Cycling is everywhere. People ride for fitness, pleasure, competition, transportation, and work, and it’s something just about everyone knows how to do. (Sure, you occasionally meet adults who never learned how to ride a bike, but you generally regard them with the sort of suspicion you reserve for people who don’t use email or who can’t do their own laundry.) Nonetheless, cycling is still regarded as a fringe activity. Sure, there are places where cycling is part of the mainstream culture, like Belgium, the Netherlands, and Portland, Oregon, but none of those places are in the United States. Here, cycling occupies approximately the same niche as pornography, in that it’s something that pretty much everybody is familiar with, yet few people seem willing to openly embrace. Lately I’ve been putting some thoughts into just why this is, and I’ve come up with three primary reasons:
1) Negative Portrayal in Hollywood
Over the years, various ethnic groups have been successful in challenging the stereotypical manner in which they have historically been portrayed in film. Cyclists, however, have not. Just watch a film like, say, “You, Me, and Dupree,” in which a dopey Owen Wilson pedals around town on an old Schwinn, tapes his bars from the tops down, and attempts to emulate Lance Armstrong. Or check out “The 40 Year Old Virgin,” in which riding a bicycle symbolizes immaturity, sexual ineptitude, and general dorkitude. You’ll feel madder than Malcolm X watching “Driving Miss Daisy.” Sure, cycling had its Blaxploitation moment with “Quicksilver” in 1986, but other than that it’s pretty much been nerds on 10 speeds.
Which is not to say that cyclists aren’t dorky, mind you. Many of us are. But that doesn’t mean we need to look that way on film. If Hollywood can convince people that pimps are lovable (“Hustle and Flow”), lawyers are interesting (“Michael Clayton”), and Jack Nicholson and Morgan Freeman are still alive (“The Bucket List”), they can make cycling look cool too.
2) Pro Road Cycling
For better or for worse, it takes professional level competition to legitimize any athletic endeavor. Cycling is no exception. And of all the pro cycling disciplines, road cycling gets the most exposure, the most sponsorship money, and the most coverage in the mainstream media. However, apart from the whole Lance Armstrong thing, pro cycling has completely failed to capture the public’s imagination. And that’s going to get worse before it gets better. Why? Teams like Rock Racing.
Jeans and cycling have not come together with more disastrous results since that time your buddy tried to do a double century in his Levis and had to be hospitalized for 3rd degree jock itch. Team owner Michael Ball, with the help of his tan, has been hiring pretty much every disgraced pro he can get his hands on, mouthing off to the press, and generally trying to become the Vince McMahon of cycling. If cycling were a 15 year old girl, he’d be offering her liquor and trying to get into her pants.
But that’s not the problem. I don’t really concern myself with issues like doping and ethics, and I prefer to leave the sporting coverage to the professionals. What I do care about is aesthetics, and Michael Ball is bringing a bad one to cycling. His Rock & Republic clothes are for the kinds of people who watch shows like “Miami Ink,” covet custom choppers, use excessive amounts of Armor All on the dashboards and tire sidewalls of their motor vehicles, and who count things like flat screen TV ownership, toned abs, and threesomes among their life goals. I’d take a hundred Cadences and a thousand boring bank sponsors over this kind of cheese. They even use Escalades as team cars. While I suppose that gives people a rare chance to see one of the word’s most obnoxious SUVs with a bicycle on top of it instead of underneath it, it’s still an offensive image.
Bikes, jeans, and Balls don’t mix. Please take your bling back to 2002 and leave cycling alone.
3) Helmets and Brakeless Riding
It goes without saying that it’s better to wear a helmet than not to wear a helmet. And certainly people should be encouraged to wear them. However, the degree to which people are being encouraged to wear them may be backfiring.
Pro-helmet vehemence has reached the same level as anti-smoking vehemence, which means that many non-cyclists have the impression that simply mounting a bicycle with a bare head is tantamount to suicide. This makes cycling (helmeted or not) seem like a riskier endeavor than it is. Similarly, some riders who do wear helmets consequently feel a layer of security which is falsely enhanced by a sense of self-righteousness, and which runs deeper than the mere inch or so of foam on their heads.
In fact, people put so much faith in helmets that it’s now commonplace to see fixed-gear riders wearing helmets on bikes with no brakes. Choosing a helmet over a brake means that riders are putting way too much confidence in helmets alone, and it suggests a disturbing trend of blind faith and passivity in cycling. This is the same mentality that once made people think that filters would protect them from their cigarettes. Riding a bike with a helmet but no brake is like leaving the stove on when you go to work because you have homeowner’s insurance, or like wearing a condom while you shoot heroin with a dirty needle.
The result is we now have a population split between the notion that cycling is too dangerous to pursue, and the notion that a helmet will save them from anything. And of course both of these notions are wrong. So what happens is, half the people don’t ride in the first place, and the other half wind up lying on the ground under their brakeless bikes wondering why their helmet didn’t make them stop fast enough.