Does North American Cycling Culture Discourage Newbies?

“The main problem is that in North America cycling is seen as an extreme sport.” -Mikael Colville-Andersen

I stood before the wall of helmets at the local bike shop in Omaha Nebraska USA but I was thinking about Europe.  Way back in the 1990s while I was working for TetraPak AB, I was lucky enough to visit three of the world’s top ten cycling cities in Amsterdam, Copenhagen and Malmö.  I went over eight times in all, and if I was still there now I wouldn’t be shopping for helmets. They don’t do helmets in Europe.

The typical Copenhagen cyclist. No helmet.  There’s never a helmet in Denmark.  Photo by https://www.flickr.com/people/56380734@N05/

There are a lot of reasons for this but in the end it doesn’t really matter.   Here in North America, we cyclists are expected to gear up and a big part of gearing up is choosing a helmet that sends a powerful message and tells the world we are a force to be reckoned with.  For most people, that means a colorful aero race design that says “Look at me…I am training for the Tour of France!”   

Or maybe it’s the Ironman.  There was a time when that’s what I would have chosen, too.  Not this time, though.  This time I went with the understated flat black helmet in the box that said Nutcase.  How appropriate, I thought.  That’s the helmet for me.

Cycling helmet. Cycling shoes.

It has been a long time coming, this epiphany.  I’ve been feeling a bit uncomfortable in lycra for awhile now.  It’s not that I want to be European.  I like being American just fine.   It’s just that it has gotten to the point of absurdity.  I’m not a competitive cyclist.  I’ve ridden as far as 200 miles in a day and I’ve climbed mountains on my bike but I’ve never done it all at once and if we’re being honest here,  competitive cyclists do that pretty much every day…before lunch.

So I don’t feel like dressing up like that any longer.  Looking back, I’m a bit embarrassed that I ever did.   I’m an adult for crying out loud.  I have a real job and  a house and a family.  I don’t need to dress up like it’s Halloween every time I ride my bicycle.

Maybe Colville-Andersen is on to something here. Maybe part of the reason we can’t get more people on bikes in North America has something to do with what we communicate to the rest of the world by how we act and dress.  Don’t get me wrong.  I understand that we’re all different..  I also understand that a lot of people like this sort of thing, but I also understand that it can be a little intimidating to people on the outside looking in.  It certainly looks and feels more extreme when compared to folks in those other countries where everybody cycles around like it’s the most natural thing in the world.

Of course, it’s always possible and maybe even likely that I don’t know the first thing about what I’m talking about here.  If so, it won’t be the first time. That said, this time feels different.  I like this new, relaxed form of cycling better than the old extreme sport version.     I no longer need padded shorts or expensive, silly looking beer jerseys that accentuate my beer belly.  Seriously, who thought that was a good idea?  I’ll wear the ones I have until they wear out and then I’ll replace them with something else like loose fitting prAna shirts from REI or whatever’s on the 80% off rack at Kohl’s.  I realize that might be a Cleveland Browns hoodie, but if one person looks at me, feels totally un-impressed and un-threatened and gets on a bike as a result, it will have been worth the sacrifice.  Go Brownies.