walking around in tap shoes and pyjamas since 2010 - my cycling log (opens in new window)

Friday, March 12, 2010

A Minor Annoyance

I have a quibbling argument with some of the world's most sensible cyclists, which I've kept to myself thus far because the distinction in question is a stupid one that only matters to those of us who ride both bikes and horses.

Those of us who ride bikes everywhere are often proponents of 'vehicular cycling,' — which is to say, riding as if we have full vehicular rights to most roads, since in almost every place we can reach by bike in the USA (which is, by the by, just about every place in the USA, period), at least, we do*. This is a good idea, and once you become a confident cyclist is the safest way to ride, bar none (for a more in-depth explanation see, Bicycling Life's article or John Forester on Vehicular Cycling).

On the balance — which is to say, pretty much entirely — I agree with the principles and practices behind vehicular cycling.

What I don't agree with (and this is where you'll just have to humor an equestrian-cum-cyclist, occasionally) is the nitpicky insistence that we should say we drive our bikes. It is syntactically awkward (yes, I know that's irrelevant to the point the 'bike driving' crowd is trying to make) and fails to observe a distinction that makes sense in the context of bicycling history.

I'm sure you're currently wondering, dear reader, why I might take umbrage at such a harmless turn of phrase.

Well, it's not the turn of phrase itself — it's the logic behind it, which is that good cyclists don't 'passively ride' our bikes; like drivers in cars, we are active, alert, and aware, and therefore we should say we 'drive' our bikes.

This is half true. A good cyclist is not a passive rider — but neither is a good horseman, and that, I would hazard, is the root of the matter. If anything, your average equestrian is more alert and active than your average driver, and is certainly doing more work (for those who don't ride horses, riding horses is more work than it looks).

A little history: when bicycles really took off, there were far more people with access to horses than with autos. When talking about horses, 'riding' and 'driving' are two distinct, active modes.

One might passively ride in a hansom cab, just as a non-driver might passive ride in a taxi cab today — but when mounted on a horse, one was definitely in charge of one's own fate (well, barring disasters and the occasional bolt).

Just like horses, bikes have saddles (and, in both cases, they're removable, and can be stolen at inconvenient times — I will state, for the record, that it's significantly more comfortable to ride a saddle-less horse than a saddle-less bike).

Just like horses, we mount bikes by tossing a leg over and we steer using our weight and hands. Oh, and riding both horses and bikes takes significantly more physical work than driving a car or carriage. Don't believe me? Bike ten miles, turn around, bike home, get in your car, and drive exactly the same route. You'll see what I mean :)

'Riding' is, in this sense, an obvious analogy. To people more familiar with horses than with autos, the term 'riding' would not necessarily have meant sitting passivey in a conveyance and hoping the driver wouldn't get you all killed -- and it would've, and apparently did make more sense to them to say they were 'riding' their bikes, or that wouldn't have become the dominant verb of choice in their day.

Driving a car is much more like driving a horse-and-carriage than it is like riding a horse; and also much more like driving a horse-and-carriage than it is like riding a bike. None, however, are passive activities. Ideally, all require full alertness and attention on the part of the actor in question — but as an equestrian and cyclist, I would go so far as to say that in reality both horseback riding and bike riding require extra alertness and attention, because neither affords you the protection of a big metal box.

Thus, while I do practice vehicular cycling, I will continue to ride rather than to drive my bike, thanks.

I realize this is a quibble, but it's one I've been carrying around for ages. I'm sure I sound terribly overwrought, didactic, and so forth. I don't expect anyone to adopt my set of preferences, however: I just wanted to get this all off my chest.

That being said, if thinking of themselves as 'drivers,' instead of 'riders,' helps non-horsey cyclists be safer and better cyclists, then I hope they will carry on doing so! The more people understand that cycling is safe, fun, and one heck of an effective way to get fit, the more people will dust off their bikes and roll. And if, in order to achieve that end, we must lay by over one hundred years of history and eschew 'riding' in favor of 'driving' our bikes, so be it.

I will now return this soapbox to the House of Representatives.

*I have not yet established whether bicycles themselves or pedal-boats — those bicycles of the sea — actually have vehicular rights in US waterways. If they don't, someone should seriously think about getting some seafaring bike & pedal-boat advocacy** rolling.

** YES, of course I'm kidding.

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