A little context for Jane Caro

Jane Caro, who writes and speaks often and well about the idiocies in the Australian education debate, has undoubtedly delighted the Sydney Morning Herald’s digital team with an op-ed about the behaviour of the “…lone-wolf cyclist dressed to kill (I think literally) in his/her (when fully kitted-out impossible to discern gender) Lycra, bum-padded speed suit” on Sydney’s shared paths.

For what it’s worth, on the substantive issue – cyclist behaviour on shared paths – is one where I largely agree with Caro. Some of the issues were canvassed rather well on a post on the late, often-lamented Larvatus Prodeo. Most shared paths were never intended for use by fit adult cyclists on road bikes riding at full speeds, and cyclists in that category who use them need to adapt their behaviour to pedestrians to ensure a safe and pleasant environment for all – which in many situations means backing off the speed substantially.

But – while I do think that Caro was honestly unaware of how offensive her comments were – they were offensive, and I’ll politely try to explain why.

She has stereotyped a group of people, based purely on their choice of clothing, and associated them with a variety of negative behaviour. If Caro had written an op-ed stating the negative attributes of everyone meeting the description of, oh, I dunno, teenagers in hoodies, punks with mohawks, women in short skirts, fans of other sports wearing the clothing of their favourite team – Caro would have realized that that was offensive. But for some reason lycra-wearing cyclists don’t set off Caro’s stereotyping radar.

And, as should be absolutely no surprise, I’ve seen cyclists riding every type of bicycle ever invented, of all ages and genders, doing stupid risky things that endanger themselves and others somewhere along the line. Yes, young people, and men, are more prone to doing so, as it is ever thus. But Lycra is not the be-all and end-all of being a dickhead on a bicycle.

But let’s step go back to why Caro, and the innumerable others who have trodden this path of insulting the lycra-clad, feel entitled to do so where just about any other group would not be considered fair game. Part of it, I guess, is sheer incomprehension why anybody would choose to wear clothing that is simultaneously attention-getting and unflattering to all but the very fittest and leanest cyclists (a topic to explore more fully another time, but suffice to say that it’s the way it is for utility, not looks). But I also wonder if it’s got to do with another stereotype about lycra-clad road cyclists – that we are, more often than not, financially well-off and often exert a good degree of power in our professional lives. And there’s at least some truth to that – while I’ve met people from every walk of life in cycling, a quick look at the carpark at our local criterium race shows a heck of a lot of luxury cars, and the National Road Series is sponsored in the main by companies looking to market to professionals of one sort or other. Mocking people who are, disproportionately, powerful off the bike might therefore be viewed as more acceptable than mocking the truly powerless.

But what Jane has missed in this discussion is that cyclists, particularly Lycra-clad road cyclists, feel very vulnerable, and we have a very good reason. While, on shared paths, we can and do scare pedestrians – though the actual number of injuries caused through cyclist-pedestrian collisions is low, there far too many near-misses. But, on the road, we are targets for harassment by motorists, and are at real physical risk because of it. I’m no saint, but I pride myself on being a pretty well-mannered, courteous road user who tries to minimize inconvenience to others. But I have personally copped all manner of verbal abuse from motorists, not because I was doing anything wrong or even slowing down their journey, but because I’m a cyclist and therefore vulnerable. I have been deliberately run off the road a couple of times. A person I have been riding with has copped a bottle thrown out of the car to his head (thankfully, with a helmet it did no damage). Several mates of mine have been hit by cars from behind and injured. At its extreme, while I’ve obviously not experienced anything like this, there have been incidents of outright attempted murder of a cyclist by a motorist in “road rage” incidents.

Underlying all this is a constant undercurrent of comment in any tabloid medium you’d care to name of how somehow cyclists are “the other”, don’t belong on the roads, with the clear implication they’re fair game. Listen to talkback radio or read the comments below any cycling-related article on any mainstream media website and you’ll get the picture.

That’s why cyclists are hyper-sensitive to being negatively stereotyped. We may be humourless on this topic, but we have very little to be humorous about.

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6 Responses to A little context for Jane Caro

  1. Moz in Oz says:

    It’s also a classic “blame the victim”. Whatever the situation, you just know that the cyclist will have done something stupid that cause the “accident”. Most likely riding on the road, and it usually only takes a few comments for that one to come out. As a cyclist you just know that if you are run down, any media attention and much of the commentary from friends and relatives outside the cycling communities will be negative.

  2. Excellent, thoughtful piece, Robert.

    Find transgression, link to identifiable attribute of group, and defend with whatsamatterIwuzjoking- it’s a well-used discourse template and not a pretty one.

  3. Honey Wheeler says:

    While well written and truly displaying the other side viewpoint, as a motorist and as an inner city pedestrian for every cyclist that feels unsafe because of aggressive motorist behaviour I have seen the same from cyclists; those cyclists that run the red to get a head of the traffic, those cyclists that jump onto the foot path to continue to ride across the pedestrian traffic so they don’t have to stop at the red light, those cyclists that turn the wrong way down a one way street so they can take a short cut, those cyclists that pull out from behind a car having sat in someone’s blind spot and then almost been knocked off their bike because they (the cyclist) weren’t paying attention the the clearly visible indicator on the car that was turning and thus almost made themselves road kill…for every sensible road safe cyclist there is a sensible road safe bicycle aware motorist and pedestrian, for every gung-ho entitled cyclist there is an equivalent motorist.
    At least with a car and a motorbike one needs to have passed a test to obtain road privileges, one is taught where to sit to ensure you aren’t in others blind spots, to clearly and correctly manoeuvre in traffic and one can be identified by their licence plate, there is no such requirement for those on a bicycle or even a scooter (but that is another article)
    I agree that motorists and pedestrians need to be aware, cautious and generous with sharing their space with cyclists but I also think that cyclists need to dial down the entitled privileged attitude and take a measure of responsibility and accountability.
    Harassment has worked both ways, I have witness cyclists hitting cars and even in one case when catching up to them using their spikes to scratch the car only to realise that they have victimised the wrong car as the one they wanted was two cars in front…and unfortunately without a cyclist licence plate the poor owner of the innocent vehicle had no ability to obtain insure details for their damage, given that the cyclist was then able to ride away weaving in and out of the traffic.

    There will always be two sides to every story and there will always be idiots…but to find a common ground we all need to take accountability & responsibility and learn to share…something we teach small children and seem to forget as we grow older.

    • Thanks for taking the time to comment.

      I’m not defending bad behaviour by cyclists for a moment, though I would argue that the kind of vigilanteism you describe, while not unknown, is a hell of a lot rarer than the kind of abuse and worse that every regular cyclist can *personally* attest to.

      I would however further point out to you that 99.9% of the time, whomever is at fault, it is the cyclist who ends up in hospital or worse.

  4. Ian Milliss says:

    As a pedestrian I have never been knocked down by a car but I have been knocked down three times by cyclist, once on a walking path in Canberra (pretty much the situation described by Jane Caro with surprise passes and abuse common), once by a cyclist riding on the footpath on George St Sydney sideswiping me from behind and once (again sideswiped from behind) by a cycle courier going in one way Kent Street in Sydney, I was crossing at a green light and he was going the wrong way and against a red light. He added insult to injury by abusing me as I lay bleeding on the ground. All three riders were lycra clad. So, stereotyping? It develops because enough people have had enough bad experiences to fear that the bad behaviour is common to all members of the identifiable group. I think Jane Caro has it pretty right, the average bike rider is polite and thoughtful but the “uniformed” bike rider should be regarded with a certain amount of suspicion.

    • Ian, maybe on shared paths that’s the case – but in my experience us lycra-clad full-carbon riding cycling junkies don’t use such paths. I tried briefly yesterday because I was looking for water to refill my bottle with and was quickly reminded why – kids, dogs and cleats just don’t mix! OTOH, on roads, I would say without a shadow of a doubt, the serious cyclists who regularly ride long distances on roads at high speeds are by far the best behaved, and indeed my own tendency to be a little blase with traffic signals has more or less been cured by joining the serious road-riding bunches.
      FWIW, I thought the Ms Caro’s article was reasonable enough from a pedestrian perspective, even if she was a little guilty of unfair stereotyping.

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