing RULES, for the express purpose of . . . tastefulness. Go figure.

In the new world of of live COLOR television coverage this just wouldn't do. The sponsors wanted the riders they sponsored to look like what they were, to the sponsors - eye popping billboards; and the synthetic fabrics made this possible.

So they pushed at the rules, and they pushed, and as they supply the money that makes the sport run, they eventually won.

Ironically, in the 80s the general populace woke up to how icky their polyester shirts were and abandoned them for natural fabrics, just as sportsmen finally caved to the marketing onslaught and took them up. Now it is virtually ONLY sportsmen who dress in synthetics, even though they may well still be just as "icky" as they used to be, but at least now they are tastelessly garish and ugly as well, so they've got that going for them.

That was the short version.

Margaret said...

Is it really fair to say that all or even most of the "lycra cyclists" are aggressive bullies? Isn't it just a loud subset that cause trouble? Surely, any group of people, whatever their choice fabric be, will have its share of arrogant loudmouths.

I really love this blog, but sometimes I wonder why is it so hostile to sport cyclists. It sometimes reads as if sport cyclists are the reason the rest of us don't cycle.

Adrienne Johnson said...

Margaret- of course it is only a subset that are the problem. Just like all cyclists get judged by the 20 somethings on fixies with no brakes that fly through lights and frighten pedestrians. I know many cyclists who only ride in full gear who are respectful riders who share the road and hate the ones who do not. The thing is, the ones who are bullies (I had to block one from running down a woman with a baby not too long ago and he screamed at me for slowing him down. He was so mad at not being allowed through, even though there was obviously no room and a woman holding a newborn in front of him, I thought we would have to knock him off his bike to keep him from hurting someone) the ones who insist on the world getting out of the way, the ones who will never stop to help someone on a utility bike at the side of the road, are also the ones with full kit that match their bikes.

I believe completely in the saying "hate the game, not the player" and this here is the case (even for Mikael who I am speaking for here even though I have not been asked to). I LOVE all cyclists, I HATE the attitude some of them has that intimidates others.

Mikael said...

margaret... that's quite the sweeping generalisation about the collective content on this blog. nothing could be further from the truth.

Lovely Bicycle! said...

In the Boston area, the "roadies" are mostly nice and courteous to me, sometimes even complimenting my bicycle (a ladies Pashley) and "how fast" I seem to be able to ride it. The cyclists who are the most discourteous tend to ride fixed gear bikes, sneering at wimps like me.

Another interesting thing, is that in the US, I get the sense that it is the people who cycle in normal clothing (and no helmet!) that are considered elitist. Nice clothes + no helmet = vain, silly, the Marie Antoinettes of cyclists. That is the vibe I get at lest.

Margaret said...

Mikael, I did not mean to make any sweeping generalizations or even be negative for negativity sake. I was just saying that without knowing you personally, and just reading this blog over a course of a few years, the impression that I get is that lycra cyclists are a nuisance to you.

The Australian article you linked to is an example of why I get that impression. While it has a paragraph or two about cyclists being rude it is not a complaint about rude cyclists but about fashion sense of a large group of people a small subset of whom also happen to be rude. The article is as funny as Fox News in that journalists foaming at the mouth and falling over backwards to make arguments of questionable logic are funny.

I found your main article very interesting, cycling for adults is certainly an expensive sport in Canada. It is a challenge to buy an inexpensive bike which is also reliable enough to drive around the block without the chain breaking and pedals falling off. Even with a bike, there is very little support for parents with young children. The closest place to Ottawa (a city of at least dozen specialty bike stores plus the mainstream sports stores and innumerable hardware stores that sell bikes) that sells cargo bikes is in Toronto and charges $4000 a piece when they have them in stock. I've actually had an employee of one of the larger independent bike stores in town tell me that front-of-the-bike child seats are illegal (they're not).

So your point was very interesting, but including that frothy Australian article cheapened your argument and made you look like you hate sports cyclists which I am sure you don't.

Anonymous said...

In Australia there is a celebrated culture of hating cyclists and ridiculing them is one form of justifying this.

It is harder to ridicule the hipsters on beautiful streamline or retro bikes in mainstream society..cos well even non cyclists have to admit that it looks cool and all the advertising out there atm reinforces this.

Riding a road bike in lycra however is not cool, it's nerdy, weird looking and reinforces class anxieties about wealth that are so quietly prevalent in this 'lucky country.'

Point is people wearing the latest Nike outfit at the gym or out jogging can also look really silly and unflattering but it's the cyclists that get ridiculed. It isn't really about the clothes it's about finding a means to articulate and thus justify the irrationality that they just bother you. Here in Australia this kind of seemingly harmless fun poking can actually has very real consequences for people's attitudes towards cyclists.

I would say that the prevalence of sport/fitness cycling here is because there is a very strong competitive sporting culture, especially in the corporations and a very unfriendly road environment that lends itself less to sightseeing 'tootling' cycling and more to fast early morning fitness riding.

I ride many different bikes in many different styles of outfits as appropriate. Why should I be judged to be a different type of person on one day to the next?

I have seen arseholes on all sorts of bikes in all sorts of outfits. Every bad experience with someone riding in lycra can be matched by another with someone not wearing lycra.

Friday and Saturday night out is where to really get offended by people's outfits:)

George said...

The above Anon said it, and I agree entirely

String Bean Jen said...

This is a great post! I have thought for a while now about how there is a sound thesis in writing about the democratization effect that cycling has had upon certain societies. I would love to research that!

I would also like a copy of that poster of bike builders based in Chicago and New York back in the day!

Trolly said...

While we're talking about democratization, it might be worth pointing out that Copenhagen was recently ranked among the 10 most expensive cities in the WORLD. So democratization may mean that pretty much everyone there bikes, but it certainly doesn't mean that everyone can live there.

Elitism, indeed.

Mikael said...

hmm. that's a bit far-fetched. we're a expensive city when you compare prices with other international currencies.

the Danish krone is strong and our economy is good, therefore we get ranked as expensive.

if you live here, your wages are appropriate to the standard of living. so it's the visitors who feel it's expensive as opposed to the locals.