Thoughts on Re-Imaging the Bicycle

I have just been catching up on many of the posts recently about Mikael Colville-Andersen’slecture tour through the United States. Colville-Andersen’s blog Copanhagenize is a must-read (and oftentimes, view, as there are numerous videos, as well) for sage advice and insight into what makes cycling possible in Copenhagen and around the world.

Although I have not had the opportunity to attend one of Colville-Andersen’s lectures, reviewing a handful of posts from those who did – most notably from Bike Portland and Cyclelicio.us, who had some great coverage – has inspired me to respond. One of the most resounding messages from the lectures (as far as I can interpret from what I have read) is that in order for cycling to be more appealing to the masses in the United States, it needs to be “re-branded” so that there is less emphasis on the subcultures of cycling. Cycling subcultures are negative, it has been argued, as they alienate cyclists from “regular citizens” and make cyclists seem like “the other”. Of course, Colville-Andersen has covered numerous other issues in his lectures, but it is this particular issue to which I would like to respond today.

I agree with Colville-Andersen’s criticism of branding and marketing of cycling (especially in the U.S.) as focusing too much on what I would refer to as sport cycling. As Colville-Andersen puts it, this kind of marketing makes cycling seem “dangerous and sweaty” and does undoubtedly limit the potential for non-cyclists to feel a connection to or need for the bicycle. In Copenhagen, he points out, people ride bicycles because they are the easiest and most efficient way to get from point A to point B and not necessarily because bicycles are “cool”.

At the same time, I feel a need to quickly defend sport and recreation forms of cycling, because they are different from what I consider to be utility cycling. I race bikes; I take it seriously; I work really hard; and I want equipment that caters to my sport (yes, that includes lycra). In this sense, I am no different from a football player, a baseball player, or any other athlete who uses specialized equipment. For sport cyclists, the bicycle is essential to the sport. The bicycle is to a sport cyclist what a football is to a football team. Take away the football, and there is no football game. Take away the bicycle, and there is no bicycle race.

However, it’s really not so simple. The bicycle industry in the U.S. has focused primarily on sport and recreational cycling for many years, and this is quite clear when a “regular citizen” walks into a bike shop and is overwhelmed by strange materials, high price tags, and uncomfortable looking equipment. This is problematic, as it does alienate and intimidate people who do not need or want this kind of equipment. It can be difficult for someone who wants a transportation bicycle (a tool for getting around) that suits his or her needs when bike shops are brimming over with high-tech, expensive equipment. I completely agree that the bicycle needs to be rebranded in order to appeal to the average person. However, this raises the question of who is to do the rebranding? The bicycle industry obviously, but who else? The bicycle industry has already dug itself into a sport and recreation cycling hole of sorts, so in order to actually have an impact, the rebranding is going to need to be more extensive.

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The biggest issue that I see here is the bicycle itself. The bicycle is multi-functional and multi-faceted. This is good and bad. According to Colville-Andersen, for many cyclists in Copenhagen, the bicycle is like a vacuum. It is a tool, and not too many people get very excited about their vacuums. For others, the bicycle is a piece of sporting equipment, for yet others it is a symbol of resistance and counter-culture. Unfortunately, for the masses, the bicycle appears to be largely ignored or even worse, disliked.

So what is to be done? Here we have an object – the bicycle – that has many different personalities and uses depending on who is using it and in what context. Colville-Andersen is right, subcultures in cycling are indeed problematic, as they inherently leave behind many, while only bringing along a few. However, I don’t think subcultures in cycling are entirely bad either, as they also allow people to build community among like-minded individuals, which can make cycling more fun. Given that the bicycle and cycling can be so diverse, this is not necessarily wrong or bad.

Nonetheless, the question remains, how do we make cycling more appealing to the masses? Clearly, focusing on sport and recreation cycling equipment is not an appropriate way to appeal to the masses. But is rebranding the bicycle the right strategy, and if it is, how could it be approached? Who should help with such a the rebranding – or reimagining?

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Of course, there are many other factors in addition to reimagining the bicycle that could contribute to cycling’s appeal to the masses like infrastructure changes, etc., but Colville-Andersen is really on to something here. The power of the popular imagination is incredibly strong. To that end, I think it is really important to define utility cycling in order to efficiently impress and speak to the popular imagination in a clear and concise way. There needs to be coherence and consistency to the concept of utility cycling in order to make it seem manageable, appealing, easy, and natural. Why not make cycling seem as simple and necessary as vacuuming? Vacuums clean your carpet, but what do bicycles do for you? As always, I welcome your thoughts.

All images by Chloe Forsman.


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0 thoughts on “Thoughts on Re-Imaging the Bicycle”

  1. In other words, the cycling movement is in a way its own enemy. And then we sit and complain about why people don’t bike.

  2. Hi Ron,

    Yes, to a large degree, you are probably right. The cycling movement often does itself few favors. At the same time, I am optimistic that simply by existing, the cycling movement (be it of the utility, recreation, or sport variety) makes more cycling possible. People tend to participate in activities that they see other people doing, a snowball effect of sorts, which makes more cycling possible. Nonetheless, the “movement” itself could probably use some improvement or attitude adjustments in many regards.

    Thanks for your comment!

  3. Christa says:

    I see a need for a genuine North American role model cyclist. We need a Lance Armstrong of urban cycling. Native.

    While Mikael assumes the default role (and is doing wonderful work), maybe his narrative just doesn’t resonate with the average North American.

    Some very passionate North American women/family cyclists are starting to increase awareness, creating community in their city and online. I imagine their stories are the future of cycling.

  4. Hi Christa,

    Great point! Indeed, a Lance Armstrong of utility cycling would do a lot for cycling in North America in general. It has been really cool to see the family cycling movement grow on blogs and the Internet. The more family and urban cycling happens, the more possible it will be for new-comers to take it up as well.

    And I also agree that the default role of an urban cyclist in North America cannot necessarily be the same as it is in Europe. Not only is the “urban” different here, so too is the urban cyclist.

    Thanks again for the great comment.

  5. Dan Evans says:

    Rebranding might not be the answer.
    I use my bikes for a lot of things.
    Comuting, errands/ with a trailer when needed and just for fun and exercise.
    It is a matter of choice on my part. Some times it is more conveient to drive, but there are many benifits. Health and ecological.
    A lot of people I meet for the first time with in 5 mile of my home think that I do not have or am not allowed to drive.
    One of the part time jobs I had didn’t know I had a car or license for almost 4 months.
    When people ask why I ride? “Because I can and like to”
    My riding is incorperated in to my daily routine. The special cycling clothes, lycra,cliples pedals, racing jerseys come out when I’m on club rides, road or mountain. Other wise except for the cycling helemet tucked under my arm I dress just a normal and any one else.
    Like any other sport I have collected the neccessary clubs in my bag.
    One bike can do for most people and I do not let them think that they have to have a fleet of them.
    I started out riding just to get to work in about 1970 and now have, a go fast, a suv, a sedan, a jeep & and a truck (tandem) each a type of bike, all preped and ready to go.
    Some, most bike shops seem to have people thinking that they need all the extra stuff. When all they really need is just to do it, ride. A simple bike, good helmet and a back pack can run a lot of errands and feel good to!
    DanO Cincinnati OH.

  6. Dan,

    Indeed, sometimes all we need to do is stop thinking too hard and just ride our bikes. Good point! Thanks for the comment.

  7. […] best work: Analysis of Google’s Bike-There Feature: Part I, Part II and Part III Thoughts on Re-Imaging the Bicycle General Bicycle […]

  8. Gunnstein says:

    A Lance Armstrong of utility cycling? I don’t see how a drug addict on a bike is going to help the cause… (Sorry, but that idiom needs an update. You need a new Lance Armstrong of competition cycling, too!)

    A utility cycling role model is a bit of a contradiction in terms, since the whole point of utility cycling is that it is a common, everyday, normal thing, not exceptional in any way. (Are there any car commuting role models?) A sitcom set it Portland might achieve it, if it got popular and they managed to sneak in cycling as part of the overall environment, not the point of the series.

    MCA does some good, but seems to antagonize sports/recreational cyclists. I get the impression that he thinks I’m harming the cause whenever I wear lycra, spd shoes or a helmet. It’s a “sin” to use anything bike specific other than the bike itself. As a recreational/utility cyclist I’m in both camps and refute any contradiction between them. The goal is to get more cyclists on the road, not just a certain kind, and drivers need to be accustomed to all kinds.

    As for re-imagining, one way to convince people that “utility cycling” is a thing, is to use the term more, in debate and casual conversation. If people think of lycra when you say “I’m a cyclist”, then say “I’m a utility cyclist”. But perhaps the best of all is just to shut up and ride your bike 🙂

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