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By ROBERT POOLE
"Are you on your bike, then?" The question is always well-meant. Friendly colleagues at work look at the weather and inquire about the welfare of the exposed cyclist. Almost any weather, it seems, is thought adverse for cycling: wet weather, windy weather, grey weather, snow, even hot sun. It's always worth a mention: "bit wet, isn't it?" "Windy, though?" "Must be cold on a bike.” "Hot work today, eh?"
On Monday, the question is often, "Did you get out on your bike at the weekend?"As a matter of fact, I am always on my bike, whatever the weather, so the stock answers are to hand. Wet? Yes, but I'm not. Windy? It always sounds worse than it is. (White lie, there, but mustn't let the side down). Cold? Not if you've got the right gear. Hot? Yes, lovely! Every commuting cyclist will have experienced this sort of routine exchange. But why always these questions? People like a friendly chat, of course, but there is more to it than that.
My theory is that it has something to do with the way that cyclists, unlike other types of traveller, are seen as a separate species. People look at someone who has arrived by bike and see a ‘cyclist'. Fair enough, you might think. But when people meet someone who has arrived by other means, they don't see a ‘motorist' or a ‘bus user' or a ‘train traveller'. They don't usually strike up conversations about over-head cams or timetables or signal boxes.
A motorist is, or should be, someone in a car – actually in a car, and behind the wheel at that. (There's no word for car users who are driven by others, not in English, at least – unless, of course, readers can suggest one). The motorist may also be a cyclist, train traveller or bus user at other times, and will certainly also be a pedestrian (or possibly a wheelchair user). Being a motorist doesn't engross your identity, any more than being, say, a computer user or a tea drinker. But being a cyclist does this, at least in the eyes of others. When you get off the bike you're still a ‘cyclist'. A cyclist is a cyclist everywhere, with or without the bike.
Why is this? The answer may lie in a phenomenon that I shall call ‘modal guilt'.
‘Modal' is a fashionable word in transport circles. It refers to modes of transport: hence ‘modal shift' (people changing their mode of transport – usually by leaving their cars at home), ‘modal drag' (people not leaving their cars at home), and so on. ‘Modal guilt' is what happens when people know they ought to leave their cars at home but can't quite manage it. With almost daily reminders of the costs of traffic congestion, air pollution, global warming and so on, modal guilt must be quite a heavy burden. Some people seem to become guilty every time they see a cyclist. I remember one newspaper columnist complaining of smug cyclists, "carrying a bag with a bicycle pump sticking self-righteously out of the top”. Modal guilt accounts for these little conversations. "You must be fit, cycling up that hill every day.” (Yes, it would make you fit too...) "I used to cycle when I was younger.” (Cycling keeps you young...) "I'd like to cycle more but I have all this stuff to carry.” (Why?...) "I think it's great there are so many real cyclists around these days.” (What's an unreal cyclist, then?...)
The hidden text of all this is: I'm not a cycling type, so don't expect me to cycle. I'm not fit/young/hardy/mechanically minded/ committed. Cyclists are a different species: I'm not one. ("Can you get me a cheap second-hand bike?" I was once asked. "Just an ordinary bike, not more than about £40, and I'm not a proper cyclist so I don't want gears.”) For as long as there are a lot of people who deep down think, or fear, that they could and should cycle more, cyclists will continue to be seen as a separate species.
One conclusion to be drawn from this is that cyclists, and particularly cycle campaigners, should try not to present themselves as a distinctive or morally superior group. The more normal you are, the better an advert you are for cycling.
Guilt is a sign of readiness for change, of course, so this is in the end an optimistic piece. Modal guilt precedes modal shift. In the meantime, I shall be trying out a new line of conversation. "Are you in your little car today, then? Gosh, you must be hot/fed up/patient/thick-skinned. I'd drive more, but I couldn't cope with what you do. Did you get out in your car at the weekend? Perhaps you can you get me a cheap second-hand car? Not more than £250, and I'm not really a proper motorist so I don't need gears..."
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