Thursday, October 20, 2011

Easy or Difficult? Parallel Narratives

Vienna, Cyclist
I was speaking with an Austrian friend who rides a bike and works in advertising, and she raised the topic of marketing in relation to "bicycle culture." She finds it interesting ("and very American") that so many bicycle enthusiasts today employ a "strength of character" narrative, instead of an "increased utility" narrative when discussing their interest in cycling or attempting to promote it to others. This way of relating to cycling has never been popular in Europe, but has now become more so - due to an American cultural influence, she believes.

I understand what she is talking about. One method of making a given behaviour seem appealing to people, is to present is as something that will facilitate and improve their lives. But an alternative method is the exact opposite: to portray the behaviour as difficult and often inconvenient, yet indicative of strength of character. The person engages in this behaviour despite all sorts of obstacles, and doing so makes them a special person - passionate, resourceful, dedicated - which, for some, is an appealing self-image.

With cycling blogs, I find that these narratives are often used in parallel, though some will stress one over the other. For instance, themes such as "Once I started cycling, I realised it was actually easier and faster than driving," vs "I arrived soaked, exhausted and late, but proud" can co-exist in a blog despite their contradicting one another (how can it be "easier and faster" if we admit to arriving to work late and soggy?).

I am not sure what I think of my friend's suggestion that the "overcoming adversity" take on cycling is an inherently American one. In my experience, it is true that a European will more readily admit to doing something "because it's convenient for me," whereas an American will be more likely to ascribe greater meaning to the same act. But national character is tricky to discuss based on anecdotal accounts. To me, the more interesting thing is the way these narratives - "cycling is easy" vs "cycling is difficult but makes you a special person," can exist in parallel. I wonder how many new readers and would-be cyclists notice the contradiction.

48 comments:

  1. You left out fun. Using the bike is more fun for most travel, but when conditions get to where it is not fun or I have to carry something too hard to carry on the bike, I make another choice.

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  2. Well, I wasn't trying to list all the reasons people give for cycling, only to point out that some find the ease appealing while others the supposed difficulty.

    But the same type of dichotomy exists with "fun" vs "morally superior," which is another story.

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  3. For me, bike commuting is definitely both (easier and a "test of character"), depending on the weather and my mood. I would say during the nice part of the year, it is primarily easy and fun, and less stressful than driving by far. During the snowy months, though, the balance changes a bit and I do feel a bit more like a badass for biking to work : ).

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  4. Actually, I find the adversity theme more prevalent amongst those that profess to admire cyclists than among actual cyclists. A theme amongst cyclists that I personally find offensive is the "cyclist as poor defenseless victim." I am happy to find THAT theme absent from this blog.

    I may or may not have strong character, but cycling had nothing to do with it, I'm either happy or sad to relate. OTOH, when it is zero out, or 110F, cycling might reveal what level of determination I do possess.

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  5. As usual, your points are well made, but for me the photo overwhelms. The message I get is cycling can be tres chic.

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  6. to quote the first commentator of the post on your danube ride - there is also a different and very strong narrative present in today's cycling culture - it is the narrative of 'the dandy'.

    cycling and the "the autonomous aristocrat" http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dandy both scream 'self-sufficiency'. - they also scream: "i live here and now. i am happily independent in the colors and dress i choose. no fossil fuels needed to take me from coffee bar to art gallery - only a smile on my face and a dashing scarf, tie, hat, tshirt whatever... - this is my habitat. now i am me. now i am free."

    it is the superficiality of the dandy - the accentuation of the mere aesthetics - that historically speaking always also had an air of political protest to it. - what is the prime nature of aesthetics? it is a concept that in its very essence stands against all attempts of measuring it.

    tweed run, anyone?

    the self-sufficiency of cycling - the 'increased utility' in our post peak oil times - now also spurs a loud laughter of freedom. - this is my habitat! - try to measure me! - by which metrics, you fool!

    style over speed.

    this is the truly subversive dimension of today's cycling movement.
    enjoy!

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  7. I agree with your friend's assessment of the marketing narratives. It's hard for me to really believe people when they tell a "strength of character" story. I think they gain satisfaction from the strength of character narrative itself, when they are probably cycling because they like to or it is convenient for them. And this is related to gaining satisfaction from the eco-friendly narrative, too.

    I do have some trouble imagining that people are actually super excited to do something very, very hard on a daily basis. But we Americans love to feel morally superior because of our choices, and are insecure because there are so many of them -- in societies where there are fewer choices, or were fewer choices historically, there is less of this, of course.

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  8. It's interesting what your friend say, as a fellow European I would actually agree on my 'perception' (i.e. not based on any real statistical data) of the American approach.

    Another thing I have noticed a lot more in American cycling blogs (both utilitarian and sporty) is how many times cyclists experience abusive yelling from drivers. I experience aggressive, often dangerous driving (turning left when not looking, talking on the mobile while driving, road rage etc) but never insulted at (thankfully), while I read so often how American cyclists (from their blog's posts) are shouted at by drivers stuff like "a-hole" "bit**" and so on... I am always quite taken aback at how unpleasant, albeit brief, those encounters must be!

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  9. Maybe it's the blogs I read, but I often find that the narrative is
    "Everyone tells me that X is going to be hard and complicated and offputting. But I did X anyway, and it wasn't bad, was kind of fun, and I'm going to do it again." Or sometimes the corollary, I did X, and when I do it again, I'm going to improve the experience by doing it slightly differently (sharing of lessons learned).

    People, especially non-cyclists, often think that cycling is going to be harder than it actually is. And true, there are some days that are worse than others, no matter what one's mode of transportation- epic traffic jams, horrendous train delays, bike rides in inclement weather. And it's kind of fun to share our complaints as well as our successes. There's a feeling of not wanting to share the bad days with people who are already biased against cycling, and it seems more comfortable to share the bad days with those who already know about the fun times and good days to be had on a bike.

    I will say, I wouldn't bike if it weren't overall a better choice for me.

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  10. it is also interesting to note that both 'the armstrong (strength of character) narrative' and 'the autonomous aristocrat' are equally hedonistic positions. - opposed to a dominantly utilitarian perspective.

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  11. I think that most people are genuinely unaware of the inherent hedonism in moral positions. They either don't realise or don't admit that it feels good to think of themselves in that way, and that the good feeling is the ultimate motivator. But this goes back to larger discussions about things like "is there such a thing as genuine altruism," "what is morality" and so forth.

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  12. "I am not sure what I think of my friend's suggestion that the "overcoming adversity" take on cycling is an inherently American one."

    It is very "fontier" like.

    But I like the Dandy narrative. It might reconcile both approaches at the end, when cycling becomes equally mainstream in both environments.

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  13. In straight-up marketing, like a poster by an advocacy group or bike company, the message should be that cycling is easy and efficient, not that it's difficult but shows strength of character.

    When moving the discussion from marketing to personal blogs, however, the whole idea of a consistent marketing message does not apply. People blog about what happens to them on a daily basis and the idea is to present a realistic picture of bicycling. If a blog were never to go beyond "biking is easy and efficient" for the purpose of presenting a consistent message, then readers may be inspired to give it a try (score one for marketing), but as soon as those readers/new riders got cut off, yelled at, or rained on, they would be unprepared and more likely to give up.

    I say that bicycling is easy and efficient because it is, but that does not mean that every bike commute is perfect. For example, sometimes the weather is severe and sometimes drivers are mean. Life is messy and will always have some challenges. That's not the same as saying "bicycling is difficult" and it doesn't make an overall positive message about bicycling a contradiction.

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  14. In defense of Americans and to play the devil's advocate though, there is one hole in my friend's argument: It could be said that cyclists in the US are genuinely faced with more "adversity" than cyclists in many European cities, including Vienna. Abuse from drivers, lack of infrastructure, relative lack of decent bicycles to buy, few other cyclists, indifference of government authorities, and so on. So it's only natural that this stuff is a theme in American cycling blogs.

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  15. Dottie - I would agree with you *except* that many (maybe even most?) personal cycling blogs have an advocacy message ("With this blog I hope to promote and inspire the simple act of everyday cycling..." and so on). Therefore I would say that they partake in active marketing of a particular image of cycling. I would go even further and say that the bicycle industry - particularly the niche industry of classic city bikes and accessories - relies on these blogs' message for their own marketing to be effective. It's all connected.

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  16. As an aside in a conversation with a group of the usual types -

    Velodog:"...Yeah, I do a lot more bicycling these days..."

    UT:"Good for YOU man"!

    Velodog:"??"

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  17. velouria, 9:38am, sure.
    it was just too tempting not to say on an american bicycle blog that lance armstrong basically is oscar wilde in tights

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  18. I'm one of the relatively few people who has cycled all my life - that's to say I never gave up cycling when I reached adulthood and continued to use a bike as my main form of transport.

    Most cycling bloggers seem to be educated young adults who have taken up cycling relatively recently. Like most young adults they can get very excited about a particular lifestyle, especially if it involves being a bit different and offers opportunities for keeping up with, joining or even starting new trends, as well of plenty ways to get rid of the disposable income that educated young adults often have.

    As someone who has always taken it for granted that a bike is obviously the best way to get around for most journeys, and has always been baffled when people quit cycling and use their cars all the time, it's great to see that many people are finally realising that cycling is both enjoyable and convenient.

    I just hope they keep cycling, and it doesn't become a temporary hobby for 20 somethings living in city centres quite near the universities they have so recently graduated from.

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  19. "lance armstrong basically is oscar wilde in tights"

    Oh my...

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  20. ok. you would have preferred 'stephen frey'. - i knew. - my mistake

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  21. Absolutely, many personal bicycling blogs, including my own, have an advocacy message, but an advocacy message is necessarily simplified and the purpose of a personal blog is to show real life in a detailed day-by-day way, albeit colored by the writer's perspective.

    Stepping away from the bike blog issue, I know a couple that writes a blog about their two pit bulls, called Two Pitties in the City. They have an advocacy message: "We write this blog to show how easy it is to have bigger dogs in the city." The blog also works to dispel negative stereotypes of pit bulls. (Parallels to biking!) Sometimes the dogs jump on the furniture and sometimes they get too excited, but writing about those incidents does not contradict the blog's overall advocacy message.

    Maybe the issue here is that any advocacy message is necessarily reductive and there will always be aspects of reality that do not fit in the tidy advocacy message box, but that does not make discussing those aspects of reality contradictory to the advocacy message. Perhaps all advocacy messages should be qualified: "Bicycling is easy and efficient (except when it's not)" or "It's easy to have big dogs in the city (except when it's not)" - but that sounds a bit inelegant. :)

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  22. I think the whole business of "promoting" cycling, and "advocacy" is a crock. We cyclists should be riding in secret, so-to-speak, trying not to be noticed.
    If cycling in the US hits some "break-over" population, laws limiting our freedom will surely increase.
    Cycling is not going to save the world.

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  23. "If cycling in the US hits some "break-over" population, laws limiting our freedom will surely increase."

    Interesting. What do you mean? Judging by other countries, that is unlikely.

    But I agree about not promoting cycling. I don't view myself as promoting it for instance, but more like catering to people who are already obsessed/interested/curious.

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  24. You pointed out earlier in the comments what I was coming here to say -- that in many European cities bicycling is much easier and more convenient than it is in most American ones. To me, especially living in a city where the cycling community is not large or widely supported, there's enough discrepancy there to make up for most of the difference in attitude. At least, given what I see on the Euro cycling blogs I read. They're riding in a completely different world than I am!

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  25. The "Difficult" narrative is present both in Europe (Tour de France, Giro d'Italia, etc.) and in the US (adverse reactions to cyclists from drivers, indifference from municipal authorities, etc.) but I see the main difference in the fact that Europe is more "collectively" (but not exclusively) oriented and the US is more "individually" (but not exclusively) oriented. The "Easy" narrative seems to be the same on both continents.

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  26. Giles - But it seems to me that in Europe (by which we really mean continental European countries with a history of transportational cycling) there is not a tradition of confounding transportational cycling with roadcycling the sport as there is in the US?

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  27. You're right. Cycling as a "gentlemen's sport" became a "pharmaceutical business" 50 years ago... My example is not really pertinent

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  28. I live in Southeast CT. where there is no bicycling infrastructure like most places outside of the cities in America. I only occasionally see people commuting on bikes. As far as riding a bike to the store I think that is viewed as something that is done only if you have to. Most people around here cycle for exercise and recreation, not transportation simply because its not easier to do otherwise. I know most of your readers won't like to here that but its true. If you live in the burbs and don't have daily traffic jams and congested city streets to travel on driving your car is the easiest mode of transport. Its faster, sheltered from the elements and you can carry more without having to give it a lot of thought. Most of us live more than 10 miles from our work, which means commuting by bicycle is slower. I commute by bike occasionally, I wish it were more, but I have to allow more time to get to work if I'm going to travel by bike. I occasionally cycle for utility and I hope to increase that amount as I get the old Peugeot mixtie set up for it. Most people I know that don't cycle have very little reaction when I do commute, thay just figure I like to ride my bike.

    As a bicycle enthusiast I am always looking at various bikes new and old. The message I get from the large bike manufactures is that cycling is fun, good exercise, or a particular bike might be presented as cool or bad ass. It certainly would not be in their best interest to present cycling as a hardship. As for the blogs that I read, they present mostly a love of bikes and cycling. Only one of the blogs I read presents cycling as a more environmentally friendly mode of transport and advocates for it.

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  29. As a sixtyish cyclistwho does it for sport (utility happens) my cohort is out on the road because we are unemployed. Or consultants.

    Those of us who maintain regular gainful employment are becoming more forthright about dodging drudgery and gently guiding our staff as they accomplish all the real work. Playing hooky is not going to be much fun when our bodies stop working, so we do it now.

    Much real work that used to happen on the golf course or in a barroom is now done on the road or in a coffee shop. One of the best spots for serious business is in the basement, over a bench littered with old bike parts.

    All the narratives about virtue and strength of character continue somewhere in the background. If you say those things out loud in my group you'll need a sense of irony and a punchline.

    Yes, Velouria, hedonism is what makes us tick.

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  30. Ack, this strength of character argument.
    I didn't know doing something one likes is a chore.
    Callow Mericans.

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  31. Interesting point. I guess our culture is just so based on achievement (versus, say, efficiency) that we prefer to look at the goal part of a task. Glad you're having a lovely trip!

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  32. This post is a bit heady for me, but you bring up a good point. I look at it as the difference in cycling for transportation vs. cycling for sport and exercise.

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  33. I love it when you post something so thought provoking. The thought of "oh woe is me" marketing never came to mind, but it makes a lot of sense.

    My favorite bike places to hang out have been the "Clyde and Athena" forums because for folks who are 300 pounds or disabled, biking really is a challenge. Talk to a disabled vet who's doing Ride2Recovery or another similar bike therapy program and the goal really is important. There is so little I have in common with people who are 120 lbs and find it hard. Would they like a latte with that cup O'whine? :P

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  34. I think you're right when you say (in the comments) that part of it may just be that cycling is easier in continental Europe (not the UK) - certainly in the Netherlands, the impression is that everything is done to make cycling the easy choice over driving, in order to encourage it.

    The problem for UK (and I guess US) campaigners - and I include many bike bloggers in this - is how to encourage other cyclists to join us (strength in numbers, building a constituency of cyclists who might then get listened to by politicians) while at the same time keeping up the pressure for better infrastructure to make cycling easier for everyone.

    The fact is, cycling is inherently convenient, cheap and healthy even in a hostile environment, but not as convenient or safe as it could be were we to enjoy the sort of infrastructure seen on continental Europe. Anyone who cycles in, roughly, the Anglo-saxon or English-speaking world, experiences both these facts on a daily basis, hence, I think, the tension between the two...

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  35. I never thought about it, but I totally do both.

    I think other people nailed it: the fact is, bicycling is more fun and often faster, except when it isn't.

    There are days when it's the best thing ever, and days when it's rainy and cold and I consider taking transit instead.

    And sometimes it's fine to take the bus or train, and sometimes I do the ride anyway and feel really proud of myself for having done so.

    Plus, it's usually just not as bad as I was afraid it would be.

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  36. I agree with April and Cycler. If the blogs are contradictory it's because cycling itself is sometimes nice and other times a challenge.

    Maybe this discussion is also about learning what cycling is good for and what your limits are. Anyone can cycle to the shops if the weather and traffic is nice and you don't need to carry too much. The more adverse the conditions, the more experience and willpower it takes -- which can be a nice challenge.

    And once you're through the challenge you think "oh that wasn't so hard, let's do it again". I think smugness and privation might be overplayed as a motivator.

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  37. In my outpost corner of the USA, I think the "strength of character (or body) argument" really appeals. We have some kind of strange lutheran-scandinavian-meets-the-wild-west culture that produces people that like to brag about "training" climbs up Mt. Si (with a vertical gain of 4,167 ft over 4 miles of trail) with extra weight strapped to the backpack.

    These sorts of folks love jumping on the road bike and putting on the gore tex gear and riding through the cold dark winter. I don't think they are attracted to bicycling because it is easy, but because it is hard, and makes them stronger mentally and physically.

    I am happy to have them around, buzzing past me at twice the speed I normally travel, because it means there are more bicycles out and about. I just don't really get their take on it. I am lazy. I hate driving and the bus. I am also a bit of a dandy. That is why I ride a bicycle.

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  38. Hi Velouria!
    Can you help me with a little think? If you see my blog you can see that I'm restoring an old bike (it was of my grandpa, the bike have 70 years) AND I'm doubtful about the color that I want to use... Can you tell me your opinion? Here you can see the 3 green colours: http://elmesfort.blogspot.com/

    Thank youuuu so much! I appreciate your opinion!

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  39. I agree with April and Erik. I didn't ride today because the weather was horrific, it would have added over a 20 odd minutes (to get ready, ride, then change out of soaking wet clothes) to my commute instead of an easy 8 minute drive down the road. On the beautiful mornings I can't imagine it ever being hard, but the fact is sometimes it is. I seek out Blogs for motivation I hope that doesn't mean I choose to be a masochist or morally superior.
    Velouria re:- I would go even further and say that the bicycle industry - particularly the niche industry of classic city bikes and accessories - relies on these blogs' message for their own marketing to be effective. It's all connected.- Could you please do a post about this? Half the time I am jazzed by the classic bike aesthetic, the other half I feel like I am being played or get fed-up with what I am lusting after to show my dandy side and then I become a negative curmudgeon. I clearly need help.
    Peter

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  40. The flip side of this, of course, is the vehement anti-car sentiment on so many bike blogs that presumes the weakness of character of anyone behind the wheel of a car. No bike blogger ever reports looking at a line of cars and thinking "gosh, look how those poor dears are inconveniencing themselves so terribly!" ;}

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  41. Here in a close-in Philly suburb I am struck by how few cyclists are on the roads, even on a beautiful day. This is especially true with teenagers, whose car lust dominates the high school parking lots. They either see bicycles as "loser" material or think it is just too hard to ride a mile or two from home to school. One crossing guard told me that parents of high school students drive their kids from less than a mile away. Amazing! I never owned a car until I was out of college, and I don't believe that I was any the worse for it. I ride because I love to. I don't ride in bad weather and my pace is casual. I do lots of everyday tasks via the bike. I wish that riding a bike would be seen as normal behavior - which appears to be the case in Europe. For those who want to get fit via the bicycle - more power to them. But for me it is pure enjoyment and a chance to slow down the crazed speed of life nowadays. Don't mind at all being seen as the "crazy old guy on the bike."

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  42. velouria,
    great post! Really makes one think. Does one really ride because they want/need to or enjoy it. Or does one ride so that one can tell everyone else that they ride a bike instead of drive and so that they can feel like they deserve a pat on the back.

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  43. @Deborah:
    http://dr2chase.wordpress.com/2011/10/05/they-staged-a-monster-traffic-jam/
    http://dr2chase.wordpress.com/2011/05/21/enjoy-the-freedom-of-a-car/

    As far as easy vs difficult goes, I think they're both true in the US. If you don't ride continually all your life, getting started on a bike is going to be difficult. People I know who don't ride much talk about 2 and 3 mile rides as if they were polar expeditions. When I restarted biking in earnest, the first few (10-mile) commutes were not particularly fun. BUT -- I (re)developed a nice little engine, and suddenly, not hard. I decided that anything that resulted in me riding the bike more was good, and pursued the path of reduced character and fortitude (fenders, chaincase, plain pedals, always-on lights) and found that I rode more. So long-term, it's easy, and I'll spend money to make it easier. Short-term at the beginning, if I had not had the combination of (1) knowing that it was possible from racing as a kid (2) being utterly pissed about the oil war and not feeling like there was a damn thing I could do and (3) crappy blood chemistry, overweight, high blood pressure, I don't know that I would have.

    As far as being an advocate, I think that almost follows logically, unless you have no particular opinion on things like traffic jams, parking, obesity, and the cost of health care. Town I live in, "traffic" is the one thing that everyone can agree needs attention. Biking is the selfish way out of that problem -- ride a bike, you do not care that the cars are all backed up, it's not your problem. Same for parking.

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  44. I need to clarify my comment above.

    When I say cycling can be a challenge if it's raining or you need to carry two bags worth of groceries, I only meant it's a challenge the first time. It's like the first time you drive a car or use the internet. It's not difficult per se, it's just something that you actually need to learn how to do. And then it gets easy once you're used to it.

    I think this explains a lot of the easy/difficult sentiment found on bike blogs. People are coming back to biking, and learning in the process!

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  45. Erik--I agree. There's something fun and exciting about learning how to do things for the first time that once might have seemed challenging with a bike. I got pretty excited about riding my bike last year because it was my first Chicago "bike winter." Now, it seems it'll be just more of the same this coming winter--just an efficient, easy way to get around the city.

    I think Dottie hits this on the mark. Sometimes the message is "bikes are efficient and fun" and other times, it's like, "Hey, I didn't get hit by a car today!"

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  46. @dr2chase -- fair enough! And too true! (And funny -- they made me laugh... but in sympathy, as sometimes such car trips are just unavoidable no matter how much one might prefer to be riding. Ugh. Not sure the blogger was laughing in sympathy though.)

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  47. I was going to come in to post something similar to what Giles was positing. Looking beyond cycling, I personally find that while Americans may be more prone to the "strength of character" idea, I think that particular concept has universal appeal that spans nations and cultures. Consider the number of mountaineers, explorers and adventure sports enthusiasts that have come from Germany, Switzerland and England. Consider the writings of Velocio/Paul De Vivie or the more contemporary Irish writer, Dervla Murphy and how they occasionally extol the virtue of travelling by bicycle sometimes despite, but also because of, the travails that accompany it. There is a desire to challenge oneself that, I believe, exists in all people. It's just that cycling in Europe is such a mainstream activity that too view it as a method of individual challenge might be more akin to Americans who talk about going on long cross-country road trips to find themselves or go on an inner journey.

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