A cultural politics of cycling, 2

For more than half a century cycling has been marginalised. Marginalised practices tend to produce marginalised identities. To be a cyclist puts you on the edge.

And we develop attachments to, and build cultures around, our marginalised identities. We own and cherish them. But at our forthcoming event in Leicester, Building Cycling Cultures, these identities become stakes in the struggle to push cycling into the heart of future sustainable cities.

How do we simultaneously preserve what’s important about our cycling identities, practices and cultures, which are to some extent currently marginal and discriminated against, at the same time as attempting to extend those identities, practices and cultures so they become less marginal, less discriminated against?

How in other words, do we negotiate the tension between a gain for cycling (becoming more mainstream) and a potential loss for ourselves and the identities, practices and cultures which we’ve over the past half-century developed, and developed in part as strategies to enable cycling to survive?

Must we sacrifice the cyclings we’ve built and which we love at the altar of a vision for mass cycling?

No doubt other sub-cultures have faced this dilemma – of how you democratise a desired practice without jeopardising the identities which have been co-produced alongside that practice, and which – like all identities – now form a crucial component of individual subjectivities; you can’t strip someone of an identity without doing violence to their self; you can’t challenge an identity without potentially destabilising the person’s (always to some degree precarious) sense of self.

This dilemma was evident during the research I conducted towards my PhD, over a decade ago now. There I explored the everyday lives of environmental activists, myself and Sue (my partner) included.

Through a range of ‘ordinary’ practices (shopping, cooking and eating habits, recycling, ‘work’/’leisure’ practices, transport …) environmental activists contribute to a radically transformed (relatively ‘local’, remarkably ‘low consumption’ and ‘green’) everyday life which could – when aggregated – help build a culture of sustainability. But the re-orienting work (away from ‘unsustainable’ practices of the dominant culture and towards an alternative range of sub-cultural and ‘sustainable’ practices) required to develop such a ‘green’ everyday life tends simultaneously to build cultural identities which are marginal, elite (at least from an ‘outside’ perspective, which tends also to view such cultural identities as ‘self-righteous’), and difficult to popularise.

It’s a terrible dilemma – you want other people to do something you do, but the road which you’ve made to get to there looks, to those who you want to follow you, full of obstacles.

We also develop attachments to our marginal identities, and the urge to democratise those identities must struggle with an opposite urge, to preserve their exclusiveness. This tension, between the urge to proselytize your privileged practice on the one hand, and to preserve its exclusiveness on the other, exists in cycling today. As people who love cycling we’re initiates, part of a small, select club. Together we produce distinctive cultures, and like all cultures these cycling cultures value particular ways of being, talking, doing and dressing more than others.

There’s nothing wrong in this. It’s what people always and inevitably do. But we should recognise that the knowledge, skills, competencies and tastes we’ve acquired through participation in cycling have been earned gradually, over time. And at the collective level our continuous investments in cycling have produced cultures which can then appear to ‘outsiders’ to be difficult to penetrate, or worse, ‘elite’.

All cultures and sub-cultures produce, distribute and value what the French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu calls ‘cultural capital’. The various cycling cultures we have built all have their own distinctive forms of cultural capital. (Which partly explains why I wear a helmet when out with fellow ‘roadies’ but not when cycling in town, or cycle-touring anywhere; or why my cycling campaigner chums aren’t particularly interested in my 10 mile time trial times, whilst some of my fellow racers aren’t perhaps too bothered about the introduction of specific ‘cycle-friendly’ facilities in town, or the social and/or ecological impacts of some of their own cycling practices.)

Cultures and sub-cultures tend to develop strategies for dealing dismissively with those trying to take short-cuts to accrue the kinds of capital on which they trade. The ‘nouveau riche’ provoke disdain amongst those who consider themselves ‘properly monied’ and more ‘culturally sophisticated’. Similar strategies go on in cycling, and I leave you to think of examples based on your own experiences. My point is that, if we want to democratise our practice rather than build barriers to it, we’d do well to reflect critically on our own attitudes and practices here. Because if cultures (and particularly sub-cultures) inevitably create boundaries to ‘outsiders’ during the continuous process of their production and re-production, they can also develop strategies to facilitate and enable others – ‘outsiders’ – to become involved. And if we want to popularise cycling, this is something we must do.

Now I think both cycling in general and individual cyclists in particular already do this very well. We do try to encourage and embrace outsiders. (Though one potential danger is that we leave it for paid cycling professionals to encourage and embrace ‘hard to reach’ ‘outsiders’ whose involvement in cycling over the medium to longer term may prove less durable than the people who we ‘ordinary’ cyclists can influence, encourage and enthuse as a small but significant contribution to cycling as part of our own everyday lives …)

Should you have read this far you might (quite fairly) think I’m being overly earnest about all this. I’d respond by asking you to take a look outside.

If where you live and work is anything like where I do, you’ll see many cars – both parked and moving – but few, if any, bicycles.

How great is our task depends on how seriously we take the need to turn this situation around. Or, to use the terms I’ve been using thus far, the extent to which we’d like to make the dominant mobility (the car) sub-cultural, and the sub-cultural mobility (the bicycle) dominant.

If you’re anything like me, the drive (?!) to promote cycling is almost an instinct, by which I mean something which feels right to do and which happens almost automatically, of its own volition. I rarely if ever stop to think why I want more cycling. After all, couldn’t it equally be the case that – much like driving – by democratising it you simultaneously start to erode some of the benefits it currently provides?

So what’s behind the impulse to popularise cycling? What happens if we seek to prise open, in order to examine and explain, this democratising instinct?

  • It might be because we believe the consequences of anthropogenic climate change to be catastrophic;
  • Or because we believe oil to be running out;
  • Or perhaps we find the dominance of our streets, neighbourhoods, towns and cities by dangerous metal objects quite irrational and/or unbearable;
  • Or we might refuse to implicitly condone the generally taken-for-granted and so submerged (from the popular conscience) damage and destruction which motorised vehicles wreak.

Whatever our reasons for seeking change, as people who (I’m assuming) cycle and love cycling, we have an additional and important vantage point – we have direct personal experience of a vehicle that is an obvious but more perfect substitute to the car. We know the bicycle can replace the car, because much of our own everyday lives demonstrates that fact.

If there’s an urgency to getting people out of cars and onto bikes, to effect a necessary and dramatic change in the world, then a set of questions potentially emerges:

  1. What’s our specific role, as people who love cycling?
  2. Do we have a privileged position, in effecting change?
  3. What do our experiences as cyclists tell us needs to change?
  4. In effecting change what’s the significance and value, if any, of our skills, competencies, knowledge, enthusiasms, energies, convictions, imaginations and visions?

These are some of the questions we might think about as we attempt to move cycling from a minor to a major mode of mobility. They’re questions which have to do with not just practice, identity and culture, but also with politics, social change and transformation.

Cycling is cultural, and there’s a cultural politics of cycling. I think it’s worth sketching the contours of this cultural politics of cycling because, if we know the terrain better, it might help us articulate a more powerful and persuasive politics of cycling.

So the questions above are the sort which I hope we’ll explore at Building Cycling Cultures next weekend in Leicester. They’re certainly questions which I think are important to think about as we – and by ‘we’ I mean mainly those of us already passionate about and in various ways involved – continue and develop a project of building out from a range of vibrant but still small cycling sub-cultures towards an equally vibrant but qualitatively different and really massive cycling culture.


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

  1. Mike Holden Says:

    Great article Dave. Highlighting many common green themes such as ‘ecosnobbery’ both real and perceived. How to do your thing as naturally as possible with or without any great mission to change others and yet not create some kind of image of cycling as the preserve of the muesli eaters or fitness freaks which actually puts others off?

    I suspect economic hardship will do more for the cycling promotion than activist/ idealist inputs or Government initiatives.

    Nice to see your name and your research quoted in the Guardian,


    Hope the ‘Building Cycling Cultures’ event is going well.


  2. Dave Says:

    This is a comment on several of your thought-provoking recent posts:
    your survey research has identified two main groups of bike-riders (u-m-c families mainly going off-road at weekends and w-c pavement riders). Agreed I see a lot of both, but I’m a bit surprised that survey methods have not picked up 2 (probably overlapping) groups I also see plenty of around Gtr Manchester and Chehire: commuting cyclists who definitely use the roads and cycle paths, not pavements; and groups out in the lanes at the weekend, Impressionistically and anecdotally we seem to be seeing a big increase in both.
    On cultures and subcultures: the way I look at our/my situation now is that it has to be viewed historically/dynamically and my favourite sociologist has remarked that man makes his own history but not under circumstances of his own choosing.
    I didn’t choose to live through Thatcherism etc, the car-culture, the kind of planning and engineering systems which have blighted our towns and cities. But at 68 I am now quite proud of what I have done in my cycling career to resist this (even though some of the time I didn’t realise that this was what I was doing), and to adapt the kind of bike-riding culture I inherited from my dad (1909-1968) to the new and, at the time increasingly hostile, conditions in which we were forced to operate.
    My hunch is that if what we have done is to keep cycling alive and create the conditions for a new mass culture, the problems will prove to be pretty insignificant beside what we have (in the great scheme of things) quite recently been through.

    • Dave Horton Says:

      Hi Dave

      Thanks for your comments.

      I agree with you, that those two other groups of cyclists you identify certainly exist, and their numbers look to be growing. I guess that they were ‘harder to see’ from our research point-of-view because:
      1) we focused on the population as a whole. Taking this broader perspective ‘committed cyclists’ of the sort you describe become much harder to see (whereas I’d say that we committed cyclists tend to be good at seeing each other, and tend also be (hyper?) alert to potential growth in cycling numbers);
      2) our focus was very much on urban ‘utility’ trips.

      I agree also with your sense that it’s cyclists-like-us who have kept the possiblity of cycling alive, so that today we are in a position to build back towards something much bigger.

      However, the question which I want to ask, and which I think needs to be asked, is whether today’s committed cyclists might now be getting in the way of developing a broad, inclusive culture of mass cycling. Please let me be clear, in no way do I intend to demonise today’s committed cyclists. I am one myself, I believe as a group we should be given great credit for keeping the cycling flame alive, and I’d defend our traditions, cultures, identities and practices to the last … Nonetheless, I am also committed to cycling becoming much, much bigger, and more significant, in society.

      I think that this big question – of whether today’s ‘committed’ cycling is standing in the way of a future mass cycling – could be broken down into a set of more specific questions, such as:
      1) Are the kinds of strategies which committed cyclists have learnt to pursue, for the sake of cycling, compatible with the growth of cycling to a mass level?
      2) Similar to, but building on the above, are the kinds of things which committed cyclists want the same as the kinds of things which people who don’t currently cycle (and especially in cities, for ‘ordinary’ journeys) want, in order to start cycling (more)?
      2) Do the institutions – and specifically the institutional voices – which cyclists have developed over the last half century represent (perhaps quite rightly) ‘committed cyclists’, but fail to resonate with non-cyclists or partial-cyclists who we need to cycle much more, in order to build a culture of ‘everyday cycling’?
      3) Do the kinds of identities and cultures which cyclists have developed – partly in order to keep cycling over the last fifty years of widespread hostility towards cycling – act as barriers to more people cycling?

      There are more questions than these, and I don’t know the answers to them. But I am convinced that they’re the kinds of questions which we need to be asking and responding to, in order successfully to develop the kinds of policies required for the building of a culture of mass cycling in the UK.

      Very best wishes

  3. Dave Says:

    very good set of questions.
    I suspect my thoughts will extend over several pages;so if it’s ok with you I’ll probably organise them in a word document and email it to you.

  4. Mike Holden Says:

    Dave, It’s a good idea to put your thoughts in a document for Dave H but why not post them here as well? It all adds to the debate and there are no rules about how long a post should be.

    • Dave Horton Says:

      Cheers Mike, I agree that’s a good idea. Alternatively, when I get Dave’s thoughts, I thought that I might then have a think about how I could best incorporate them into an actual blog post, provided he agreed, of course.
      Hope you’re good, and look forward to catching up later in the summer.
      PS – are you watching the Tour? A great stage in prospect today – I reckon Gilbert is unbeatable (though Cancellara might have a go again …)

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