I’ve had a bike since I was a kid, but haven’t thought of myself as a “cyclist” until recently. Up until now, I’ve always just been a person with a bike. I use it to get around. Sometimes I go long distances, but more often than not, I’m just buzzing around on short little jaunts to the grocery store, or bank, or to the park with the kids.
My kids all have bikes. They use them to get to the library or to school, and on Sundays we all pedal to church together. But if I were to ask them, I don’t think they’d call themselves cyclists either. They’re just teens that ride bikes to get around.
I think there’s confusion about who “counts” as a cyclist and who doesn’t. I often hear cyclists complain about motorists and I hear motorists complain about cyclists, but I don’t know that I’ve ever heard anyone talk about the divisions within the world of bicycle riders. I don’t ride recreationally. I don’t commute back and forth to work by bicycle. I just ride my bike now and again to get around.
I feel like I live in some sort of invisible zone. And I suspect there are more people out there like me. They don’t feel included in the discussion, so they don’t try to insert themselves into it. Or they don’t relate to their bicycle riding self as much as to their car driving self, so they think discussions of cyclist safety aren’t for them.
That is why I decided to start this blog. Sure, I think talking about infrastructure and safety and the rules of the road are important. But those discussions are enriched when everyone that owns and rides a bike is included. Otherwise we miss viewpoints, as well as educational opportunities.
I hear phrases like “avid cyclist” and “passionate cyclist” and I wonder if that’s code for something. I also wonder what that makes me. I don’t know that I’m avid. I might be considered passionate, but I don’t know that I’m passionate in the same way that people mean when they use that phrase.
I went to a Bike Fort Collins event once where they held an ice breaker. We were each given a slice of a picture of a bicycle and we had to find the two other people with slices of the same photo. Then we put the pieces together, read the question on the back, and answered the question. The question for our little group was, “What is your favorite ride?” I was flabbergasted. How in the world could I answer that? The first thing that popped into my head was the ride to the library — not that I particularly like that ride (there are some bottleneck parts of the trip where I’ve run into issues before with people in cars) but I like the destination. But I didn’t think that’s what the question was asking.
I don’t have a favorite bike ride any more than I have a favorite car ride. I do have some favorite walks, but when I walk, it’s usually with my dogs and we don’t have any specific goal in mind. We just walk. But when I bike, like when I drive, I always have a goal in mind. I think about the goal and the best way to get there, not whether or not I’ll like the ride. That ice breaker made me feel like an outsider. I know that wasn’t the intent, but I think the question was written by someone that doesn’t realize there are people like me — people who live in a gap between the “serious” cyclists and those who only use their cars to get around.
At New West Fest, I sat with my camera at some intersections and snapped photos of people on bikes. I did it mostly because there were so many cyclists out there that it was a great time to grab some photos for future posts. But as I sat there watching group after group pedal past, I noticed that some people seemed very comfortable on their bikes, and others exuded a level of nervousness. I realized that people who don’t often hop on their bike, or who might generally stick to trails when biking, were coming out of the woodwork because they knew getting in close to New West Fest by bicycle would be a whole lot easier than driving over. (And boy were they right. I saw motorists circling the blocks looking for parking. They didn’t look like they were having fun.)
New West Fest gave me a future forward glance at what Fort Collins might some day be like. As density increases (and infill building is already making that a reality), driving a car on our streets is becoming a continual headache. We might not always take alternative forms of transport, but it’s really handy to have some available when we need them. But we’ll be less likely to use them if they make us uncomfortable.
I fear that occasional cyclists, like the folks I saw pedaling on down to New West Fest, don’t generally see themselves as part of the overall bicycle discussion. They don’t think about cycling (except when bicyclists get in their way when driving) until there’s suddenly a reason to think about it. And if you only pull out your bike once or twice a year, and you suddenly find yourself on Remington during busy New West Fest traffic and you’re not really sure of yourself, your bike, or the infrastructure you’re riding on, it can be a scary experience.
Riding a bike shouldn’t be scary. For anyone. Ever.
We can decrease the scariness level by improving our bike routes. The Fort Collins Bike Plan has that exact goal in mind and if you haven’t picked up one of the new bike maps that came out recently, I’d strongly encourage you to get one. The color coded map will help you figure out how to get from point A to point B on the least stressful route possible.
We can also decrease the scariness level by teaching folks the rules of the road. The more cyclists know the rules, and follow them, the safer they’ll be. And in fact, the more motorists know the rules, and follow them, the safer cyclists will be as well.
But we can also decrease the scariness level by bringing more people into discussions on biking in Fort Collins, the rules of the road, and bike safety. There are a lot of things I just didn’t know, or knew but didn’t really think about and hadn’t internalized, until I started talking about bike safety around my kids’ school. And the more I talked about it, the better and more confident of a cyclist I became.
Which brings me back to that invisible zone that I mentioned earlier. Within the world of those who bike, there are those who are “avid,” “passionate,” and “serious,” and then there’s people like me. I don’t have any fancy biking clothes or shoes. I value the size of my basket over the quality of my sprockets (or gears, or whatever it is that people look for in quality bike equipment). But I do ride a bike. That makes me a cyclist, even if I don’t have a favorite ride. And my safety matters, even if I’m not training for a race or doing a bike tour. I have inserted myself into the world of discussing bikes and cars and safety and comfort. And now that I’m here, I want to draw others in who, like myself, do want to be able to go out to the bank, or the library, or the park, with as much ease and as high a comfort level as when we hop in the car to do the same things.
Within the cycling community, we need to be sure to include all types of riders in our discussions and our gatherings. Competitive cyclists certainly face different issues than moms herding kids on bikes (all at different speeds and ability levels) to and from school. But we’re all dealing with streets, intersections, rules, and other motorists and cyclists on the road. We need to value each other if we want to move forward. An “avid” cyclist has no more, or less, right to safety than I do when I’m shepherding my children around by bicycle.
Let’s all work on this together. Fort Collins will only have a strong bicycle culture when we see the avid and the occasional bike riders come together to build a community where cycling is safe and comfortable.