A couple of years ago, after pushing for improved infrastructure around my kids’ school (which still hasn’t happened), I became a little more interested in Bike Fort Collins and started hanging out at events. There was often an “introduce yourself” time and one question that would come up was “are you a recreational cyclist or a commuter?” I found that question to be a real stumper. What was I? I had no idea. I didn’t feel like either description fit me. I road a bike to get from point A to point B. “Commuter” implies regularity and frequency. My errand running schedule is erratic on all counts.
One of those A Ha! moments for me as a kid was when I learned the difference between the definition of a word and the connotation. You could look in the dictionary and get the definition of a word, but hiding beneath that definition were ideas or feelings that came attached as well — ideas and feelings that weren’t captured in a simple definition… ideas and feelings that could completely change the impact of the sentence that the word was used in.
“Childlike” and “childish” have essentially the same definition, and yet being childlike is seen as a positive characteristic while being childish is seen in a negative light. In the same way, “cyclist” means one thing, “bicyclist” is slightly different, and “person on a bicycle” can be something else entirely. People often seem to tie “cyclist” together with someone wearing spandex and focusing on speed or distance when cycling. (Also known as a “serious cyclist” or an “avid cyclist.”) A bicyclist might be more likely associated with a hipster — a guy with a long beard who wears jeans and rolls up the cuff so as not to get chain grease on his pants. The third is more likely a mom on a her bike, and her kids in front or behind her on their bikes, as they’re all heading home from school in the afternoon.
The words we use come with connotations attached. But unlike dictionary definitions, there is no definitive description of what the connotation of each word is. Which means sometimes we may think we’re saying one thing, while the person we’re speaking to is hearing something rather different.
So am I a recreational cyclist or a commuter? I don’t think I fit into either category. I just run errands on my bike. I go to the library. I go to the kids school. I go after my dog when she gets out the door and takes off down the road. What kind of bicyclist does that make me?
I don’t think what I’m called really matters. But what does matter is that we’re all in this together. We need to be taking into account all kinds of riders when we write or speak or interact. All of us matter. There isn’t one kind of bike rider that’s more important than another. So let’s reflect that in our speech. Let’s stop assuming that everyone rides for the same reasons or in the same way.
Though there’s often tension between folks on bikes and folks in cars, there’s also tension between folks on bikes and other folks on other bikes in other types of clothes. It shouldn’t be that way. We all share the same roads. We all face the same issues while out riding. We need to stand together as one, no matter what kind of “cyclist” we are.