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.