Tuesday, December 2, 2014

In and Out of Character

Cyclist/ Pedestrian Bridge, Coleraine

One afternoon not so long ago, I was doing something I don't normally do: riding my roadbike through a busy town center. I was cycling slowly, meandering really, taking in the sights. Then I stopped to take a photo of the sun setting over a distant scrap yard. As I admired the pastel heaps of debris whilst considering composition, a man walked past and turned his head to look at my bike. He then remarked offhandedly that it looked "out of character." What do you mean, I said. But before my words could reach him, he was out of earshot.


I replayed the phrase in my head a few times. Did he mean that the bike looked out of place in the town center? Or that its modern sleekness clashed with my clunky vintage camera and non-roadie attire?

Who knows what he really meant. But it got me thinking more generally about differences in character between types of cycling experiences. For example, in the comments of the earlier post about tracking milage, a reader made a distinction between the way she might feel on an exploratory ride with no pre-determined destination versus on a focused fitness ride. The differences can also pertain to the bicycle itself: the way a particular bike can "make" us feel and ride a certain way, influencing not only our riding style but our attitudes and behaviours whilst we are astride it.

It is this latter part I find especially interesting. When the current wave of urban cycling culture first began, there was a lot of talk of how upright city bikes cultivate a rider who is more relaxed, dapper, civilised, polite, considerate, observant, et cetera - in comparison to more aggressive roadbikes and "fixies."

Likewise, when riders unfamiliar with racing bikes first experience this breed of machines, they often talk about the seduction of speed and quick handling in a way that almost grants the bikes agency. In this type of narrative, the bike is a wild, unruly creature full of impulses and preferences - which their new owner might initially struggle to rein in, before ultimately succumbing to.

It's fun to think of bikes as having minds of their own. But it also begs the question: To what extent does the type of bike we ride really shape our behaviour? Were we to take a participant pool of cyclists and send each off on an identical ride on one of several types of bicycles assigned at random, would they really exhibit differences in demeanor? How would they score on various attitude and mood state tests?

The idea that a bicycle's "character" can impact our own, if only temporarily, is not a ridiculous one. In fact, fit alone can be the culprit. After all, decades of research have shown that posture affects mood - which, in turn, affects attitudes, behaviour and decision making.

It used to be that I experienced huge differences in state of mind when riding one type of bicycle versus another; with the bike's personality most certainly dictating my riding style. As I continue to gain experience and miles, I notice the effect diminishing. Today I feel perfectly capable of riding my roadbike in a way that's "out of character" for it - without feeling as if the bike is "making me" ride too fast or too aggressively.

I do love a bike with strong personality. Negotiating it, without compromising my own, is yet another exciting aspect of cycling.

25 comments:

  1. This is your busy way of saying, "tool for the job."

    I think, who knows.

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  2. I'm a Twitter type of guy when it comes to expressing myself. So I can appreciate so much your writing. Keep it up.

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  3. Absolutely, a bike can impact the ride's and thus rider's character. Ever see a rider in full kit riding a beach cruiser? Probably not too often, and if you have, I'm sure there was moment of pause.

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    1. That I have! Trying to remember the context, but possibly it was after the Gran Prix Beverly race.

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    2. I saw a guy in full roadie kit with rainbow world champion striped jersey no less (!!!) riding an upright cruiser. It looked very "off."

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  4. Interesting essay. Another facet of this might be the endeavor (or is it art?) of finding or defining the personality of a bicycle, which is often not evident or fully realized when the machine is first ridden. It may take months or even years of adjustment, part-switching and, usually, swearing, but the results can sometimes be gratifying. Of course, it might be that the rider has to adapt somewhat to the bicycle, as well, in order to find that point of "per-function" that is sought...

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  5. Here's one way to interpret his comment: Just as UK cars are designed with their steering wheels on the right side of the vehicle to accommodate driving in the left lane, a proper UK velocipede should have its drivetrain situated on the left, like this: http://sheldonbrown.com/org/gunnar/

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    1. Oh my. I had almost forgotten about that one.

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    2. Or, perhaps the gentleman was perplexed by seeing a "fast" bike outfitted with fenders and a front bag. One thing I've learned is that cycling is an alien world to many non-riders. Years ago, my dad was horrified that I had spent nearly $400 on a Raleigh Super Course. "For that kind of money, they could have at least included a kickstand," he said. In reality, I lusted after a Competition or a Raleigh Pro. Unfortunately, my budget wouldn't allow it. I really like the picture, by the way. To me, the bike looks right at home in that environment.

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  6. It's difficult to ride a folding bike and not feel just a bit whimsical.

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    1. Funny enough I don't feel particularly whimsical on my Brompton, probably because it has such strong associations with utility and hauling. I guess I think of it as a mini cargo bike that folds, rather than a folding bike.

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    2. You mentioned this several times before and it peaks my curiosity!

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  7. Interesting topic. In isolation the bike can have a major impact on how we ride. Throw a few big egos into the equation and the bike disappears in the mix.

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  8. Funny you should mention this. I regularly hop between three bikes and they definitely have a character of their own. My cheap n-th hand 70s Raleigh Roadster is a bit lazy but easygoing. Daily commuting means that I just point it roughly to the direction I want to end up, and I can leave the rest for the bike. Upright position means good visibility and the cycling part kind of becomes unconscious effort after the first 100 meters.

    Bob Jackson Worldtour on the other hand is what I think a light trekkie or a semi-rando ought to be. A steady and versatile companion, that takes you on leisurely for a long trek without complaining about panniers or handlebar bag, but at the same time feels instantly responsive when picking up speed or sprinting. Also it has been fitted with a certain style that is pleasing to my personal aesthetics.

    The third feller is a sad one, a generic aluminium frame Trekkie hybrid with decent groupset, front suspension and disc brakes. No personality and no feeling to it. It just feels the bike fights back at every turn and feels awkward, not to mention has tiny little faults all the time. I also appreciate the old-school looks in a bike which modern bikes very seldom have. Although I like speed I actually do not feel any need to go for a race bike, unless it would be a steel framed vintage one.

    In shoe terms the trio is retro sneakers vs (repro) leather paratrooper boots vs running shoes one size too small and too narrow shape. I know I would wear comfy sneaker everywhere and when style or duty demands I would hop into the leather boots.

    I like that a bike has a definitive character that you can see from afar and feel on the bike. I feel that a bike and the cyclist should have a good relationship!

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  9. Ha, I've got one bike that I use all the time, so whatever character it has, that's it. People look at it and sniff, "a commuter." Well, It's got a titanium frame in addition to the big tires and fenders for winter. And if I qualify, it will be in PBP next year. Some commuter.

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  10. If your Seven was equipped like in the picture above, wondering if he was referring to handlebar bag and its contrast with small tool roll; somewhat of a reversal on a fast road bike for some who still expect to see a proper saddle bag on a racing-type bike and no bag up front unless it's a touring rig. Or maybe simply that luggage on a sleek bike as yours is out of character. Your Seven in the pix looks all wicked business :)! Whatever, flavorsome post as always, stimulating good reflective thoughts on bikes and rides. Thanks!

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  11. I've been riding my wife's bike for the past week, in an attempt to troubleshoot an issue she's having with it (I can't reproduce it). It's a mixte with a large wicker basket in the front, built up very much as a townie. Despite the difference in character between her bike and my bikes, notably a more upright riding position, a boat anchor 8-speed IGH and a wide, sprung saddle, I'm still riding it like I stole it!

    Cars can definitely influence our driving behavior. I've noticed that cars that are made to be driven hard encourage the driver to drive them hard, whereas cars that are made to drive tamely encourage tame driving behavior.

    Maybe in my wife's bike's case, I simply built it up as a wold in sheep's clothing? Who knows?

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    1. Analogously, some cars and trucks are so bad as to try to kill you regardless of speed. Those are generally called, "vintage".

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  12. I think clothing does have a lot to do with it -- the bike is an extension of my self-presentation to the world. Interestingly, I feel a lot less road rage when I'm in my professorial tweed jacket on my Raleigh roadster, vs. in jeans and converse on a city-converted road bike. In the former case, I suppose I'm letting the style convey the authority. In the latter, I'm in denial about middle age, with something to prove.

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    1. I've heard others say they feel more road rage on a roadbike as well, but I haven't experienced that effect myself. However, I've noticed that drivers treat me differently (i.e. the Mary Poppins Effect).

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  13. I was thinking of writing a post on this very topic as I have noticed that when switching between bikes, I ride differently and I was actually getting a bit scared of some of the things I do on my faster bike when I think about it afterwards. Maybe it is the bike's personality ....

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  14. A type of bike absolutely affects your character, possibly emphasizes what you are feeling at the time. A thing happened to me riding my upright Bianchi Milano Dama the other day, through some urban streets in the city. I started noticing that I was sitting taller than a man on a moped, a Smart Car, and a motorcycle. I wanted to see what else I was taller than or came to eye level to on my machine. It was strange, but I had a bit of a feeling of smugness - I'm on a bike, it feels great, it's transportation and I'm sitting taller where I can see all around me.

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  15. Love this shot! It would be great to see more of urban (or at least non-rural) Northern Ireland in your coverage.

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    1. I spend a fair bit of time in local towns/cities (Coleraine, Limavady, Derry), but there's not a whole lot to be said about them as far as cycling. Each is very compact, with a decent pedestrian centre, but poor to no cycling infrastructure outside of that. So usually what I'll do is arrive by bike, then lock it up at the edge of town and walk when doing things in the town itself. That doesn't make for great cycling blog material.

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  16. I think it comes down to "ride the bike you're on".

    My wife recently purchased a Raleigh Lady Sports from CL for a song that she uses for commuting to work and tooling around town. We did all the stuff listed here: http://lovelybike.blogspot.com/2010/10/lovely-bicycle-on-budget-vintage-vs.html. There was a problem though. I could keep "down" with her on my Trek 7.2FX. I just wanted to go faster than she did no matter what. Solution: Get a Raleigh Sports for me. Now I ride the bike the same way she does. Works out great.

    I actually like the upright position much more than I thought I would. Now even the Trek seems like I am bent forward a bit too much.

    I just recently sold my road bike - a beautiful Cannondale - because I found out that just wasn't me. It took too long to get on the bike. I had to get dressed for it, put on the special shoes, unpack my wallet for just the essentials and take the cellphone out of its case to make it fit in the seat bag. I loved what it could do - eat up the miles - but I didn't like how I had to do that. Plus I just didn't really like leaning that far forward. I didn't realise that until my wife got the old Raleigh.

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