Cycling And Politics

It is often said that one should not discuss religion or politics in polite conversation.  I shall now attempt to break this rule without causing an all-out flame war in the comments section.  Please wish me luck.

Thank you.

Actually, what I want to talk about (I think) has nothing to do with the goodness/badness of a certain political view, but rather why a certain political view even exists.  I am talking, of course, of cycling advocacy.  More specifically, I am interested in the very strong link between cycling advocacy and liberalism.

click for Bicycle Times article

I first began to think about this issue when I spied an article in the January 2011 Bicycle Times Magazine titled, “How To Talk Cycling To A Conservative.”  If you landed on Earth from outer space, this might seem to be an odd thing.  “What is inherently political about a bicycle, and why do people of a liberal bent need an article to help them explain their position to people of a conservative bent?” you might ask.

Silly alien.  Us Earthlings understand that progressive politics are deeply woven into the cycling community.

To illustrate my point, please consider the following story.  At the 2011 National Bike Summit (a gathering of cycling policy advocates in Washington, DC), Congressman Earl Blumenaur – a Democrat from Oregon – told the audience that a conservative congressman offered to vote for hundreds of millions of dollars for cycling projects in return for a vote in favor of oil drilling in the Alaskan National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR).  When Congressman Blumenaur told the audience he turned down the offer, the audience cheered.

To review, a group of cycling advocates were happy (to the point of cheering) they didn’t get hundreds of millions of dollars for cycling projects so that the wildlife in Alaska remained protected.  Fascinating.  Don’t get me wrong – I have no qualms about people wanting to protect Alaskan wildlife.  I just find it interesting that a bunch of lobbyists for improved cycling laws and infrastructure would be thrilled that their own agenda had been thwarted by another one.  And therein lies the rub: cycling advocacy and environmentalism aren’t separate agendas.  They’re the same agenda.  This is how a largely agnostic issue like making cycling better for everybody turns into a decidedly partisan (and liberal) issue.

This has all sorts of effects on cycling beyond the odd scene of cycling advocates cheering because they didn’t get any money.  I think it throws gas on the fire (please excuse the expression) that is the motorists v. cyclists war  because it becomes a metaphor for a larger clash of ideas.  It is bad enough when a cyclist is almost run off the road by a motorist, but when this turns into a skirmish in the worldwide struggle between Big Oil and Green Peace, then a whole new dimension is added to the incident.

Another odd thing about the phenomenon is that when people argue against increased cycling infrastructure, it is often said that cycling is primarily an activity for rich white men and that public funds could be better spent elsewhere.  Rich white men is also a description often used to describe conservatives.  Oh, the irony.

Little did I know when I purchased my bicycle in the spring of 2010 that I had just enlisted in the cycling-environmentalist lobby.  By choosing its iconic symbol as my form of recreation and exercise, I became a rolling poster boy against suburban sprawl, global warming, the car culture, and food additives.  I simply had no idea what I had signed up for.  People assume you are part of “The Cause” when you’re actually just some guy on a bike.  My cycling buddies worry about their carbon foot print and look at me askance when I tell them I occasionally drive my bike to where I want to ride.  “Why don’t you simply ride there?” they ask.  “You’re defeating the purpose of riding the bike.”  I retort that I am defeating their purpose, not mine.  I want a change of scenery and it is too much bother to pedal all the way to a new start point.  To do so would mean I am cycling over the same scenery and thus defeating my purpose.

I have no ulterior motives when I cycle.  I don’t want to save the planet or make a better tomorrow.  I simply want to get some exercise and enjoy a nice ride.  I realize that puts me in the minority of the cycling community, but I have grown used to being in a minority position on most issues.  I thank the larger group for tolerating me and for continuing to excuse my odd behavior.

There you have it – my completely apolitical analysis of cycling politics which will give no one any cause whatsoever to initiate a flame war in the comments section of this post.  Thank you for your attention!


22 thoughts on “Cycling And Politics

  1. This cracked me up, because I missed that memo too. I don’t ride for political reasons. I ride for my health and because it makes me HAPPY. I would love for more biking legislation — so we could ride/share the road better with cars. Somehow I don’t think it will help us with the Texter’s that have run down and killed many here in Alabama and in Florida. The main places I ride.

    • Glad you liked it, Shonnie. I think there are a great many “cycling agnostics” out there, but we get swept up in the advocacy movement. I think that’s a small price to pay for the fun of riding a bike.

  2. I ride a bike because I can and because I like to, not because I think it will help to save the world, which it will not. Thanks for sharing your viewpoint. Appreciated.

  3. I’m not trying to “save the planet” or “save the whales” by riding a bike — I am trying to save my health. I’ve too have found that cycling advocacy and environmentalism have the same agenda. I love cycling, but politically I am a bit to the right of Attila the Hun.

  4. Very interesting article, Steve, and may I just say, Welcome to the Left, buddy!

    I think the cycling/environmental/organic/(fill in what you like)/ movement is, if I may borrow a term from the French, an ‘Anglo-Saxon’ idea. Here in France cycling, for the most part, seems to be just cycling. Riders demand their rights, of course, but it’s normally the usual ‘please stop running us over’ thing.

    I find this refreshing, even if I lean towards connecting the above dots more than the average guy here. We all ride for our own reasons and I’ll bet that your readers’ comments here show (as they are already) that you aren’t alone in your agnostic tenancies!

    • Perhaps you’re right, Gerry, and I am far from alone. I do believe the Urban Hipster group is the most political and their agenda is closely tied to environmentalism. The Mountain Bikers, Roadies, and Touring cyclists aren’t nearly as politically active, but they get painted with the same brush as the Hipsters and there are sufficient numbers of politically active amongst them to reinforce the impression.

  5. The thing is, and I express this is the most polite way possible, that you miss the point. Everything is political if it affects your fellow citizens. Who your fellow citizens are is what is in question. If you think that the small group of people you know who are like you and agree with you are your fellow citizens, then life is easy. Nothing you do is political but more or less every thing anyone else does is politically motivated if it affects your group. Both left and right leaning people like to make life easy in this way. I have lost count of the times I have heard people say, “Don’t let’s bring politics into this.” By which they mean, “Please don’t argue with what I do and think and talk about how it may affect other people, because I am right and you are wrong.”

    Like you I often put the bike in the Kangoo especially if I am cycling with my wife otherwise we would only have two or three roads we could ever cycle along but I realise that this is a political as well as social and personal act.

    I think what you are talking about in your article is more religion than politics. You are talking about cyclists who believe that cycling is the only true way to personal redemption in a wicked world. Gerry was quite right to talk of your agnostic tendency. It is to be applauded. If only the majority of car drivers could take it or leave it alone as well. Not to mention…..oh never mind.

    I say let’s bring politics into everything. Let’s see how what we do affects other people. Let’s call a much bigger circle of people than just the people we agree with our fellow citizens

    • That was very polite, Tom! I don’t think people refrain from discussing politics and religion because they only want to talk with people they agree with. I think they avoid it because these topics are so fundamental to a person’s worldview that people generally have very strong opinions that will not be easily shifted and offense can be caused quite easily while attempting to bring a point home. This is a recipe for argument and many people are not interested in arguing all the time. Sometimes, they just would like to enjoy each other’s company with a cold beverage. Still, I agree with your sentiment that a great deal could be accomplished in this world if the need to be politically correct was slightly reduced.

      • I love arguing as much as I love pedalling. I take the view that you can only find out if you are thinking wrong thoughts if you put your ideas out there into a vigorous discussion with people with whom you disagree. I think you and I might disagree on a lot which is one of the reasons that I thoroughly enjoy reading your posts. I am sure that we would agree on a lot too and that we could have a discussion and a beverage (I like warm beer so there you are already) without any bad feeling. That’s what being grown up means.

      • Warm beer? There’s no way I could have a civil conversation with someone so backward as that! 🙂 Kidding aside, I agree we would likely have a lively discussion well into the night and that is something I would enjoy as well. Then again I have already admitted to being far from normal, so this may not work for everyone.

  6. Great article, I’ll add that here in the redder then blood Southern Illinois region almost everyone I ride with are evangelical conservatives and I stay away from church and would vote labour if we had a true labour party. My buddy Joe said that living in Southern Illinois you can’t be too choosy with the cyclists you ride with, there’s only a few of us so he’s stuck riding with communists like me. LOL!

    You should think about working geography into your arguement. Most people who cycle live in cities and suburbs, a majority of people who live in cities and suburbs are liberal.

    • Praise the Lord and pass the chamois cream! I agree geography plays a role and clearly you’ll be able to find conservative cyclists in rural areas. But how many of those cyclists view their hobby as part of a political philosophy? How many conservative cycling advocacy blogs are there? Why the need for Bicycle Times to write explanations of how to approach conservatives? There may be plenty of conservative-leaning cyclists out there, but it is my observation that cycling is not a part of their political agenda.

  7. Hummm … I don’t own a gun, but I have plenty of realtives that do. I also learned that one of the bike trails that I ride it is considered wise to carry one. I think I missed out a bunch of memos. 😀

    That is okay as long as I can ride.

  8. Very thoughtful post. Like you, I did not start riding for any political agenda and was not aware that I was taking a stance when setting tires to the road. Thousands of miles later, my political views are mostly unchanged but my time on the road has impacted my thinking some. Sure, like you I still drive to interesting places to ride. In fact, I probably have a higher carbon footprint, just because there’s nothing better than seeing somewhere new or interesting on a bike. On the other hand, I have taken up a number of advocacy issues related to cars interacting with cycles. You know, all that ‘share the road’ stuff.

    Having followed legislation for awhile, you are right that it does seem to be aligned with a liberal platform. I think that is mostly due to the spending aspect. Bike planning projects cost money and nobody, not even democrats, want to spend it right now. Ordinances and bike laws are a different story and I think they are independent of platforms, even if they are perceived as liberal. You could even argue that the idea of sharing the road is libertarian. Just the other day, the California governor vetoed the 3 feet bike distance law, which I would think to be a slam dunk for democrats.

    • I have thought about the libertarian aspects of cycling as well – freedom of movement without government interference is a basic tenant of libertarianism. Unfortunately, it often seems too easy to appease the masses of motorists at the expense of the few cyclists, regardless of ideology.

  9. I don’t think you are in a minority of the cycling community (whatever that is). I think you (and me) are in a majority. I have found throughout my life that the folk who make the most noise are percieved to be a majority.

    I’m like you, I just get on my bike and ride and let others whitter on ad infinitum about it!

    My one blog about cycling advocacy also generated a large amount of comments too.

    But I think I got away with it! 🙂

  10. Yay and Hooray! Well spoken, Steve. Have saved this post, so I could read it when I would have time to respond. One thing that is very sad is that one cannot simply “cycle”. One must Politicize it. I saw a bumber sticker that said,” Piss off a republican; cycle”. How sad, that anyone would try to alienate, rather than come to common ground.
    OH well, maybe those antagonistic folks just need to go ride off their antagonism?

  11. Pingback: The Year In Review: Part 3 (The Blog) | There And Back Again

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s