‘As cycling’s popularity has increased, there has been a cultural shift away from fun and experiences towards a macho world of speed and Strava’ – so claims Tom Marriage of the Guardian.
The entire article saddened me almost as much as this supposed ‘cultural shift’ saddened the author.
I’m writing as I feel the article does a gross disservice to what I think is a uniquely beautiful past time. Cycling’s appeal is so broad, the low cost, the health & environmental benefits, the adventure, the suffering, the freedom, the competition, the solitude, the community, the coffee, the history & romance – the list goes on but ultimately it is about you and your bike.
Red light jumpers, aggressive drivers, dopers, people who don’t wave back in the lanes, Alan Sugar on his Pinarello, yes they’re all things that could put me off or irritate me but it’s life – and with cycling it’s irrelevant – it’s about me and my bike.
Mr Marriage goes on to say ‘A couple of things have spoilt it for me’….One is, I hope, temporary: having children.’
Why he chose to include this paragraph is beyond me – it is at best superfluous. He then goes on to say there has been a shift in cycling culture ‘mostly for the better’ – (to which he devotes a paragraph) but ‘the other side of cycling seems to have been ruined’. Deep breath…
‘It was a world of peculiar achievement, of anoraks and curly cheese sandwiches eaten on forgotten B-road laybys. It was a world of Sheldon Brown, and tales of Sustrans cycle paths.’
All of these things still exist (God rest Sheldon), why not continue doing what you love? Make it your world; find the thousands of cyclists who revel in these aspects of cycling rather than making excuses.
‘You could be a serious cyclist and go out in denim shorts, stop for a spliff and a thermos of tea on the top of Ditchling Beacon, try cycling to Southampton on a three-speed Pashley. All these things were fine, and fun, and if you talked to other cyclists about them there would be moments of recognition and joy at shared love and shared experience.’
I could do all of these things tomorrow, denims and all and share it with my cycling mates over a craft beer in a Kent, Surrey or Hampshire pub. We’d talk about how daft it was, what route I took and plan our next adventure.
‘All the touring I’ve done, all the cyclists I’ve met, we never used to talk about pro cycling. Chatting about gear was about other stuff, slow and beautiful stuff, the comfort of steel, Brooks saddles (when they still cost £40). The physicality was an important part of it – these people were wiry, fit, slow climbers in low gears, capable of heroic achievements on rusting bikes, carrying too much camping gear, stashing too much wine for the evening’s pitch. Physicality but without explicit competition.’
I race, I love it, but that moment when winter comes, the mudguards, the forgiving steel frame and wide, comfy tyres – it’s beautiful and you know that for five months your weekends will be taken up chatting to your mates, riding slowly, going further afield to find untouched lanes. Yes I like riding fast, but I also love the charm and therapy of winter riding. The author wants cycling to mould around his idea of what cycling is and it’s myopic, selfish nonsense. And as for Brooks saddles – yeah, weird how they got more expensive over the past 10 years, there should be a name for that.
‘Now it’s different. Road cycling has become the orthodoxy. Tedious, competitive, sports cycling has taken over. Cycling has become the new golf. It’s what men of a certain age, men with money and power, chat about after meetings. ‘
I can’t quite figure this one out and it is perhaps a very London specific thing but the mention of money and power here seems absurd. Am I being trolled? He’s propagating his narrowmindedness and undermining the good of cycling – it feels like he’s a mole. In 5 years of working in an office of 300+ people I’ve had a handful of conversations about ‘sports cycling’ – I keep it to myself because I know it’s dull for most people – I’m not bantering about a set of carbon wheels and asking the secretary to wear something a bit shorter tomorrow.
‘A classic south London ride (over Crystal Palace, out to Oxted) has become a miserable slog of unsmiling, un-nodding pink and black Lycra-clad sports cyclists. There’s no bonhomie or camaraderie, just wrap-around glasses and steely determination to overtake.’
Wave at everyone, some won’t wave back – what about the camaraderie of all those who do wave back? The people you ride with? As for the ‘steely-determination’ to overtake – as long as I have cycled the only time I overtake people is if I’m travelling faster than them. Next time I’m near Oxted I’ll hopefully find a row of 30 cyclists, void of steely-determination sitting behind Tom Marriage, just like the good old days – it’s just rose-tinted moaning.
‘And the chat is about bikes and times, Strava segments, with the same fervour dull men use to talk about football teams. People are less and less likely to talk about experiences, the things they’ve seen, the places they’ve been, the fun and epic hardship they’ve experienced. They’re less and less likely to talk about the joy of cycling. Again, it bores the shit out of me.’
Don’t compare cycling with football. It’s lazy and cheap and in my experience all of the things in the second sentence are the embodiment of cycling. It brings a joy and freedom I’ve struggled to find anywhere else in my adult life – it’s about me and my bike.
‘The focus has moved to sportives, to carbon fibre frames, to Rapha Sky-branded kits, to gels, training techniques, times, pace and cadence. The aspiration is no longer to get lost, to enjoy and to explore: the aspiration is to do stages of the Tour, watch races, spend more money, own the best stuff, be the quickest. And it bores the shit out of me. So pervasive is this trend that it seems to be sucking the life out of other parts of cycling. It’s hard to find the hippies and the explorers any more. It’s all about the competition and the conformity.’
It sucks the joy out of other parts of cycling if you want it to – find what you want from it – again, make what you want it to be – it is so broad you can cherry pick the parts you love and how you want to do it – it’s about you and your bike.
By this point Tom has written 12 paragraphs on why cycling has changed for the worse – so he tempers it with one paragraph about how he should be able to let it go…. Before explaining that he can’t because….
- ‘I don’t like being looked down on. I don’t like being characterised as less of a cyclist because I can’t be arsed with sportives and would rather get lost than go hard.’
Who is looking down on you? Who cares if you can’t be arsed to do a sportive? You want to adventure, then do it – it’s about you and your bike – don’t bring an inferiority complex to the table to bad mouth something brilliant. Give someone two wheels and they will find their way. They may adventure, race, tour, commute or they may not enjoy it. For many it’s the most disinhibited, childlike fun – it is beautiful in its simplicity.
- ‘I think it pollutes the rest of the culture. This pernicious strand of macho sport orthodoxy is creeping into all parts of cycling. It’s starting to be the norm….You mention you like cycling, now that comes with an expectation that you are a certain type of person; alpha male, serious, competitive, buyer of bikes, regurgitator of facts.’
I mention I like cycling and people think I’m a weirdo (which I am), eat quinoa (which I do) and read the Guardian (guilty). And what’s wrong with being a buyer of bikes? Oh yes, capitalism – right on man.
- Moreover, I worry that this fake professionalisation in leisure cycling hides the joy from people who might otherwise have got involved.
I’d argue that writing articles for a national newspaper about the joylessness of cycling is as worrying as the ‘fake professionalisation…hiding the joys’, but that’s just my opinion. But then again I don’t know if Tom wants people to cycle or not; after all, it’s not what it used to be. Personally, I do, and in terms of barriers to participation, cycling has far bigger hurdles to overcome, such as the number of cyclists who have died, particularly in London in recent years.
- It’s just another example of something lovely, free and non-corporate being turned into a mega industry. And that makes me sad.
Still lovely. Never was free, Engels.
- Can’t we have some things which don’t get packaged up, branded and marketed? Isn’t there any part of life where I can experience a freedom from corporatism without have my experience re-packaged and sold back to me?
Yes you can still find them – put on your denim shorts – go and ride your bike.