Monday, October 17, 2011

Not Turtle Enough For Your Turtle Club?

Years ago, hell decades ago, when I was in elementary school, I took a test. I only remember one question from that test and I remember it because I got it wrong. The question showed a picture of a crayon that was broken into two pieces with the caption "The crayon is broken in half" with check boxes for TRUE or FALSE. I checked TRUE only to have it later explained to me, that the two pieces of the crayon were of different sizes. The crayon was broken in TWO, but it wasn't broken in HALF.

At the time I thought the question was needlessly tricky and while it enraged my elementary sense of justice, I now see that single question as a pivot point in my education. While I still think the most valuable lesson I took from that day was an enhanced suspicion of authority figures, it was also the time when I truly saw the power of words. We can't talk about mathematics without talking. While in conversation we might say a crayon is broken in half, that is only mathematically true if it is broken into two perfectly equal pieces. We can only accurately say that the crayon is broken in two.

I mention the broken crayon because I want to question the language which has grown up around a couple of trends in the world of bicycles: The Slow Bicycle Movement and the somewhat related Cargo Bike Movement. While I think that we are at a wonderful point in the history of bicycling, where a wide variety of bicycles are available and we have reached the point where bike shops and customers are realizing that bicycles can be used for more than racing in France and looking like Lance, I worry that some genuine enthusiasm has tipped over into unintended exclusivity. Words and actions carry meaning and sometimes the message we think we are sending is not the one that is seen or heard.

First off, I think the biggest problem with the Slow Bicycle Movement is its use of the word slow. Now this may sound odd coming from a self-proclaimed Mountain Turtle, a man who rides with his wife as part of Team Turtle and someone who has often advised folks to Hasten Slowly, but there is a difference between not having to go fast and being slow. I work in a bike shop and I can tell you that very, very few people come into a shop saying "could you please show me something that is very slow and heavy?" They may not be interested in racing but slow is not a good sales word. "Comfortable" is a good word, as is "practical", "efficient" or "well-suited". But "Slow" is not great word to use in the shop setting. Not only does "Slow" turn off those seeking an expand their cycling experience beyond racing, it also does little to encourage the pedestrian to become a cyclist. The pedestrian is already comfortably slow without the complication of extra machinery. If a bicycle is to appeal to the pedestrian, it must rationally deliver a promise of some increased speed or comfort. You can deliver the message that riding to work is not riding the Tour deFrance without making the leap to a bicycle that is as massively overbuilt for daily use as a typical American SUV.

The SUV of the bicycle world is the cargo bike and I have no complaints that cargo bikes exist. I have many friends who own and sell cargo bikes, who live happy, car-free lives thanks to cargo bikes and that's all well and good. But when those same well-meaning friends insist that my life would be so much better if I had a cargo bike and that then I could do those Costco runs and haul 150 pounds of dog food home, I think that maybe one size doesn't fit all. I'm still pretty happy not going to Costco and sticking with bikes that I can haul up the stairs to my second floor walk-up apartment.

We have to be careful not to tell people that they are not turtle enough for our turtle club. While it's great to say that you don't need special clothes to ride a bicycle, often that message is eclipsed by the powerful images presented by Tweed Rides and Copenhagen Cycle Chic. As my wife recently commented to me after reading the latest issue of Momentum Magazine, "I don't know if I'm fashionable enough for biking slow."

I'm not asking for people to give up their cargo bikes or stop dressing snappy if that's the way they roll. But the wonder of our time is that we have all these options available to us and they are just that: options.

Lycra is not needed, neither is tweed. Your bike can be carbon or steel, aluminum or titanium. Your tires can be skinny of fat or somewhere in between. Cargo bikes can haul lots of cargo but any bike can haul something. And some of those lightweight bikes, they really haul. One size may not fit all, but there are many sizes and types of bikes out there and they fit many.

Keep 'em rolling,

Kent "Mountain Turtle" Peterson
Issaquah WA USA


Unknown said...

AS susual, you are so right!

Mimi Torchia Boothby Watercolors said...

whew, I'm glad you didn't say "wool is not needed"

Brent Logan said...

You're right: no one knows what to call the bikes most of us want to ride.

I want a bike with mounting places for a fenders and rack, a flat bar, and reasonable gears, or even internal gearing. Ideally it doesn't have a wide, fat seat and a position that pushes me back off the seat every time I try to accelerate.

Depending on the manufacturer, I have to look for a "comfort bike," "urban bike," "lifestyle bike," or even a "city bike."

Bryan Willman said...

Any bike is heavy and slow when I am riding it!

And in addition to agreeing with everything you wrote here Kent, I'll also point out that sometimes the lycra clothes and somewhat fancy bikes do work better for a person. (My body is such that I'm vastly more comfortable in cycling shorts. Happily, I am the only person on Earth stuck with my body.)

It might help to get traction with a name like the "cheap efficient" or "high utility" cycling movements. (Both of which get to start from the world's most energy efficient vehicles!)

Dan said...

Thanks for the Dana Carvey reference. My then younger kids laughed and screamed through that movie.

Don said...

I believe "slow bike" evolved from the "slow food" movement, which I guess stressed relaxation, conviviality, and unpretentious enjoyment. But they didn't really think that one through, because of the implications you describe. Naming a "movement" is always the first step to rewriting history in one's favor, kind of like the whole Boomer this and Gen X that. People generalize too much. I think the best we can do is live the way we think we ought and not try to sell it.

GravelDoc said...

Well said, Kent. I tend to think of my personal riding tastes like the candy bar commercial: "sometimes I feel like a nut, sometimes I don't". Sometimes it feels good to saunter along and sometimes it feels good to push myself and pick up the pace a bit.

TheBig Red 67 said...

Personally I would like to challenge the idea of slow being bad. I try daily to slow my self and feel more peace. For that matter I prefer to challenge the idea of bad. There isn't bad and good really, there is what you like and what you do not like. Having said that I understand the message and enjoyed reading it.

kG said...

Wondering if you'd mind a little cross-posting: this subject has come up recently in my area, concerning group rides and the concept of "belonging"... this post would make a good segue. Any qualms if I link to this post within mine?

kfg said...

". . ."Slow" is not great word to use . . ."

I kinda like "pootle" myself.

Alicia said...

I'll take some pictures of unfashionable people on cargo bikes this week for you! They aren't hard to find.
Magazines do tend to emphasize a certain kind of image.

HivemindX said...

Relaxed is a good word. I'm not a slow cylist, I'm a relaxed cyclist.

Kent Peterson said...


Link away. All my blog stuff is Creative Commons and as long as people don't claim my words are theirs & provide links back to the original everything is cool.

MG said...

Fantastic post, both your discussion around the use of "slow" and that of the clothing. I think you are right that the use of "slow" does not market well, or even capture the full intention of what cargo bikes or bikes like my Surly LHT are meant to do.

Regarding the clothing aspect, I was just thinking about how people say things like "you don't have to wear lycra and spandex, you can wear a dress and high heels." Um. OK, but what about the rest of us who aren't wearing dresses, but aren't wearing lycra, either?

Oh, and happy anniversary, by the way!

SiouxGeonz said...

Wool is not needed, either :-)
I wasn't thrilled with the "slow bike" website when I visited it. If you're still defining yourself by what you're not, then you don't get to fully be what you are. Time spent making disdainful comments about people moving faster could have been spent celebrating the ride. Now, the occasional "hey, why are they riding so fast? Are they trying to get it over with as soon as possible?" comment is okay ;)

Ground Round Jim said...

Slow bike movement, whatever. You ride at your own pace; while it's possible to ride a fast bike slow it's dumb. Yesterday I time trialed my cargo bike everywhere because I'm getting a life preserver from riding leisurely. Lost 3 pounds.

Your living arrangements might say no, but if you had secure storage I'm gonna bet you'd have different bikes, regardless of what inane name tags are placed on "movements".

kfg said...

"what about the rest of us who aren't wearing dresses, but aren't wearing lycra, either?"

You weren't paying attention when they pointed out that you can ride in jeans and a T-shirt?

Anonymous said...

Thanks for writing this, Kent.

I have long been what I call a "transportation" cyclist and generally did my best to wear clothes I liked with slight modifications so I could also ride my bike. Much like you, I reckon, my general "uniform" would work for a day at the office (in the software world), going to the store, or heading up into the mountains for 8+ hours.

Lately I've taken to riding a purpose-built bike more often, and just wearing lycra shorts when I ride. I'm the same guy, but I have a shower at work, so I often arrive in the morning looking not unlike the roadies I used to make fun of. Wearing my regular clothes over the lycra just doesn't make sense when I'll get a chance to become 100% sweat-free at work.

For a long time, roadies looked down their noses at Freds. What I liked about the world of cycling I became a part of was that there didn't seem to be that much difference between the two. The groups co-mingled, and the guy who just rode around in normal clothes might also ride 600km weekends every now and then. And I guess what I worry about is now that being a Fred has become popular (great! wonderful!), people will sneer just because one of their brethren happens to be out on a fast ride in his lycra shorts on a bike that doesn't happen to have fenders.

Anonymous said...

Gosh, was your "riding to work is not riding the Tour de France" entry posted that long ago? I can remember reading it brand new.

For what it's worth regarding a cycling "wardrobe", see me in the following video at 5:41. I had a great time.

Gene in Tacoma

Mike Morris said...

I think the need to believe we become new and different people when we change our clothes and get on a particular style of bike has something to do with consumerism and a related obsession in the US with superficial identity, but when I try to figure it all out, my head starts to spin and the only fix is to go for a bike ride.

RK said...

I think some folks are taking this a bit too seriously. I always thought of the slow bicycle movement as part tongue-in-cheek and part "hey, they're talking to me." If folks want to have a tweed ride is that so different from a Christmas Lights ride? I enjoy the heck out of my bikes, whether commuting home after dark or just popping on for my 30 mile recreational rides. I don't tell myself to slow down or speed up, I just go the speed I'm going. And sorry to be two months late with this comment- I really am slow.