Saturday, August 7, 2010

Cycling and Suffering

In my view, the most unfortunate myth about cycling for transportation is that it is difficult. Understandably, this is how non-cyclists often perceive it - due to the overabundance of athletic cyclists and heavily armoured utility cyclists on the roads in comparison to cyclists who look like regular people. But even among the "everyday cyclists",  I feel that there is a tendency to focus on the challenging aspects of riding a bike in a way that takes pride in these challenges and thereby dwells on them: the pain of cycling uphill, the heroics of cycling in cold weather, the battle of cycling in traffic... Come on, be fair! Cycling is fun and convenient, giving us the most independence and flexibility of all other transport options. Compared to the poor drivers stuck in traffic and the users of public transport pushing their ways through overcrowded buses, we coast through life with smiles on our faces.

[image via BostonBiker.org]

Reading Boston Biker this week, I was reminded of my all time favourite misrepresentation of cycling's "difficulties": Our love of exaggerating the fortitude of cycling in the rain. On cycling blogs, we often read stories that describe a non-cyclist asking a cyclist, "But what do you do when it rains?" and the cyclist replying "I get wet!" After this exchange is retold in the blog post, the author will then muse about how people nowadays are out of touch with the elements, and how ridiculous it is that "the car culture" has taught us to fear getting rained on. This, however, is simply untrue. Car culture did not teach us to dislike getting rained on. Seeking protection from the elements is a natural impulse that has been with us pretty much forever. In non-car-oriented societies people still use umbrellas and hide under awnings. Cave people sought shelter in caves. It is completely normal not to want to get rained on on the way to work or a date, so that we can both arrive in dignity and not come down with the flu the next day.

[image via BostonBiker.org]

Cyclists however, sometimes seem to experience pride from getting soaking wet in the rain, and this pride translates into projecting an intimidating image to those who do not ride a bike. The non-cyclist is given to understand, that in order to embrace cycling they must accept the idea that getting wet is "normal" rather than something to be avoided... In other words, to accept an idea that goes against people's natural instincts since the dawn of civilization.

I don't know about you. But when a non-cyclist asks me what I do when it rains, I reply that I wear a raincoat. When a non-cyclist asks me about hills, I explain that I switch to a lower gear and pedaling gets easy again. And when a non-cyclist asks me whether I am scared of traffic, I point out that it was less scary than driving once I got used to it. And all of these things are true. Why tell them I am suffering, when I am not?

34 comments:

  1. Sure wish I could say there's no suffering involved in riding in 95-100 deg F w/60% humidity. :( Add riding up hills to that (even in low gears, it's still hard), and it's sometimes challenging to see where the fun is.

    OTOH, uphills also mean downhills, so that helps.

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  2. brava!

    i've been in a couple few of those "suffering" articles. this one was better: http://articles.sfgate.com/2002-01-11/news/17524788_1_wettest-bicyclists-software-firm

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  3. My boss used to talk periodically about bicycling to work, (with more demands on his time he's decided not to). He did say that my comment "You don't have to do it every day" eliminated all his excuses - even if you don't want to ride in rain or snow, you can still ride when the weather is nice, or when it fits your schedule.

    Similarly, another friend initially saw little point to riding 1-2 days per week if she still had to buy car insurance. However, if the car lasts another year or two with lower mileage, this can easily be 1-2 years without car payments. (She found other excuses.)

    I've never understood the suffering thing either - I find bicycling easier and cheaper than driving.

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  4. How about this one!. I'm sure you have heard it also. "Arn't you afraid to go out at night". Ok, maybe I'm just aware of my surroundings. I always figured that there wasn't anything there at night that wasn't there during the day. Or, maybe I just missed what wasn't being said.

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  5. Janice - We've had a couple of weeks here in Boston when it's been in the 90s-100s with horrible humidity. Cycling is not pleasant on those days, I don't deny that. And neither is cycling pleasant on winter days when it is below freezing. But... for me, it is still more pleasant than taking public transport in those weather conditions, or being stuck in traffic in a car. I cycle not because I see myself as a martyr or as morally compelled to do it, but because even when conditions are bad I find it to be the most convenient option...

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  6. I honestly usually do just get wet when it rains, unless it's really dumping, but I don't feel like it's suffering at all. Maybe by the end of january it starts getting a bit tedious, but generally I really don't mind. That's not to say i just wear a tshirt and shorts all winter, I dress appropriately for the weather, but I generally don't spend a lot of effort on rain protection. Not to say you shouldn't, but I don't, personally.

    @velouria: totally agree with you last comment. That's exactly how I feel about it as well. It's not that it's always heaven, but for me, it's always the most enjoyable option.

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  7. When I was young and impudent, I'd reply to "What do you do when it rains?" with "Why, I use rubbers, of course!"

    I feel the same way as you: While cycling in 100 degree weather with 90 percent humidity is no picnic, I still arrive at work in a better mood than I would on public transport or in an auto. I think it has something to do with the sense of independence I feel.

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  8. Long coats and umbrellas do wonders in the rain.

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  9. So, where do utility cyclists go to get "heavily armored?" Wouldn't all that extra weight tend to slow them down a lot?

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  10. Agreed! Here in Texas we have temperatures that are well over 100 degrees in the summer, and even on those days, there is just nothing as freeing as riding your bike.

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  11. With regards to riding shortish distances
    in the rain, I personally find that an
    old-style rain cape (poncho)
    is the best way to go.
    The air gap between myself and the poncho
    provides a separation from the elements,
    and I don't feel as exposed as I would be wearing a waterproof jacket and trousers.
    They are also easy to take on and off,
    and they probably work with a skirt
    (I am assuming this, I don't wear skirts).
    The downside is that they do catch the wind, but for short commutes that is OK. I suppose the biggest drawback is that they are not very good looking.
    I would love it if someone could make a fashionable poncho!

    But with a good cap and a poncho,
    I don't feel like I am suffering at all.
    It is actually nice to be outside in the rain,
    watching the big thunder clouds roll by!

    John I

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  12. yersterday and today there is the bicycle music festival in Vienna and it was raining yesterday:
    the music continued on the bikes and 100 of happy cyclists on the street - in rain :-)
    http://www.pleasantrevolution.net/

    i love the first foto with you and jaqueline!

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  13. Here here! The martyr complex, which seems to somehow be a motivator for so many cyclists, is completely counter productive. Sometimes you'll hear a bicycle commuter lapping it up when coworkers are praising them for their fortitude and the dangers they face (rolling eyes), which in turn just reinforces the perception that cycling is both superhuman and insane. It's just so silly. In an urban environment it's the easiest and most practical transportation option. My city lacks adequate cycling infrastructure, and it is still easier and more practical than public transportation or the hassle of car ownership. As for getting wet, I haven't gotten wet cycling in years. On any normal rainy day a raincoat and hat are sufficient, and I also have overshoes and rainpants that I only break out on torrential rain-pour days. Back in my driving and walking days I used to get a heck of a lot wetter scampering from car to building because I was never properly dressed.

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  14. Totally off topic but it that the Pash with you at the top? She looks like she has new grips, a rack on the front along with something else that I can't make out. Also the seat is not her normal brooks. Do tell what changes have you made!! Or are we looking at a new bike??

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  15. My willingness to get soaked and my enjoyment of riding in the rain is totally dependent on where I'm going and my overall mood. Last night, the Baker and I got soaked while on a leisurely ride to the liquor store and grocery store. We got what we needed then cruised over to listen to an outdoor concert while we dried out.

    Getting soaked on the way to work or some other event would just frustrate me and likely I'd drive if I couldn't wait 20 mins. But fortunately, rain that lasts longer than 15 - 20m and morning rain on the front range in Colorado are both rare. Our rain typically comes in the mid-to late afternoon as storms build as they come out of the mountains. They tend to be short, heavy showers that go as quickly as they come.

    My office is in the basement of our building (it's really not that bad and I have lots of company). You can always smell the rain through the air system so I generally have a good idea if it's raining as I get ready to head home. Lately, I've have to wait out a shower more often than not.

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  16. I'm the only cycle-commuting electrician in my company (we do new condo construction in Toronto) and I get a lot of interesting reactions about that from the rest of the crew.

    Most of them (and most of the other tradesmen) show up in their cars and pickup trucks, having spent between 30mins and 2hrs in traffic, and look at me like I have two heads as I lock up my Pashley, take my hard hat out of one Ostrich pannier and my lunch out of the other.

    I listen to them gripe about their tedious time in the bumper-to-bumper, the daily cost of parking, insurance, etc., quietly.

    Sometimes I feel like they're secretly jealous, but usually it seems to me that they enjoy complaining to each other so much that I feel a little left out. ;)

    The last jobsite I worked at was 10km from my apartment, the previous to that was 5km, the next one is 8km.

    I test-rode the route to the new one this morning, it passes some beautiful gardens in the financial district of town, runs through the entertainment district, past two of my favourite bike shops and a great machine-tool supply store.

    Lucky me!

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  17. In warm weather, when it rains I wear an inexpensive bicycle rain cape. In colder weather, I use my breathable waterproof rain jacket and pants, along with shoe covers. No real problem.

    I don't find sub-freezing weather unpleasant at all. I dress for the weather and am very comfortable. Of course, I live in the Philly area where it seldom gets REALLY cold. But I'm generally comfortable right down to the upper teens. Probably helps that I'm 15 lbs overweight...But I never have trouble with cold hands,feet or ears.

    If it was really uncomfortable, I probably wouldn't do it. I tell that to people in the winter who go, "How can you ride in such cold weather", but they don't believe me. I find it refreshing and there is no "sweat" worries.

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  18. Indeed, it's true. Many things are pretty obvious as you point out (use lower gears, wear a raincoat etc.). In fact, sometimes they are so natural, that I do not feel that I need to point them out at all.

    However, one should not forget that some people take a pleasure in getting themselves covered in mood, speed up mountains etc. But they are not the majority.

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  19. I think it's important that coworkers realize, that they don't have to cycle in the rain or heat if they don't want to. They don't have to cycle in the dark if they are afraid. They can cycle in heels; they can throw themselves in a mud puddle if they find that fun. There is no uniform or secret handshake.

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  20. Anon 10:12 - That is Jacqueline, the bicycle I ride when in Austria. It is a vintage Steyr Waffenrad; see here for posts with pictures of her.

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  21. todd,

    That article is idiotic. *rolleyes*

    Peter,

    I also really enjoy cycling when it's cold and I'm not overweight. I just don a fur hat, cover my face with my scarf, put on wool gloves and mittens, wool socks, and I'm off!

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  22. I agree with everything you said.

    I ride my bike because it is easy and pleasant. On days on which it seems that would not be the case, I don't do it. But I most often find that even if I am a bit tired or sick, it's still better than the subway or driving. I like walking, too, but walking is colder in the winter and hotter in the summer. No thanks, not when I can cycle!

    The culture of suffering around cycling (and other physical activities, too) discourages people from learning new things and weirdly opens up this really very normal activity to all sorts of commentary from others. I don't really need to be congratulated for riding a bike. I find this weird! But I recognize it's because people see it as a tough thing to do, or here, as dangerous even though statistically it is not. I hope that will change over time.

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  23. Thanks for this post! I have a little Trek hybrid bike that I ride occasionally but not often enough. Have been thinking I'd like to use it more for transportation but have definitely felt intimidated. Your article helps. :-)

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  24. Mmm...I don't know. I complain about cycling all the time. I really don't like the hills and I know I'm getting better at them, but I can't say I enjoy them one single bit. I've rode in the rain and the winter cold and I complained about that too because come on, that isn't easy. It just isn't!

    I feel really proud that I made it through the winter. I'm not a martyr -- can I say I'm proud of myself for doing something that I feel is hard work?

    All that said, I love the way bicycles look. And I love passing by the traffic. And I'll keep cycling!

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  25. one of the #1 reasons people might not bike in SF is because of the hills.
    really, the rest of the US seems flat to us, you want to find a good excuse, come to SF and ride with us.

    hello, butt workout. get with it people.

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  26. I imagine a combo of SF hills with Boston's icy roads and shudder... with delight. :)

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  27. -I like your blog miss.
    Your point of view I couldn't agree more. I have ride a bike to my workplace for a year now. It's fun, and it's healthy. I got to workplace early, and I can go home whenever I want after work.
    I ride a 26" Japanese bicycle and it doesn't a have gear. I used small freewheel/crank. Uphill is challenging and downhill is fun. Traffic isn't a nightmare, and cycling in the rain made me think of my childhood when I scream and shout and jumping around in the rain.
    Cycling isn't in a Malaysian culture but as I don't fit in the mold, I choose to ride a bicycle.
    Cycling make me realize how crazy people have polluting the air everyday without even aware of it. Most vehicles we see on the road have contributed to the damage of a good healthy air to breathe.
    The town I lived in have probably around 120,000 - 200,000 population and almost every one have a motorcycle or a car, so imagine if 20,000 vehicles should be on the road everyday for an hour, the whole town will be breathe nothing but poisoned air from all kind of mixed chemicals.

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  28. @Meli - Ithica is Gorges

    @MDI - And it's in upstate NY, in the lake effect snow belt.

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  29. "Ithica is Gorges"

    Ithaca even. I hate having regular vowel movements.

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  30. kfg--It seems more an accidental vowel movement, no?

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  31. An easy answer to a 'What do you do...' question about cycling is to shug your shoulders, look at them as if they're the ones with two heads and say, "I just ride".

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  32. ". . .an accidental vowel movement, no?"

    Depends.

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  33. I agree absolutely with this sentiment. Driving a car, trying to find a place to park, or getting crammed into stinky public transport, is my idea of suffering. A little rain and a bit of a hill - freedom and clarity of mind.

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