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
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