Wednesday 23 January 2013

Defined By What You Wear?

I came across an interesting blog yesterday which is worth reading before you read this article.

This one here.

Go, read it....otherwise the rest of this won't make sense!

Back? Good.

Hmmm. I suspect that a few of you may have got to this point and have still not read it. If you are one of these people, I will very quickly summarise. The article writer is disappointed that at demonstrations like Pedal on Parliament that too many people turn up in Hi-Vis jackets, wear Lycra and have helmets on. The suggestion is that if we are to normalise cycling, events like this don't help as they perpetuate the idea that to keep safe as a cyclist you need to wear the gear. If you look at the Netherlands (which I will be visiting very soon!) you see a very different picture.

Here is what the writer is referring to.

Too much Hi-Vis, too many helmets?

So, when I refer to the article as interesting what do I mean? Well it certainly interested me, being one of the organisers or Pedal on Parliament, and interestingly someone who at that event wore cycling gear. It also raises some interesting questions about how we reach our end goal or making cycling not just safe for all, but accessible for all.

For the record, at POP I had a helmet on (with a helmet camera on of course), Lycra bib shorts with Ron Hill over-trousers, my cycling shoes, a blue base layer and on top my POP t-shirt. Oh and my cycling specific shorts.

Why did I wear cycling gear to cycle just over a mile very slowly?!

I  remember debating the issue of what to wear (certainly with myself, perhaps with others). I did consider going in "normal" clothes. However, I decided against that. My normal cycle to work is 12 miles each way. It is 12  fairly hilly and slightly mucky miles. I also use my commute as exercise so at the end of it I am sweaty and often a bit mucky. So as a cyclist that is what I wear 95% of the time. I wanted to go to POP representing who I am, and dress the way that I dress when I cycle. I suppose I was representing MAMILS. No point in denying who I am as that is what I feel comfortable in. 

That was just me though. I have absolutely no idea why each and every person that came to POP dressed the way they did. I suspect that some dressed like MAMILS for the same reasons as me. It felt comfortable. I know that some people came from afar, and dressed appropriately for the long ride, and I know that some people dressed in 'non-cycling clothes' as that is what they felt most comfortable in, or perhaps they wanted to make a statement. However, looking at each individual, without asking, I have no idea why they dressed as they did.

Personally I don't care. I don't care why they dressed the way they did, and I don't care how they dressed. On the day, surrounded by 3000 like-minded and non-like-minded cyclist I can honestly say that I did not at any point give what people were wearing a second thought. What mattered was that we all turned up with one ask our politicians to make our roads safer.

Looking back at the event there is a temptation to analyse. Nothing wrong with that of course. The blog I have referred to has done just that. It's looked at the pictures and asked if the dress code sent out the wrong message. Does it suggest that cycling is only for those who are equipped with Lycra, helmets and Hi-Vis?

I really don't think so.

I do however, on reflection, think that the pictures do send out a message. So what message do I think these pictures send out to prospective cyclists?

Firstly, I think the general public looking at that picture would in no way see anything out of the ordinary. They would probably think it was a "normal" picture of cyclists. Nearly everyone I know who doesn't cycle, thinks cycling on the road is dangerous. Yes, they often vastly overestimate the risks, but the perception is there. So seeing thousands of cyclists wearing Hi-Vis to non-cyclists seems normal. Is it right that we cyclists dress like this, and is this how we to look in 10 years time? That's an entirely different question. Is it where we are now? Yes.

Much more importantly though I think the pictures showing a sea of Hi-Vis and helmets shows that people who cycle now, even the ones who are classed as assertive, do not feel safe on our roads. They feel that they need to compensate for the risks they face or perceive to face.

There are plenty of arguments for and against helmets and Hi-Vis and how effective they are, but that really doesn't matter. In the collective psyche of those that turned up for POP there was a perception that some form of self protection, however ineffective it might be, was better than nothing. Effectively by wearing the gear we feel a little more protected.The gear is our protective cage which we are fearful of removing.

So the message for anyone else who does not currently ride a bike, the message to our politicians, is, we don't feel safe. Far from undermining the call for safety that the event was all about, it underlines it. Should we say to people, get on your bike, but make sure you wear a nice pair of slacks? Help us to normalise cycling...cycle in your glad rags?

I'll finish up with a personal observation. Earlier in this blog I said that 95% of the time I wear my cycling gear when I am on the bike. Two years ago that probably would have been 100%. Something has changed. I haven't started riding to work in my normal clothes, but occasionally I've started cycling for a different reason. I've started riding with my kids. My kids are getting into their bikes and want to come out with me. So we get the bikes out, get their gear on (which includes helmets) and go for a slow safe ride around the local area.

I don't wear any cycling gear. I don't have a helmet on.

Now I realise that some would be shocked by that, suggesting that I was setting a bad example for my kids. Not at all. I have always suggested to them that when they are older they will have to decide for themselves what to wear on the bike, when they understand all the facts.  Why though, don't I wear a helmet?

I feel safe. Riding with them, in a quiet area, on quiet roads, I feel at little or no risk, and so I don't feel the need to wear any protection. It wasn't a conscious decision, but one on reflection that I made. Not only that, but donning cycling gear to go for a wee cycle around the cul-de-sacs just seemed....too much of a faff. A waste of time.

Safety and faff.

Telling people what to do very rarely works, unless you legislate....and that's a whole other can of worms. Change is easiest when it comes naturally, when it feels right. For me, just now, the change feels right when I'm with my kids, it doesn't feel right on my commute. Put in proper cycle infrastructure between my home and my work, make it feel safe, make it feel easy, and yes, who knows I might just get rid of the helmet. Prossible not the Lycra though as I'd still get sweaty. For many though, that needn't be an issue.

So in my opinion, if we want to get people to change their cycling outfit, lets not focus on the outfit, lets focus on making the roads safe. Make the roads safe, and people will cycle more. As people cycle more they won't just cycle to work, they will start to cycle to the shops, to their friends house, to the cinema, to the pub. Cycling will becomes a normal every day occurrence. What do people wear when they do these things, most of the time, they don't wear Lycra or Hi-Vis......


  1. I think the whole point of not dressing like a "cyclist" is that it normalises cycling. I'm not a cyclist, I'm a human on a bike. (I am a cyclist tho')

    I'm afraid you're so ingrained in the lycra and high viz atire that you don't how how ridiculous it looks (like bellbottoms in the 70s).

    Why does that matter though? Because it discourages normal people from getting on a bike and there are lots of studies that show just that.

    Put your head cam away. Chillax.

  2. I suspect that some dressed like MAMILS for the same reasons as me. It felt comfortable.

    I completely understand this as, like you, I ride for a distance and know it will be more comfortable wearing gear designed to do just that. I don't feel it looks ridiculous, like Kieran seems to think, although mostly as that's because I don't care. I simply care about my comfort for that journey. And when I'm going around town, which I do a lot, I'm in normal clothes!

    On the day, surrounded by 3000 like-minded and non-like-minded cyclist I can honestly say that I did not at any point give what people were wearing a second thought.

    And this is were I get a bit jumpy. I think you probably don't judge, and maybe that's a good thing, but I think a lot of people do judge how you look in those circumstances. And they are the people we want to encourage out on bikes. The body language, rightly or wrongly, says "We are a separate group not like you." and that's damaging to the overall message of encouragement, IMHO!

    I think safety can be discussed and doesn't have to come from the visuals of clothing.

    Is it right that we cyclists dress like this, and is this how we to look in 10 years time?

    And this is where I feel we should be planning to look like we are 10 years in the future.

    I rarely disagree with you, as you know! But I feel you've missed a bit of the point here.

    And as far as the Headcam goes, keep it on, keep filming, and keep on keeping on! Chillax does so much to stupify the soul.

  3. I felt obliged to respond to the original blog myself on behalf of Pop as it missed a couple of key points, which I think was probably because the author never went to PoP and hasn't taken the time to review what actually happened on the day and who turned out.

    1 - it wasn't a closed road event.
    2 - we invited the entire nation to attend, and every cycling club in Scotland
    3 - unsurprisingly, a lot of club people turned out (by bike) in their cycling gear (after cycling a considerable distance)
    4 - the photo crop shows about 1% of turnout, from which the author's assumptions are drawn
    5 - people had to make their own way to the event, on open roads, and as a result felt oblidged to deploy their usual countermeasures of helmets and hi-viz
    6 - it's bloody disingenuous to compare a beachside summer cyclist somewhere warm to an April morning in Scotland
    7 - many people would love to not have a hi-viz or a helmet, but feel they just can't yet. And that's why they turned out, to call for action so that they don't need to. Until they feel conditions are right not to, it's not helpful to snipe at them from the sidelines.

    Anyway, nice response Dave. As you were!

  4. Unfortunately, as a species we feel the need to pigeon-hole. Sometimes it's ourselves, sometimes it's others. It's easier that way. Things are either one thing or another. They're either 'like us' or they're not.
    As a species we have always felt a need to belong... to a tribe, to a group, to a village, to a race, to a political party, to a country. How much we let our need to belong define who we are is another issue.
    Companies tell you you need hi-vis to be safe, for instance. Do you? I see runners in neon yellow and I think to myself, "Who are you trying to avoid being hit by on the pavement?" We have run, we have cycled, we have performed all kinds of amazing tasks for generations without dressing like road maintenance people. I see riders in leggings, lycra and all kinds of stuff and I question why. Does it make you faster? Not at a commuting level... no. Does it make you cooler or warmer? Than a natural fibre... no. Does it make you smell better? Than a natural fibre... definitely no.
    Cycling clothing has developed through industry wants, rather than actual cycling needs (and I mean generalist cycling by that). How much of the 'comfort' is the comfort of belonging? Marketing can be a powerful thing.
    When I was a child, I got on my bike and I rode it. Sometimes round the corner, sometimes for miles on end. If it rained I had my coat on, if it didn't, I didnt.
    Nowadays we are much more influenced by image than ever before. Some are influenced by the image of 'what you need to cycle' and others are as equally influenced
    by trying to be the antithesis of the MAMIL. I write, fresh off my bike, in my collared shirt and tweed plus fours. Make of that what you will.

  5. I'm a slow lady who cycles to the shops. I don't wear a helmet or hi-vis.

    My concern is that if the wearing of hi-vis becomes the norm, and therefore what one should do in the eyes of an average person, that if one day I'm ever mown down by a lorry it'll be seen as my own fault in the eyes of the law/insurance companies.

    Therefore I would vehemently support any measures to normalise the wearing of normal clothes. We have to get away from the viewpoint that simply not wearing all the gear is being positively reckless.

    My dad wears a hi-vis jacket to jog round the park ffs!

  6. [PART 2 OF 2]

    I agree that cyclists wearing safety gear has, unfortunately, become normal in the UK due to the conditions, and I don't blame anybody for wearing it on the road. But I doubt whether anybody outside our circle of campaigners sees this as symptomatic of a poor environment. Rather, I wonder if it's seen as the solution to the road environment – "as long as they have their helmets and jackets on, why do they need more cycle lanes? Got a problem with traffic? Get a bigger helmet!"

    And I still think that when the general public sees all that safety gear, it turns them off. They think "that's fine for them, let them enjoy their hobby, but I have no place there, and I have no interest in it." Furthermore, they might well think "this out-group of cyclists – which I will never be a part of – want how much of my hard-earned money?!" You say you didn't give a thought to what people were wearing, but then you are a pretty hardcore cyclist! I think most non-cyclists would find it strange, or at least make jokes about needing an extra pair of sunglasses to block out the hi-vis glare.

    (Which brings me to another blog post, in gestation, related to this point, about how the language we use can be damaging – campaigns' goals and gains are often described as being "for cyclists" rather than for everybody.)

    Whether any of this really matters at all is another thing. Maybe you're right, that in the long run it makes no big difference whether cycle rallies are a sea of helmets or a crowd of casuals. I really hope you are right, as I can't see the helmets disappearing any time soon! Thousands of people turning up to PoP is a great achievement, whatever they wear, and if we get the infrastructure we both desire then more people will start to use a bike. They must make this decision on their own, after all, looking at the safe and convenient conditions on the streets and roads around them, without any cycling campaigner pressuring them with statistics or slogans.

    The article was never about insulting anybody or to belittle PoP (I know you haven't taken it that way, but some of the commenters have). After all, we have the same goals here! I was just trying to explore how cycle campaigners are viewed from the other side of the lens.

  7. [PART 1 OF 2]

    Thanks for writing a good riposte, David!

    Without wanting to getting too academic about this, what is the purpose of a rally? Some are pretty much entirely about visibility – the 'Pride' events nowadays don't really make political demands of the government, they're more about saying "we're who we want to be, we're here, claiming our space, accept it." (The Critical Mass rides are more like this, too – no political demands, but making their presence felt and exerting their right to be there.)

    Pedal on Parliament and the Big Ride are different though, as they are primarily about making political demands. Maybe there is an element of "Cyclist Pride" involved though? You allude to this in your article above, and I think there is an element of 'in the cyclists club' mentality in this – after all, as Ali Cambell says in the comment above, human beings want to belong to a group, and wearing 'cyclist' gear shows that you are allied with those dressed similarly. We make these links all the time – a heavy metal music fan might have long hair and black Iron Maiden t-shirt, for example. It's a stereotypical image, but it marks people out as part of a specific group. Unfortunately these visual markers can give off a negative image or reinforce prejudices, and aren't always the best recruitment tool.

    (Quite interestingly, I think the anger of some commenters show that people really do identify as members of the Cycling Gang, and will defend any perceived attack, however slight. Similarly, I made a joke about dropped handlebars on Twitter a few months back, and got a vitriolic response. Over a silly tweet about dropped handlebars!)

    And when public demands are being made for hundreds of millions of pounds of taxpayers' money, I think it's a good idea to have as broad appeal as possible. It's not just a show of force to the politicians, but a P.R. spot seen by the general public, and every vote counts. At the moment, a great job is being done by campaigns emphasising that infrastructure is for anybody, "aged 8 to 80" – but I wonder if the photos clash with that message.

  8. "Quite interestingly, I think the anger of some commenters show that people really do identify as members of the Cycling Gang, and will defend any perceived attack, however slight."

    That cuts both ways - some of the "normalisers" can be pretty pejorative (telling people they look ridiculous, for example - how it that not a slight?) about the choices other people are making too. There's an easy assumption that what works for them should be something YOU make work too, and to do otherwise is to be part of the problem. It's the sort of division we can afford when we choke the bikepaths and roads of the UK with our numbers, but now? I'm not sure the benefit (if there is any) is outweighing the cost.

    As for the idea that the gear is putting people off - in several years of talking to people about cycling here, it's a long, long way behind the unpleasantness of cycling in UK traffic as a disincentive.

    I've done bike to work events in "normal" clothes, and, to be honest, it felt like a lie. I wasn't comfortable at a pace where my work clothes "worked", because of the hassle from traffic on my route.

    Not wearing bike gear (which I don't on local errands, and short trips) doesn't get me any extra consideration from drivers that I've been able to discern either.

  9. In The Netherlands, mamils are a niche. They come out evenings and weekends on racing bikes and mountainbikes for their specific leisure pursuits, some on weekdays for long commutes. But the weekday mamil is as rare in the Netherlands as he is here, and long distance commuters (I was one) are similarly ignored as here. For that reason alone I am weary of all the gear, when putting a point across to others.

    There are other types of cyclists in NL that are rarer in the UK, and neither care for mamils TBH. Not something I have ever appreciated, but in making cycling common they are the ones 'we' need to get on our side.

    The first and easiest is the school kid. To get kids cycling to school in The Netherlands, a few ingredients are required. We need mums and dads of young kids to cycle to nurseries, friends, and school. We need young kids to cycle independently and trust them. And for all that we need schools, shops and burbs accessible via segregated cycle paths. In NL when a certain amount of kids cycled and a fair amount got killed, Stop De Kindermoord was a pressure group that moved mountains. This was because of lacking facilities, kids cycled to school regardless. Not the case here, and it shouldn't be. We should ensure new schools and burbs are cycle safe to start with.

    Secondly, we need our most fervent enemies to cycle. The selfrighteous, selfish people in cars who they perceive as status symbols. In the Netherlands they use expensive bikes and a condescending attitude to feel good, here they need cycle connections from burbs to train stations and bus terminals and to offices.

    Thirdly perhaps in line with the school kids, we need parents. Not only to cycle kids to school instead of using a Cayenne, also to keep cycling while the kids are away. Their bicycles carry the groceries, or fill up city centre racks. They keep high streets and local shops ticking over as well. Here they drive and whinge about parking fees, visiting Trafford Centre instead of Eccles. There, Nijmegen city centre is awash with bicycles, pedestrianised areas and independent shops.

  10. Interesting blog (both this and the original) and comments.

    The original post makes a very good point about perception and I hope that it is taken on board and at Pop2 more people feel comfortable in coming in "normal" clothes.

    However, he's the thing - what is normal clothes, exactly? Suit and tie is as much as pigeon hole for a certain type of person as a lycra is. Jeans and T-shirt? Fine, but like Magnatom, my commute is quite long and very hilly. I don't think jeans cut it. In this utopian cycling future, will I be expected to cycle to work in jeans even though that it going to be quite impractical for me?

    Like others say, when I nip down ot the shops, I don't change into sport stuff, but if I go for a nice long summer wander about the roads on a Saturday afternoon, I get changed. Initially, this was a sporty t-shirt and tracksuit trousers. Over time, this changed to a cycling top and shorts.

    People think it is "normal" to change into sports clothes to goto the gym, people think it is normal to change into more outdoor gear if you are going for a long walk. It's normal to wear a special dress or tie if you go out for a meal, so I don't know why it perceived to be abnormal to change your clothes based on the type of cycling you do.

    The original point is a good one - that the pop demo is to promote the idea you should be able to use your bike to do things you would do in your car (and be safe) and so you should look like that on the demo.

    This idea runs into the barrier that most of the people that will come to these events are the poor sods who have to go out in the traffic currently (and will likely have to come through that traffic to get there).

    What can the organisers do? Ask people to bring jeans to get changed into once they get there?

    I actually hope that POP2 will see far more people, and will actually bring out people and families who have a bike in the garage and never bought the cycling clothes, but saw the event last year and will come along this year in "normal" clothes.

    p.s. I have a single item of yellow or hi-viz clothing.

    p.p.s. wow, got through this comment without mentioning helmets .... doh!

  11. "I'm afraid you're so ingrained in the lycra and high viz atire that you don't how how ridiculous it looks (like bellbottoms in the 70s)."

    What a RIDICULOUS statement! As if people wear cycling gear for fashion reasons. Or because of the way it looks!

    I wear it because riding at 20 to 30mph in a suit is impractical. Well, probably impossible. Likewise it would probably be impossible in scuba gear or an NBC suit.

    I wear what I feel comfortable with thank you very much.

  12. Perhaps the essence is to look at more normal events with cycling - in extreme this has been the Wittfiets event in Glasgow - yes we had a bike lift at the end but it was a sea of people in an anarchy of fashion genres, on a galamaufry of bikes.

    Ali C does not note the Tweed rides, and the Tartan ride, a far nicer experience of mass riding on city streets that the confrontational stance of far too many critical mass events, and a pure joy of hundreds of people on bikes flowing through the city made especially satisfying when you flow through near static rows of jammed up motor vehicles. We may not reach your rate of overtaking 3000 cars per hour on your daily ride to work , but even a small queue gives you that warm feeling flowing past on the bike.

  13. Don't know about a suit, but I'll hit 20 mph in spots on the flat in jeans, t-shirt and (weather dependent) wooly cardigan. Though, I do wear (discreet) cleated shoes. ;) Downhill, 20 to 30 mph is definitely easily possible in a suit (though, not necessarily a good idea).

    For me, the big question in the POP/clothing debate is:

    "Who are you trying to convince?"

    Is it the current out-group of dedicated cyclists in Britain, typically distinguished by cycling specific gear, often hi-viz in colour? Or are you campaigning to convince the other non-cyclists?

    If the latter, then it conceivably may be useful to try look a bit more like the non-cyclists. It will help show you're not just an out-group, but *also* emphasise you're just another normal human. Whether you like it or not, whether it's right or wrong, people can be fickle and shallow in judging others. If they perceive some group as being very different to them, they may be less likely to care about them. By minimising the difference in how you look from the person you wish to persuade, you make it harder for that person to dismiss you based simply on looking different.

    And yes, it shouldn't be that way, but my experience and, I believe (from offhand memory), scientific research, shows it is.

    For me, this principle extends beyond just POP. It applies on the road generally too. I think it's important to at least try to cycle in normal clothes when possible, if only to minimise the impression the general public receives that cyclists are a different breed to them, even perhaps a bit weird.

    Impressions count. Shallow, sad but true.

  14. This is how we do a 'critical mass' here in Groningen, The Netherlands... ;-)

  15. Most people are not going to go out on the road without feeling safe. Where I live, cyclists do get killed, or cause accidents that cause other people to get killed.

    As much as we would like to believe otherwise, sometimes drivers look in their rear view mirrors and don't see what is there. High visibility clothing makes it easier to attract attention when you are riding.

    A helmet helps to ensure if something hits you off, you can get up and ride another day. You don't have to wear this type of gear but if you can, it's better for you.