A cultural politics of cycling, 1

Over the next week or so, and ahead of the Building Cycling Cultures event I’m helping organise in Leicester next month, I’m assembling a few still sketchy thoughts with the hope of developing a cultural politics of cycling. Here’s the first part, with at least one more to follow …

There’s a real tension in the concept of building cycling culture/s. I think that such a tension is good, because it can be productive, but only if we work with and on  it ….

Britain undoubtedly has a myriad of variously well established cycling cultures, from the recent (re)turn to fixed-gear urban riding, to club-oriented cycle-tourists, to competitive cycle sport, to cycle campaigners, to BMX …. you get the picture.

I’m not especially well embedded in any, but I flirt with and love them all. I also think we should celebrate such cycling cultures – after all, they have, perhaps more than anything else, kept the idea of cycling in Britain alive across the past half century which has otherwise been steadfastly and furiously committed to stifling the desire to cycle, and extinguishing cycling’s existence completely.

It’s as if from sometime during the 1950s, cycling was forced underground, and what was once a cultural practice became a range of sub-cultural practices. (There remains a rich language waiting to be unearthed here, both in order to explore and understand cycling’s descent into the abyss and in order to build a cultural politics of cycling which can help bring it back again – I’m mining one set of metaphors, but others have to do with edges and margins, still others with conquest and colony, or with oppression, discrimination and resistance …)

But now, just perhaps, there are signs of the aggressive and increasingly institutionalised repression of cycling finally lifting. Cycling is coming up for air. And we lovers of cycling can look around, not just over our shoulders but also ahead. For the first time in almost a century we can broaden our gaze, we can look beyond the horizon in the knowledge we’ll be pedalling all the way. We can simultaneously sigh with relief and dig in, thinking about the way forward for cycling now that it’s no longer quite so clearly something to be simply trashed.

So whilst we still might whisper it, one day soon I hope it’ll feel safe to declare – loudly and to anyone at anytime and anywhere – oneself to be a cyclist. We have survived the storm and although another one (climate change) is coming we can pedal towards it safe in the knowledge that at least our vehicle is right.

Given cycling’s potential resuscitation it seems obvious that we should now work hard to promote these existing cycling cultures, to make them bigger than they already are. So that more and more people discover the pleasures of commuter cycling, or cycle-touring, or cycle-racing, or BMX, or mountain biking …. This is what those of us who love cycling, myself of course included, tend to do. And I think we’re right to do so.

But although I perhaps would like to, I can’t deny a dilemma here. I guess at heart I’m not just a lover of cycling, but also a sociologist committed to what I see as ‘the public good’. So there’s a set of questions which trouble me, and which I feel ought to be asked:

1. Do existing and often remarkably resilient cycling cultures represent the seeds from which mass cycling will grow?

Can we harness the undoubted enthusiasms, energies, commitments and imaginations of people who are currently if in different ways passionate about cycling, in order to broaden cycling’s cultural appeal, and transform it back from a range of sub-cultures to an important and normal part of the dominant culture? And if so, how do we do so?

2. Or instead, are existing cycling cultures obstacles, in the way and to be left behind as we attempt to push cycling into a new golden age?

This attitude appears to be on the rise. It’s certainly apparent amongst many champions of ‘ordinary’, ‘everyday’ cycling who tend to see strong cycling sub-cultures as an impediment to cycling becoming regarded as ‘normal’, a practice which just anyone can do. I’m suspicious of this antagonism towards certain sorts of cycling/cyclists amongst people who profess to like cycling. I also resent it. We’re now in the position to resuscitate cycling only because it has been kept alive and meaningful for many groups of people in many different ways. Why on earth should those of us who love cycling, who have cycled all our lives, and who might sometimes wear lycra or like to ride fast, or do things which most people would consider difficult if not impossible, why should we be sacrificial lambs to the slaughter at the altar of mass cycling? The suggestion that wearing lycra is bad for cycling is preposterous and I think belies a disturbing way of thinking.

However, this defence of cycling cultures shouldn’t stop us from asking important questions. Does, for example, the current dominance of cycling by people who are clearly fit and committed somehow prevent it from being embraced by those who are neither? And if so how, and what might we do about it? What strategies might be adopted in seeking to transform the sub-cultural into the mainstream?

3. Finally, is there a synthesis? Can the old cycling sub-cultures and the new culture of mass cycling co-exist and co-evolve, each feeding the other?

This is obviously the ideal outcome, so I desperately want the answer to be ‘yes’. And what I have said up until now I hope suggests that, with appropriate thought and strategising, the answer can be ‘yes’. Existing cycling cultures can inform and boost attempts to build a broader, more inclusive, mass culture of cycling in Britain.

An important test here might be whether we can detect democratising impulses within the sensibilities and practices of actually-existing cycling sub-cultures. So can we? I think we can. I see this democratising impulse every Thursday evening, when with my family I ride out to Salt Ayre cycle track, half way between Lancaster and Morecambe. Lancaster Cycling Club has come together with the local children’s cycling club, Salt Ayre Cog Set, to put on time trials which cater for everyone. My daughter Flo is 7 and rides a 2 mile time trial. My son Bobby is 9 and rides 6 miles, whilst my partner Sue and I ride the 10 mile version. Both clubs are extending themselves, in a bid to make cycling more accessible to all.

Another example is provided by the bike co-ops emerging across Britain. To give just one example, Oxford Cycle Workshop is committed to enabling more people to take up cycling. Through recycling bikes, providing people with the skills they need to maintain and build bikes, and through nurturing an inclusive space which welcomes everyone, Oxford Cycle Workshop and similar enterprises are committed to building a mass cycling culture. Such enterprises form an essential part of the bike system which we’re now developing as a replacement to the increasingly defunct car system.

And the same democratic, inclusive impulse is at work in the Building Cycling Cultures event. We want to recognise and celebrate what we already have, whilst working together to get more. Inevitably, as gains are made in terms of bums on saddles, some losses will also be incurred – some of what we currently hold dear might have to go. Some of what makes cycling special will for all of us have to change. (How many times, as I pedal peacefully along an empty cycle track through a special place, have I questioned why I spend my life working to get many more people riding alongside me through such personally precious places?)

But for me anyway, this is one of the main things which our forthcoming Leicester event is about. By bringing together a broad range of people with different involvements in cycling, we can discuss and develop strategies for how best to push cycling towards the next level – everyday, popular, mass cycling.

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2 Responses to “A cultural politics of cycling, 1”

  1. Jonathan Abra Says:

    Alright Dave?

    Could have sent this to your e-mail but it felt vaguely pertinent to the Building Cycling Cultures discourse (is that the right technical term?)

    Thought you might like to see this – cycling as a vector for social change.

    http://www.otesha.org.uk/about-us

    They’re coming to Beetham in early July and Paul A is trying to rally the Cog Set to go up there and see what it is all about.

    All the best,

    J

    • Dave Horton Says:

      Hi Jonathan
      Thanks for posting – and yes, you’re right, absolutely relevant to the building cycling cultures discourse 😉 It looks a great project, and well worth promoting.
      Cheers, Dave

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