Long before I’d started riding my bike around the backstreets of London, long before I’d even bought a bike, I was steeling myself for the criticisms that I was sure I’d get from experienced cyclists. “Ride faster!” I imagined them hollering at me as they overtook my glacial crawl up a slight slope. “That’s not how you ride a bike,” they’d chide as I picked myself up off the floor following my third crash of the hour. Delightfully, I’ve found the experienced cycling community to be one of the most welcoming and supportive groups I’ve ever had the pleasure of meeting. But, the criticism I do get most often was not one I was prepared for.
“Please don’t call yourself a cyclist. You’re a person who cycles.”
I’m someone who wears my identities lightly. One day I might describe myself as a baker, an urbanist or a campaigner. The next I’m a reader or a podcast enthusiast. I rarely commit to just one label as it feels like I’m refusing the possibility of so many others. To quote the talented lyricist Meredith Brooks, “I’m a little bit of everything all rolled into one.”
So when I was greeted with repeated well-meaning requests not to claim the identity of a cyclist, I was confused. After so many years of identifying as a non-cyclist, I’d been excited to make the switch. And I couldn’t understand why an otherwise welcoming community would so often insist that calling myself as a cyclist wasn’t something I should aspire to.
It wasn’t until I shared my confusion with my partner on our daily stroll through Brockwell Park that I understood what was going on.
“A cyclist isn’t a light identity,” he said. “It’s a heavy one.”
And he’s right. To be a cyclist in the UK is to bear a burden. In 2018, 99 cyclists were killed and more than 4000 seriously injured on Britain’s roads. And despite the stories of safer cycling conditions during lockdown, cyclist deaths doubled to twice the average of what was expected for that time of year. If any other group in the country faced this kind of danger on their daily commute you might expect their peers to be distraught — demanding better conditions for their fellow man and woman. But that’s not the case either. Try searching cyclist in google news and see what comes up. It might be stories about cyclists being “fair game”, or tales or someone purposefully pushing a shopping trolley into the path of forty cyclists in the town where I was born. To take on the identity of a cyclist is to make yourself vulnerable to claims that you deserve to be hurt or killed going about your daily life. It sounds extreme, and it is. But that doesn’t make it any less true.
So is it any wonder that seasoned cyclists are reminding me to talk about myself as a person first and a cyclist second? To start any conversation by reminding my audience that I too am a human being who deserves a life free of fear and fatal injury? It makes complete sense. But I still refuse to do it.
Partly this is because my comms focussed brain baulks at the clumsy wording that is “a person who cycles”. But mostly it’s because reminding folk that I’m a human who matters is not something that I will ever accept needing to do. The fight is not to remind people we are human. The fight is to make the identity of a cyclist one that is lighter to wear — one that anyone — be they a lycra-clad middle aged man or a 75 year old grandmother nipping down to the shops — can put on and take off with as much ease as they do any other label.
That comes from claiming our space. That comes from diversifying our community — and fighting for infrastructure that allows more identities to join our ranks. That comes from wearing our cyclist identities loudly and unapologetically — shouting “this is what a cyclist looks like” into the void until our throats are sore and the folks around us think we’re a little crazy. Because they know what a cyclist looks like. A cyclist looks like their mum, like their three year old, like the person who delivers their groceries, and most importantly, like the person they see when they look in the mirror.