Define Cyclist

A 1970s Frejus
A 1970s Frejus  photo courtesy of The Flying Wheel

We are cyclists, the rest of the world merely rides a bike. What defines us as cyclists? Can a recumbent rider be a cyclist, a unicyclist, a fat recumbent rider with hairy legs and a YJA on? I think yes but am I snob for even asking?

Years ago, I was helping a woman at another research institution set up some scientific equipment. Evidently we kept our small talk very small because it never came up that she was the wife of a cyclist friend, Paul. I had ridden with this guy many times, he used to race a lot, and he always put in his miles. Eventually, he and I put it together that I had been working with his wife.

“She didn’t think you were cyclist, as you didn’t have shaved legs.”

Boom, lightening struck, really, that’s the requisite? I had dabbled in racing fleetingly and shave up for it but unless one was somewhere in the spectrum between racer and ex-racer, I thought it was almost false advertising to shave the legs. I rode nearly as much as Paul, I was probably more obsessed with professional european cycling than he was. Actually, I had to have been a lot more obsessed than him, he had a PhD and could not spend his lunch break cloistered in his office reading Cycling News online, every day, could he? Was I not a cyclist too?

In the 1970s at a big college where I knew no one, I became best friends with a fellow misfit, Mark. He had raced on the boards through his high school years, racing at the outdoor velodrome in Northbrook, Illinois. The Chicago area must have been a hot bed of American cycling back then. High school youth with too much energy could channel it into track racing on bikes when it was warm and track racing on speed-skates when it was cold. We bonded over Jimi, not Eddy but he had a huge poster of Eddy Merckx in his dorm room. I had never seen that before. I dare say he worshiped Eddy. He agonized over still referring to himself as a track racer, though he had not raced in two years. I didn’t understand at the time how important a question this was to him. It was his identity. Let’s see, you haven’t raced in a long time, and you have a bong in your hand, you might not be a bike racer anymore, I thought, but I didn’t get it. He was still a cyclist.

It was his unbridled enthusiasm for bikes and cycling that opened my eyes. He understood a whole universe I was unaware of and even though we were the same age, he became my sensi.

We both dropped out of school that year and the sensi began his work. His Campagnolo-ed up Frejus road bike was always spotless. He taught me by example only, everything about looking fantastic on the bike. He was the one who insisted we take apart my brand new, as yet unridden Peugeot PX-10 down to the ball bearings and rebuild it properly. He was a Velominati long before there were Velominati. As a sad endnote to this, Mark died in his sleep in his early twenties; some cruel syndrome that kills young healthy men for no known reason. One of his track jerseys has always hung deep in my closet. It remains, as the idea of discarding it is still impossible. 

So what makes us cyclists instead of just bike riders? Is it love? Does loving to ride any wheeled (I’m not unicyclist phobic) machine do it? Is it the need to ride where we cross the line? If riding defines us and we are good with that, then we are cyclists. 

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54 Replies to “Define Cyclist”

  1. This seems as good a discussion as any to make a ‘first post’ in. Long-time lurker, etc., I’ve wasted most of my 45 years on foot, having only discovered cycling in the last four years or so thanks to the tax incentives of the bike-to-work scheme and some colleagues of varying inclinations (one roadie, one ex-racer, one MTBer and one endurance guy who I’ve never seen in long trousers, even at work).

    Those four years started with the struggle of coming to terms with being not just ‘too fat to climb’, but ‘too fat to commute seven miles’, and that took a while. I wore the badge of a ‘goldilocks cyclist’ for a year or so, but now commute by bike when the schedule permits, rather than when the weather graciously allows it, and I seek out excuses to ride, not excuses not to ride. I’ve not ridden on snow yet, but I find myself perversely looking forward to the attempt.

    Alongside the physical training of going out on the bike, those four years have seen me embark on a parallel course of training – regular visits to this site, for one thing, and hours on YouTube catching up on the classic races of years gone by. This year’s birthday haul included the hardback of The Rules.

    Having sprung for a second-hand road bike early this year to enable me to complete a 130km trip to the seaside (Leicester’s traditional charity bike ride distance), I feel my status as a ‘cyclist’ rather than a ‘person who rides bicycles’ was confirmed earlier this month when a red spoke snapped (Bottecchia wheels have an Italian flag thing going on with their spokes), and I devoted the best part of three days finding a distributor for the right kind of spoke, rather than just allowing the LBS to fit a standard white one. Several people asked why I bothered and the only answer I have is that feels like the right thing to do. The bike may be second-hand, aluminium, and mass-produced, but it deserves my respect.

    So I’m not fast, I’m still not that fit, and I certainly don’t think I “look Pro” (although I probably look more pro than I did four years ago). But I think of myself as a cyclist, I feel a sense of community and identity with other cyclists I meet, get passed by and even (precious few in number) pass by as I’m riding. Isn’t that the essence? You’re a cyclist if you think you are. What others think doesn’t really matter that much.

    /self-indulgent mode off

  2. @Nick

    that is a top post to kick off with!

    I know the feeling re the spoke – yes, you could put any old spoke in but it wouldn’t feel right.

    Descartes died knowing that his line “I think, therefore I am.” wasn’t quite right. It took another couple of 100 years before he could have finished it off properly:

    “I think I’m a cyclist, therefore I am a cyclist.”


  3. @Nick 3 days to source the right spoke? Yes, you’re definitely pedantic enough to be called a cyclist in my book.

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