An Anthropology of Bike Riding

I keep noticing that I ride differently than the Hispanic guys on their bikes. I’m your fairly typical white cyclist, wearing neon lemon clothing and using reflectors, helmets and blinkies in the hope of improving my odds of being seen and noticed.

I ride in the bike lane, along with traffic, make turn signals, direct traffic when I need to, so on, so forth. I should also add that I ride quickly, being a perpetually time-crunched North American working parent, thus attempting to exercise while commuting, not to mention trying to get to work to put in another seemingly productive day.

Yet the other day, and not for the first time, a Hispanic guy came cruising down my side of the bike lane. Slowly. No helmet, no reflective velcro strap around his pant cuff. No helmet, no neon lemon. An utterly normal fellow, riding slowly.

As I gyro-ed toward him, unwilling to swerve into the street, he merely rode on the sidewalk to make way for him. I had the sense he was meandering down the road, and if he’d rolled by something that caught his eye, he might have stopped and spent a moment with it. (Whereas I was your basic trotter with blinders on, going in one direction–straight.)

He’s not the only one who rides that like that either. Seems like the white guys ride like me (gear! bike lanes! blinking lights!), and yet there’s a whole other culture who don’t ride at some optimal cadence, and who weave across streets and sidewalks and driveways and wherever.

I’m tempted to push this humble observation even further (probably off a cliff of speculation), but I’d venture to say that my tribe is time-oriented (make that train), and his is task oriented (we’ll get there when we get there).

I dunno. I don’t have a whiz-bang conclusion to this hypothesis, and unfortunately, I don’t have the time or the Spanish language ability to explore the ethnography of the “other” way of cycling.

However, it does make me wonder if my clothes and panniers and blinkies aren’t also some sort of cultural signal, saying “I’m not a poor guy on a bike … I choose to ride. See all this expensive gear?”

It was warm today, and as I sat for two minutes waiting for a green light to cross Mega Boulevard, I have to say the prospect of wandering down the sidewalk instead of sitting like a horse in the starting gate before going shoulder-to-quarterpanel with cars was pretty darned tempting.


One thought on “An Anthropology of Bike Riding

  1. Yeah, one of the interesting things about bicycles is they are popular with people with lots of money and people with less money.

    I see basically two types of riders also when I ride: people like me, with nice bikes (usually road or hybrid bikes) and helmets, and then older folks without helmets or special gear on mountain bikes (and younger people on bmx bikes without helmets or special gear).

    I think a big educational and safety promotion campaign could help, especially if it were also done in Spanish.

    Oh! There is a third type. On the west side of Portland’s west hills, occassionally you see people on fixed gear bikes with messenger bags. They spend money on bike gear — at least the Chrome messenger bag — but may not always wear a helmet. I think the explaination for them is that they are a real Portland cyclist, but come out west for work.

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