The Secret Life of Cyclists

The Secret Life of Cyclists

Bradley Wiggins, Laura Trott, Boris Bikes, Fixies, Bromptons, empty cycle lanes, bike snobs… it’s never been cooler to be a cyclist.

But what does the popularity of bikes and the way we ride say about us?

The Secret Life of Cyclists is a panel discussion looking at the tribes and tensions surrounding modern cycling.

Why is it so popular? Why is it so dominated by middle aged men in lycra?

Is it indicative of our modern obsessions with mindfulness and freedom? Is it the new golf? Are Brompton’s cool?

Featuring smug cyclists, vexed motorists and astute social observers, The Secret Life of Cyclists aims to answer sort out the psychopaths from the cycle paths.

Speakers include broadcaster, cycling expert and author of Get On Your Bike Rebecca Charlton, ex-Brixton Cycles Co-op member, cycling instructor and “grease monkey” Barney Stutter and long-term presenter of ITV’s Tour de France coverage, Gary Imlach in a debate chaired by writer and journalist Stephen Armstrong.

The talk will take place on Wednesday 1st November in the beautiful chapel at The House of St Barnabas. Doors open at 6:30pm, the event will start at 7:30pm. Guests are invited to stay in our not-for-profit members’ club afterwards, to socialise in the bar and continue the discussion.

This will be the 19th event in the ongoing series, 37 Things You Need To Know About Modern Britain, which is a partnership between BUG and The House of St Barnabas, forged from a mutual desire to examine modern life and popular culture.

The House of St Barnabas is a charity whose vision is to create a future where lasting work is a reality for people affected by homelessness and social exclusion.

One Response to The Secret Life of Cyclists

  1. David P. Christopher says:

    So, what does cycling tell us about modern Britain? I missed the talk but I do ride a bike. I grew up riding bikes, because back in the 70s it was a quick, easy and safe way to get around a flat, northern town with only one traffic light. Back then, everyone had a bike. And I mean, everyone. But, nobody took it seriously, there were no tribes, no ‘them and us’, no sense of moral superiority or self-righteousness. And no lycra… or helmets, or gloves or goggles, come to that. There was hardly any danger either, from fumes, cars, lorries, thieves, or from any other tribes or beasts of the modern urban jungle.

    Much has changed of course. Now, many towns are choked with traffic. Public transport is choked with commuters and expensive to boot. But you can avoid much of that with a bike. It’s also non-polluting and it keeps you fit, and getting dressed up is part of the fun. Clothing accessories are manifold, and they’re mostly gender neutral. So, you can feel smug and look cool as you dart between the buses and cars, no matter who you are.

    Of course, cyclists aren’t all the same, they aren’t a breed of cattle. True, cycling seems to cut across barriers of age, gender and class. But, here’s a thing. Cyclists are mostly white. According to a 2011 study, about a third of Londoners self-identify as black, Asian or minority ethnic, yet 86% of male cyclists and 94% of female cyclists are white. In 2017 it’ll be similar. There are no pro black cyclists either. But, why?

    I suspect the answer is twofold. One is cycling’s historic association with the white middle class. For decades it was a leisure pursuit for country-dwelling gentlemen and occasionally their lady-folk, on a par with rambling and mountaineering. The high cost of a machine and the enthusiasm for health, fitness and competition of the Corinthian type, ensured ‘serious’ cycling remained a predominantly middle-class recreation. Meanwhile, the proles just used bikes to get to the fields and factories on the cheap.

    As society evolved and fragmented, so did the bikes. Stop at the traffic lights now, and look closely at the range of machines waiting to be set in motion. The sit-up-and-beg Barclay’s bike, the countrified comfort of the ‘Miss Marple’, the pack-up practicality of the Brompton…. these are serious, middle-class bikes and riders – assured, safe and sensible. Alongside, are lightweight racers and mountain bikes, with their lights, cameras and trackers, ridden by the aspirational, up-and-coming, with their concerns for performance and technology. Just look at the posture required to ride one. Never mind comfort, on these bikes you have to push and thrust! It’s urban conformity in motion.

    But, not everyone conforms. For some, cycling isn’t about demonstrating your associations with middle England or your aspirations for better and more, it’s about rebellion. Here, the look is lean, mean and aggressive. So instead of adding expensive accessories to your bike, you take them off to achieve a hard-core, bell-less, brakeless, two-wheeled stallion. You ride furiously, standing on the pedals, posturing as if to assault anyone foolish enough to get in your way. Forget sit-up-and-beg, this is stand-up-and-shout, as the bike becomes a two-fingered salute to other social classes… or rather, road users.

    While the spare, less-is-more look might be popular among poor, mainly white urban youths, bikes of any kind still haven’t been widely adopted by young black and Asian British. Class associations apart, the other reason for this is, I suspect, down to the cultural conditioning that associates cycling with poverty. From the Caribbean to Calcutta, if you can’t afford a car you ride a bike. It’s an attitude is which has been imported by the youth of many London communities where driving and being driven is what counts; driving is for winners – and bikes just say you’ve lost.

    Who cares about safety? The stats. are horrific. Between 2009 and 2013 there were nearly 23000 cycling accidents, and 80 dead cyclists inside London’s M25. Countless more accidents go unrecorded, and many, many other cyclists have near misses. It’s a bit like the trenches of WW1, where more and more keep going over the top in the hope that things will somehow get better. But will they, when it’s not unusual to see cyclists jumping red lights, riding down the middle/the pavement/the wrong way, going without brakes, helmet or lighting…

    So, what does cycling tell us about modern British culture? That class is alive and well, and despite the democratisation of cycling the kind of wheels you ride are a marker of who you are or who you want to be. Also, that when it comes to bikes, British black and ethnic minorities are mostly unassimilated, and still carry the cultural baggage of their forefathers, preferring four wheels or Shanks’ pony.

    Oh, and that safety is still a big issue. Well, we knew that anyway, but even so, cyclists themselves – at least some – appear ambivalent about it. Perhaps for them, in this sanitised, risk averse, infantilised world, mounting a bike represents an atavistic desire to flirt with danger, the chance go unprotected and pump furiously, in order to fulfil a sort of lycra-clad Ballardian ‘crash wish’… but that’s another story.

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