...When We Talk About Cycling

When I first met my husband, our initial form of “curting” was to walk through the local countryside. Slowly and aimlessly we strolled, talking - what about I don’t even remember now. It was lovely. And, seeing as I was a cyclist, he kept telling me that one day he would get his old bike out of the shed so that we could cycle together. I looked forward to this.

The day came and we arranged to meet with our bicycles. Judging by the time-capsule look of his neon blue aluminium racer and his logo-emblazoned jersey, I believed it when he said he had not been on the bike in over a decade. But that would hardly matter on our romantic meander.

Amidst the lush surroundings of Irish late summer, we set off. The sky was a cornflower blue. The waning afternoon sun shone gently upon us.

Within moments, we were flying at 16mph, in silence. Then, about 3 miles in, he looked over at me and said,

“After this bend coming up, let’s start to crank up the pace.”

Too stunned to reply, I followed his lead. Doing my best to stay on his wheel, I worked harder, pedaled faster. Then faster again, till my vision began to blur. Just as I was on the verge of blacking out, his pace relaxed. And it dawned on me then: We were doing interval training.

“What the hell are you doing?!” I panted, eyes bulging out of my head, after three repeats of this and no sign that the rest of our ride would be any different. He looked at me with such genuine, innocent confusion, it nearly melted away my annoyance.


We would not ride bikes together again for months.

The problem with cycling - or, rather, with the word “cycling," at least in the English language - is that it is used to describe a range of very different activities. Riding a bike for transport is grouped together with pedaling for leisure, with using a bike as a brutal athletic workout, even with professional racing. These are activities which, in of themselves, have nothing to do with each other - even though some cyclists do choose to engage in more than one, and, in some cases, to overlap them.

Whether this makes cycling conceptually problematic or fascinating, is a matter of perspective. But the point is, when the word cycling is mentioned - be it in conversation, literature, social media, event descriptions, or marketing - we need additional context to know what sort of activity is being referenced.

The number of times I have clicked on articles about “women’s cycling” only to realise they were about women’s racing is staggering.

Then there are the endless debates as to whether one “needs” special clothing for cycling. And what about mudguards, panniers and baskets? Clipless shoes? Segregated infrastructure?

Is an upright bike "better" than one with drop bars? More "comfortable?"

Why ever would you want to “suffer” on your bike?

Why ever would you want a basket on your bike when it produces drag?

Why on earth does anyone need to know their average speed, let alone their cadence?

So often in these debates, people are not so much disagreeing, as talking about entirely different activities, for which they are forced by the limitations of language to use the same word. This can cause some needless frustration and friction.

It can also, however, get us to venture down roads we might have otherwise never considered. The sheer number of vehemently “un-athletic” people I know who started out commuting on vintage 3-speeds and now ride brevets, race cyclocross, go out with fast roadie clubs, compete in time trials.

Semantic confusion is often to blame.

“Oh, you’re a cyclist? So are we. Come join us this Saturday morning!”

It can also go in the other direction. There is a sizable category of people who get into bicycle racing by way of motorsport. They are drawn to the speed and the danger of it, in the same way they are drawn to rally racing and motor cross. But essentially they are petrolheads, who would never have dreamed of pedaling a bicycle for transport, let alone selling their car and advocating for bicycle-friendly infrastructure. Yet there they are, some years later - "accidental" bicycle commuters and even activists, passionate typing away on forums about front vs rear load cargo bikes.

Discrepancies in our understanding of cycling can take subtler forms. There have been a number of pivotal moments throughout my adult life, when my concept of cycling was redefined or expanded. The first memorable one, was when I realised that I could ride my bicycle with traffic and not only along riverside paths and park lanes. Another, was when I saw that the bicycle could truly serve as my only method of transport. When I joined my first paceline ride, everything I thought I knew about cycling as a sport underwent a colossal upheaval. Then it happened again, when I began to take part in timed events.

And no matter how much my concept of cycling expands, there is always room for more; there is always capacity for tremendous, mind-blowing surprise. Last weekend I rode a 100km loop through southern Donegal that nearly made me feel as if I couldn’t ride a bicycle at all - not in the way this place required it of me, anyway. Once again, my concept of what's involved in this umbrella term, cycling, was shaken. And I was reminded, that just when we think we've settled into a comfortable place within the spectrum of self-awareness, we are never quite as experienced, quite as strong, quite as wise or resilient, as we think.

These days I cycle with my husband a lot. Yet we have not compromised toward a joint definition of cycling. Rather, we have each expanded our repertoires to keep the other company. I will join him on hill climbs and on rides the sole purpose of which is speedwork, horrendous painful speedwork. He will join me on going to the shops, on casual meanders with cameras in tow; he has even given touring a try.

And although our house is full of two wheeled contraptions, we hardly ever call it cycling.

"Will you do some intervals with me this evening?”

"I am going to the shops, want to come?"

The bicycle is, of course implied. And misunderstandings are - mostly - avoided. That is not to say that, every now and again, training rides don't get paused for emergency photo-ops. And that "sprinting out of corners" never happens with a pannier full of groceries. But, in the end, being content in life requires flexibility. And that goes for what we talk about, when we talk about cycling.


  1. Ahaha, you were painting quite the idyllic picture of your initial ride, then it turned into a hammerfest. The line "We would not ride bikes together again for months" brought a laugh.

    It really is nice that you have a partner that rides with you. I would guess that you are both "good" for each other in the sense that you bring a change to what could become routine.


  2. Cycling began as 'exercise' because running was no longer a viable option. It shortly became 'exploration' which quickly transitioned into 'long distance exploration' and then veered into 'transportation'. It is normal for all of these to be present on the same ride.

    And that is just part of why I love 'cycling'. It can be so many things in so many different ways. It does not need to be static and, in fact, will not stay static.

    I say let cycling be whatever you want it to be and leave it at that.

  3. This is why I like Mikael Colville-Andersen's words that there are very few cyclists in Copenhagen. All those people on bikes are... people on bikes, not cyclists. He refers to cyclists as those sporty, performance-oriented individuals wearing Lycra, helmets, etc. All others who just use bicycles as utility vehicles are simply people on bikes who do not cycle, but use their bicycles as a "faster way of walking".

    1. I would go the other way, and reserve the word cycling for normal bicycle riding. Then something like performance cycling or sport cycling to refer to the athletic activity. And racing - well, for racing.

  4. I came into cycling the way that you describe: accidentally. We were poor, had only one car, and I had to go to work. So the Bicycle I owned (a $300 Gary Fisher) was the bike that i rode: in jeans and steel-toed shoes, 13 miles, one way. After a couple of years, when I was substantially faster, another commuter came alongside (despite my best efforts to stay ahead) and as we chatted, I learned that my bicycle was...slow! Today, I own a Motobecane from the 70s, a cheap fixie, and a Pinarello! So I'm faster, but I'm still not married to all of the gear that "real" (albeit recreational) cyclists deem obligatory. Just because of the way I entered the sport; via utility and transportation.

  5. I've just been given the OK by the cardiologist to get back out on my bike. I don't think his, my wife's or my definitions/expectations of this permission are the same :)

    1. Glad to hear this!

      The important thing here is of course your doctor's vs yours interpretation. Hopefully you are on the same page!

  6. Whatever kind of cycling you do, a bicycle needs maintenance. You can embrace it and go all 'Sheldon Brown' or you can let a friend or a mechanic do it. A racer and a commuter can share the same view on this. The difference being that the racer goes high-Tech and the commuter might chose to renovate old stuff.

    1. Actually... at the extreme end of the bicycle as transport /"citizen cyclist" philosophy, the view is that ordinary transport cyclists shouldn't have to be into vehicle maintenance any more than ordinary car drivers are. Instead, transport-specific bikes should come with durable components and puncture-proof tyres, and bicycle shops (in an urban environment at least) should be plentiful enough so that you could walk your bike to the closest one before work on those rare occasions you actually get a puncture. More serious problem? Leave the bike in, and take out a rental replacement, which of course the shop would have a fleet of on hand. This is the ideal/aspirational scenario of course. Although reality in some areas. Not just the likes of Amsterdam or Copenhagen either. By the time I left greater Boston, there were parts of it so dense with bike shops, this was definitely possible. I even remember one with a "get your flat repaired before work" special.

      This is not to say that bicycle maintenance skills are not useful to have. Only that they are not an essential part of the "let's get everyone on a bike" philosophy.

  7. In the 1950's on an island with a ferry to get to the next island, an English 3-speed was freedom. We would go down to the old WW-II abandoned forts and explore the turrets and pill boxes. Summer days - come home for dinner. Summer nights, no lights, no worries.

    Then in the 1960's came the 10-speed bikes. Heavy as, but that did not stop us from riding to the nearest marina, hitching a ride on a yacht, then riding 100 miles each day, meeting someone toward dusk and with hardly any money at all, being offered a free place to stay in exchange for stories. Hard yards with the occasional dehydration as we went from one island to another hoping not to miss the last ferry of the day. No helmet, special shoes or clothing, just a knapsack and a smile.

    In the 1970's the Peugeot PX-10 was the must have bike - I still have it, but it was totally unsuited for hack riding. It would be lucky to have a hundred miles on it. Not sure why I am keeping it; the Brooks Professional saddle has never been broken in.

    After that, in the 1990's, it was Gary Fisher MTB - sold to me by a most convincing bike shop - I sold that one a few years ago covered in garage rust, this one lucky to have ten miles on it when I sold it.

    Then in 2011 we were in southern Italy where our villa came with single speed bright orange bicycles. To get morning coffee was a 5 km ride on paved farm tracks - never any cars - and except for one walk-up-it hill, all flat. Suddenly it was 1959 again, bicycling slow, smell-the-roses cycling, and I realised all those intermediate years of someone else's idea of what makes cycling great was not me.

    Came home to my island, started visiting bike shops, but this time did not fall for the sales pitch. Instead I went to the Internet and found Velouria who was a few years ahead of me. She wrote about the bikes I loved and had forgotten - the Sturmey Archer three-speed with the thumb shifter; the elegant badges and full fenders; the basket with picnics.

    So on our next trip to Europe, we purchased two of those wonderful 3-speed upright bikes and never looked back. It was my first car-free trip to Europe since student days and it was the best. European cities are best explored by bicycle, cycling is just the right pace. And they have a network of bicycle roads where one can ride for weeks on end, stopping at bicycle friendly hotels (they provide lookups and are not offended by damp, bright yellow guests walking into the lobby) and exploring just as I did with my WW-II forts so long ago.

    I've not succumbed to brevits, off-road or the Lycra riding, but am racking up the miles both on our island, and thanks to the ferry taking bicycles for free, my prime form of transport going to town. For me, cycling is a bit like flying in my dreams. I move faster than when walking and I'm above the ground. Going to the village for coffee is just right on a bike whereas walking takes too long. It's not so much transport as it is connection with the air, the land around me, and the greeting of folk along the way - all things that are lost behind the windscreen of a car.

    So, for me, cycling is joy. Pure and simple.

    1. Thank you for that beautiful comment.

      My ideal fantasy of cycling has always been something along these lines, and it intercepts with reality occasionally. Living in hilly and horrendously windy places does throw a wrench in the works. As do the friendships with roadie and racing cyclists I always seem to get into. Still, my love for the sort of bikes and cycling you describe is the default, fixed love which I always return to. Usually every day. Minus the boats. (But maybe, some day, including boats! Man, how I'd love that...)

  8. " ...when the word cycling is mentioned - be it in conversation, literature, social media, event descriptions, or marketing - we need additional context to know what sort of activity is being referenced."
    I would imagine the additional context is provided in the course of the article, conversation, images etc. I don't see that there is any problem with the word 'cycling' - the same could be said of other activities, horse riding,fishing, running, breeding canaries - all have different levels of involvement that the base descriptor may not indicate.
    The word 'cycling' is not one I would commonly use, I ride my bike every day, for different purposes, so I would be 'going to work', 'meeting a friend', 'going out on the trails' or whatever I happen to be doing, however, it is all cycling since I am riding a bike and if one is riding a bike, one is cycling and therefore one is a cyclist.

  9. I have been a climber since the late 90s and it is not different than this version of "cycling". Most times when I mention that I'm a rock climber people think I'm up on Everest and summiting incredibly tall peaks which is nowhere near the type of climbing I do. Such a broad labeling does lead to confusion. When I meet new cycling people I tend to ask them what kind of riding do you like to do, which gives me a better idea of the type of cyclist they are. This post has given me a new way to answer I think. "I like to ride different types of bikes for fun".

  10. This kind of reminds me about another sport/activity I've been a part of since the 90s, rock climbing. There are many different avenues you can take in climbing from 15 foot boulders to 15000 foot mountains and lots of disciplines in between. All of which are considered climbing. Sometimes when I tell people I'm a climber they think I'm out climbing Everest and the same if I say I'm a cyclist. People just make assumptions on what they know. This post has given me a new answer for 'cycling' anyway. "I like to ride different types of bikes for fun".

  11. Replies
    1. They are everywhere in Donegal; referred to as grottos.

  12. I recently attended a workshop sponsored by a (US) national advocacy organization to learn how to teach a class on traffic safety for cyclists. Offering such a class is part of my co-op's effort to get more people riding for transportation. The greatest obstacle, we've learned, is that lots of folks who love to ride on the greenline simply don't feel safe out on city streets.

    So, off to the workshop I went. Our instructor provided lots of examples of mistakes he had seen riders make. He would often say "now, mind you, this was a serious cyclist...." Without exception, every time he used the term "serious" to characterize a cyclist, he meant someone who races or who at least does fast group rides of the paceline variety.

    At first I found this off-putting. Then I realized that I'm perfectly happy with my decidedly un-serious riding. I get myself to work and the grocery store, to coffee shops and city parks on my bike. On weekends I go out for long meandering rides with my spouse or on my own. And I am never serious about it. In fact, for me, riding a bike is downright and delightfully silly.

    That was a long-winded way of saying "Yes!" to this post. Forget about what is "real" cycling or "serious" cycling. Just ride your bike.

    1. That's it - there is enough to be serious about in life - I leave my bike riding out of that - that wonderful sense of simplicity and freedom - who would want to weigh that down with unnecessary seriousness?

  13. Great blog. I love how you have travelled from "what the he'll are you doing" to a very rounded vision of cycling which is my own perspect after 40 years of it.Thanks

  14. First, the main thrust of your post is spot on.

    Be careful with those intervals. A little goes a long way. Most who do them overdo them. Because they like doing them, and keep repeating far past the point of diminishing returns. As you live amidst severe grades, and enjoy doing them, the need for additional power work is not there. Of course constant climbing does tend to make riders into sloggers.

    The appropriate speedwork would be lowgear sprints. Low means low. Trying to sprint in a gear you can't sprint does nothing.
    When you can jump to 30mph in a 70" gear, then you are ready to do speedwork in a 75" gear. And if you never get to 30 in the small gear, just keep at it, you will still accomplish more than you would beating up your legs in a big gear. If 30mph seems wildly out of reach, do the sprints in a 60" gear. And jump means jump. From a rolling start top speed in gear should come in two or three seconds. More sluggish than that is not a jump.

  15. Interesting sermon on this Sunday morning…...Certainly can be applied to many activities, as others have mentioned. It all depends, doesn't it?

  16. I love it that you know what rally racing is! Great article as well.

    1. It's difficult not to know, living around here!

      {see: some Joule Donegal pictures, if you like}

  17. Have the two of you tried a tandem?

    1. I'd probably give it another year. He is a little too comfortable with crashing, for my stokerhood comfort zone.

    2. He's the obvious stoker then.

  18. tandem riding will make or break a couple
    as a couple we toured all over the world we survived
    but know the wife rides solo
    we often head out on our bromptons in town glorious
    just my 2 cents
    btw great blog

  19. Did not know if you had read this: http://surlybikes.com/blog/post/im_done


    1. I did read that... though I think he'll return to all that eventually.

  20. So many different views on cycling and cyclists, but one thing will never change, and that is the recognition of the cyclist species, of all belonging together in our miles apart way. A shared love of the bicycle.

  21. Ha! I know exactly what you mean. I sometimes forget that cycling can mean anything other than commuting. I started cycling as a means of transportation a few years back when I got sick of taking the bus. I became really confident in my abilities and entered a mini triathlon, thinking the biking portion would be easy. Boy was I in for a shock! Everyone else zipped by me on their fancy race bikes. Racing is a whole other world!

  22. I totally get it. That's why i made this: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ach30rc4Agk

  23. Great blog. Cycling has always been transport for me (along with enthusiasm for machinery in general). Not usually sole transport as I'm quite lazy... The Honda 90 or even occasional cars have also been used, but the bicycle has a particular advantage.. No licensing, so I am trusted to legally ride home from the pub after as many pints as I can safely cycle on.


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