...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.