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Where Do I Fit Within “Bike Culture?”

March 23, 2010

It’s been two weeks in Bikefag time (which is 3.92 weeks in real time) since I made my vow of self-deprecation.  I will now break that vow by insulting and generalizing different groups of cyclists.  But I do it for a good reason.  I’m trying to figure out where I belong, maan!

Since “getting into” cycling at 14, I’ve been a “youthful mountain biker” (no money, no girlfriend, no chain lube, no mechanical skills, no problems), an “entry-level-alternative cyclist” (critical mass, single-speed conversion with only a front brake, thought that Brooks saddles were cool at one point), and a “bike hipster” (purple tarck bike with color-coordinated tires and grips, American Apparel, cutoff jeans, American Spirit cigarettes).

But where to from here?  I threw my purple tarck bike in a ditch and now i just wander around aimlessly “riding tempo” and waiting for cyclocross season to start again.

Who am I?  Who are my people?  Where do I belong?

To answer these questions, I’ll impose some bogus categories, speculate about those cyclists behavior patterns, and tell you why I don’t exactly fit in.

Let’s get started!

Steel Wools

“Steel wools” ride steel bikes and wear wool, generally.  You might find them riding drop-barred 29er mountain bikes, racing in local cyclocross races in the single-speed category, or even touring on 650B-wheeled French touring bikes (To be fair, “randonneurs” are a category unto themselves).

Steel wools like chrome lugs, microbrewed beer, facial hair, monster cross, friction shifters, and Brooks saddles.  You might find them gripping (leather) grain, but you won’t find them gripping standard, modern handlebars.  Some take a historical approach to bicycles and apparel.  Some just drink a lot of beer and wear oversized New Belgium jerseys to the “pub.”

I can definitely identify with the steel wools.  I own more merino wool than a Ramboullet stud, and I ride steel bikes (three out of four, currently).  Until recently, I refused to ride a modern bar on Der Eisentraut, preferring the narrow, period-correct Cinelli criterium bar that it came equipped with (actual criterium racing compelled me to switch to an uglier, wider bar).  I still ride with a front downtube shifter on my road bike.  My three other bikes are single-speed.  I race single-speed cyclocross with a flat bar.  I’m on a team with retro wool jerseys.  The list goes on…

At the same time, though, I think that I may have become too much of a racer to stick to steel wool ideals.  For instance, if I had a crabon road bike i would DEFINITELY race on it (I’d still do all my road riding on Der Eisentraut while wearing wool, of course).  If I had the money, I’d probably have one steel, rigid SS 29er and one geared, full-suspension, crabon cross country race bike.  What I’m trying to say is that I might only be a steel wool by default – I’m just too poor to ride crabon.

Another thing: I HATE drop bars, and ride one begrudgingly on my road bike only.  The fact that people ride drop bars on their mountain bikes stupifies me.  I GUARANTEE that a flat or riser bar is better for mountain biking.  And I tend to think that the drop-bar MTB folks don’t actually ride single-track (or at least don’t ride it very fast).

Ok, well it’s getting obvious that the category of “steel wools” has a lot of room.  And I certainly exemplify enough steel wool characteristics that I wouldn’t be offended if you called me one (let’s be honest, I’d be offended by pretty much anything.  Don’t label me!).

On to the next label:


Racists are exactly what they sound like too: cyclists who race.  Be they roadies, Mountain bikers, trackies, or even CX racers (or usually at least three out of the four), racists ride only to race.

They don’t “go for a ride.”  Instead, they “put in hours” of “(threshold/tempo/endurance/base/whatever) training.” Racists like plastic bikes, plastic clothes, and exhibit incredible plasticity in their preferences, endorsing a different combination of bike manufacturers, energy drinks, restaurants, coffee shops, bike shops, and vacuum cleaner manufacturers every year. Racists generate big watts and limitless wisecrack fodder for lofty bike bloggers.

The only problem is: I’m one of them.

Want to know what my last seven days of riding consisted of?  A 1.5-hour MTB “warmup” ride, followed by a Tuesday night time trial last Tuesday; a 4.5 hour MTB “base training” ride in preparation for MTB season on Thursday; two “rest days” Friday and Saturday because I’m sick (excuserval); and a criterium on Sunday (ridden like a true racist, not pulling a single time until 2-to-go).

I pore over information on the internet about my parts, weights, gradients, times, and my competitors’ abilities.  I base my self-image to some extent on my abilities in racing.  I spend all of my time and money on bikes and “training.”  Basically, racing has taken over my life (even though I only race like three times per season (only so I don’t have to upgrade to the 3s…)).

I don’t want to live this way, but I have no choice – I must race!

Well, that’s painting a pretty distorted picture.  Even though I race most local, unsanctioned events, I do my best to stay away from the racist mentality.  I try to keep my legs hairy as long as possible every year before I bow to peer pressure and shave them.  I wear a wool jersey while I race.  I wear mountain shoes.  I ride a lugged-steel bike with a downtube shifter and 9-speed.

Short of showing up to the start line of a crit wearing MTB cargo shorts, a Camelback, and an oversized Performance jersey stuffed with Powerbars so it hangs over my ass (as I boasted that I would, but chickened out), I’m doing all I can to prove to racists that you don’t actually have to look like every other roadie ever to be fast in fours.  Sadly, though, in the threes, there are no longer any people with leg hair, and very few participants on non-crabon wheels.

(let me pause, parenthetically, to congratulate my favorite racist, Adam Wisseman.  Adam not only won the cat 3 criterium this weekend, but he did so on a metal-wheeled Klein while wearing MTB shoes and plain-black Performance shorts.  Do you still think you need white shoes to win, threes? Also, happy birthday, Adam!)

As you can see, I have a love-hate relationship with my inner racist.  But that group is easy to be kicked out of.  All you have to do is wear black shoes and black socks at the same time.

On to the next category:

“Bike Hipsters”

You’d think this would be the category I fit into best, as my wardrobe consists entirely of ironic vintage clothing, I used to ride a purple tarck bike before I threw it into a ditch, I work at a coffee shop, and I listen to conspicuously obscure bands like the Silver Apples, The Suicide Commandos, and the RBL Possee.  I’ve certainly been called a hipster before.  So why am i not a “bike hipster?”

For some reason I feel like I need to defend myself to the death against “bike hipster” claims.

I don’t smoke cigarettes or drink PBR, for instance (anymore).  I don’t wear American Apparel deep Vs, only normal American Apparel Ts.  I don’t ride vintage, custom-built, lugged-steel tarck bikes; only vintage, custom-built, lugged-steel road bikes.  I’m not into bikes for fashion; I’m just into bikes and fashion.

Wow, I’m not making a very good case for myself.

The reality is that I was a pretty classic example of a bike hipster.  The only difference between me and the people I’m labeling as “bike hipsters” is that I do stuff like “tempo training.”

Maybe I’m a bike hipster racist with a steel wool rubdown.

Anyway, there’s one more category that I think really fits me the best:

Being an Individual

Unfortunately, this category doesn’t actually exist in reality.  We’re all indebted to someone to some degree, for the “sick” lycra/wool/50/50 cotton/poly blend styles that we “rock” so originally.

I stole everything I know from “racists,” from “bike hipsters,” and from “steel wools.”

I stole everything I know from “cyclists.”  From “people!”

The problem with classifying “groups” of cyclists with arbitrarily-defined boundaries is that it is in most cases bullshit.  One person’s “steel wool” is another man’s “old-man cyclist” or still another’s “Bicycle Quarterly reader.”  What you might call a “fixie poser on a purple bike,” I might call “hey, fuck you , man, I’m not a poser!.”

These classifications just divide us, rather than bringing us together under the common banner of “cyclists.”  We all love to ride, for whatever reasons, and we can all learn something from each other.

That being said, if you have any other hilarious classifications or would like to get in on the shit-talking, please share them in the comments.

17 Comments leave one →
  1. Erick-racist permalink
    March 23, 2010 11:00 pm

    Hello bike community of FoCo. A hilarious mix of all of the above, purging their morning calories on an assortment of rides, and all sorts of wheeled critters on all surfaces, living and not. Nice observations and self-criticism.

  2. meep meep permalink
    March 23, 2010 11:03 pm

    What kind of bikefag doesn’t know how to spell ‘track’ or ‘carbon’? just saying…

    • Noah permalink
      March 29, 2010 9:30 pm

      @ meep meep
      Dude tarck, and crabon fribe is all in good humor, look at Bike Snob NYC as well. Not sure if you’re serious…’

  3. Matthew permalink
    March 23, 2010 11:03 pm

    Amen to that, you big [tribal cyclist-dividing epithet].

  4. March 24, 2010 2:04 am

    If anyone gets any wild ideas for steel wool after reading this I have a bunch of it for free on Craigslist. Just sayin’

  5. Josh permalink
    March 24, 2010 2:46 am

    I loled heartily at the usage of “racists”.

    @meep meep
    Don’t know about crabon (I laughed) but tarck is a fairly common term for hipster track riding

  6. LoRoK permalink
    March 24, 2010 5:17 am

    I relate. Since I can’t afford a road bike (that I like) I can’t do any races other than unsanctioned (read “alleycat”) ones. But I still carry the racist mentality over to the tarck crowd. I make up my own “training routines” and wear lycra during races and sometimes even group rides. I shave my legs sometimes. I ride rollers to work on my cadence and balance. But when I’m just commuting I wear knickers and wool or a tshirt. (Merino is truly the best stuff ever, mostly because it doesn’t ever get stinky) I also have a Brooks saddle, handlebar wrap and saddle bag. On a steel tarck bike. On the weekends I go for 50 mile rides by myself, because none of the other groups will take me, or they aren’t willing to ride more than 5-6 blocks. I don’t know what I am. I just call myself a bike-fag. Most of the people I know agree.

  7. Malcolm permalink
    March 24, 2010 4:47 pm

    Great post, and picture of bewilderment, loving it.

    It seems like we are all searching to try to fit into something doesn’t?

    @meep meep, tarak bike seems like the correct spelling for a tarak bike to me. Also crabon fribé seems acceptable as well. 🙂

    @ sda, if by steel wool, you mean you have wool jersys that you are giving away, let me know!

  8. Helen permalink
    March 24, 2010 6:49 pm

    crabon fribé!

  9. March 24, 2010 1:35 pm

    Like JS said the other night, “we must label, without a label we would have…no idea which websites to visit.”

    Nuance is dead!

    P.S. Can things be conspicuously obscure?

  10. tristan permalink
    March 25, 2010 9:33 am

    I think you honestly either become a racer or a rivendell touring man coming FROM the whole Bike hipster category, it’s a sign of growth.

    Relating back to “80’s roadie” post you made so long ago, you get to a point in your cycling career where you either completely embrace the whole ALLEYCAT/TWEED RIDE/CRITICAL MASS blah blah blah lifestyle, or you start to move on and explore other cycling options, be it touring/racing/whatever. I kinda feel like there are some dudes who have been sticking around the the aforementioned scene way too long and are like dudes in their 30s still going to college parties to pick up 18 year olds.

    It’s a lot easier to keep up with racing than it is to keep up with bike fashion.

  11. Lil' Kwittle permalink
    March 28, 2010 3:37 pm

    you are a winner.

  12. Crafty permalink
    March 29, 2010 12:41 am

    Great post!

    @tristan- It seems to me that the logical progression of the hipster fixie kids would be to actually take their track bikes to the velodrome and start racing. I don’t live near an actual velodrome, so I don’t know if track racing is actually becoming more popular with the explosion of the fixed gear scene over the past 5 or so years, but I’d be interested to hear from anyone who could offer some insight.

    When I ran cross country in high school, our team would assist with the local “fun run” every summer. It was for kids up to about 12 years old to participate in, and I think the course was about 800 meters. We held it at the same time as the local triathalon, which always drew a big turnout. Sure enough, a few years later, many of the kids who ran in the fun run would show up for the cross country and track teams.

    Alleycats, in a roundabout way, always seemed that they would have the same affect on the track racing scene.

    • bikefag permalink*
      March 29, 2010 1:45 am

      Thanks, Crafty.
      Wow, that’s a hilarious analogy!
      But I think that extending this to the much more popular (but still held on “the streets”) criterium race also works. Sure. you need a different bike, but most anyone from the “fun run” alleycat world who wants to get into sanctioned racing would be the type of person who’d enjoy buying new bicycles anyway. And there’s plenty of precedent for this. The Chicago Cuttin’ crew has been churning out messengers-turned-racers. And I personally know a guy who took a similar path in Milwaukee (now he’s a cat 2 roadie who lives in Boulder). There’s a dude in Lawrence, KS I used to race alleycat races against who just got a USAC license and will inevitably be stuck racing crits. I’ve met some people in Denver who were bike messengers who got into racing. I’ve only ever heard of the alleycat-to-track switch happening very frequently in New York (where there a shitload of bike messengers and also a velodrome).
      It seems to me that if you get into alleycat racing, you’re gonna see some dudes (and ladies) that are involved in other forms of racing, and usually those people are going to be BEATING THE SHIT out of the cigarette smokers that turn up. Eventually, the people who truly love cycling will probably follow those guys into whatever form of racing these people are doing. The way it happened for me is that my friend Grant “met this dude who was a really good track racer” and we drove with him to the velodrome in Colorado Springs. We got there late and missed the clinic and never raced (although they let us ride a few laps around after the races). But “that track racer dude,” whose name is Dan Lionberg and is a regular character in my blog, get me a spot in a house with a bunch of mutual friends, got me a road bike to borrow, convinced me to join our college’s cycling team, and that’s why I can even write a blog like this today. I’ve raced mountain cyclocross, and road, but I’ve still never raced on a track.
      Wow, that’s a long response.

      • Crafty permalink
        March 29, 2010 3:21 pm

        For the record, the comparison of the fixed gear crowd to twelve year olds was unintentional… I’m 26 and ride one… and may or may not be currently organizing an alleycat race. I sometimes feel like the weird old guy at the party (more James Murphy than Tom Waits) but whatever.

        @Bikefag, I think it’s great hearing about all the different ways people get into competitive cycling. For better or worse, I have the personality type that tends towards the “all or nothing” approach to new hobbies, so when I first bought a $100 fixed gear conversion cobbled together from scavenged parts and built up by a friend, I should’ve known it would become a problem. As much as people like to mock the bike scene in it’s current form, I’m of the opinion that whatever gets people into cycling, whether it be just commuting or full-on racing, has to be a good thing overall.

  13. MikeIRL permalink
    March 29, 2010 8:11 am

    I cycle a steel track bike with road drops on longish cycles eg.50km, but only wear wool and cutoffs…. Guess that makes me a hipster/steel wool hybrid??
    My BF(yes, I’m a true bikefag :D) is a full blown roadie, though.
    Jeez I’m all over the place 😀

  14. tall city permalink
    April 1, 2010 1:34 pm

    either another category or a sub-category would be ‘performance commuter’ who eventually becomes ‘silent coffee drinking lone wolf’, plenty of older men in manitou springs are heavy into bikes but disassociate from elderly lycra couples with rearview helmet mirrors…

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