The world of cycling is like a big bowl of Lucky Charms cereal – it's full of goofy-looking figures in different colours and shapes, but they all come together to be delicious. Furthermore, different people partake in the world of cycling in different ways. Some like to pick out the marshmallows one at a time, others like the crunchy stuff and still others like to let the bowl sit there for an hour so they can eat the whole thing in one soggy mass. If you're new to cycling, you might find this bewildering array of people confusing and intimidating, and as such you might be reluctant to dig in. However, while any unfamiliar group of people seems aloof and inscrutable at first, you can rest assured that they're actually pretty easy to figure out. Here are some of the more recognisable characters you'll find floating in the milk of cycling:
The Roadie is, in a certain sense, the prototypical cyclist. Road racing is certainly not the oldest form of competitive cycling, but it does have a long history and it is by far the most popular competitive discipline. After all, even people who can't tell a road bike from a mountain bike have heard of the Tour de France. The drop bars, the jersey with rear pockets, the tight shorts and the diminutive brimmed cycling cap together embody the cyclist in the popular imagination.
Because road cycling is steeped in tradition (and occasionally garnished with attitude), every single aspect of road cycling – from clothing choice to equipment choice to hand signals to which way to pull off the front of a paceline – is governed by rules. And like all rules, some of them have evolved out of necessity, and some of them are simply tradition for tradition's sake.
The negative view of the Roadie is that he or she is fastidious, snotty and aloof. On the other hand, the romantic view is that Roadies are the toughest of all cyclists and that their careful preparation and studied appearance is a natural expression of this mental and physical toughness. But there's a deeper truth. Beneath all the training and suffering and Lycra and embrocations, the fact is that all Roadies are freeloading cheats. I'm not talking about doping. No, Roadies are freeloading cheats because the true essence of road cycling is the conservation of energy. Naturally, the only way a bicycle is going to move is if a person puts energy into it and they do what they can to make their bodies strong, but there the effort ends. Beyond this, everything else is based on not making an effort. It's based on making things as light and aerodynamic as possible; it's based on slipstreaming behind other riders for as long as possible and it's about expending as little effort as effectively as possible.
And the Roadie's freeloading ways extend to life off the bike as well. Anybody who's spent any time in bike shops knows the Roadie is the worst kind of product-grubbing discount hunter there is. They have no loyalty to their shop; if they can find it online for £2 less, they'll buy it there. Yet they'll spend £1,000 on a wheel set if they think it might give them an edge, and if you lend them the money for it don't expect to get it back. Roadies are the junkies of the cycling world; they're skinny and untrustworthy, and they'll do whatever they need to in order to keep their habit going. The Roadie's life is full of disappointed people – spouses, friends, family – all of whom have involuntarily funded their depraved lifestyle in one way or another.
Why other cyclists don't like them: They don't appear to enjoy what they're doing and they don't appear to know you exist.
Compatibility with other cyclists: Have been seen at mountain-bike races, but are largely compatible only with their own kind.
The Mountain Biker
In some sense, the Mountain Biker is the Roadie's counterpart – the yang to their yin; the pepper to their salt; the Salt to their Pepa. The main difference between the Mountain Biker and the Roadie is one of terrain, though there's also a difference in attitude. As a practitioner of a much newer discipline, the vocabulary and persona of the Mountain Biker have a decidedly more modern, Western vibe than the Roadie's old-world, European sensibility. This is particularly apparent in the many surfer-esque ways they can lovingly describe dirt, such as "flowy" or "tacky" or "loose" or "gnarly". Mountain Bikers are generally also more inclusive than Roadies, which is largely due to the fact that they have a tendency to get "stoked" about things and actually seem to enjoy themselves when they ride.
While some Roadies do ride off-road as well, many are put off by the presence of distasteful things like mud, rocks, fun and a spirit of camaraderie. In fact, there's a traditional rivalry between Roadies and Mountain Bikers, which leads Mountain Bikers to do extremely irritating things like try to race Roadies who are simply out for a ride, which, if you're a Roadie, is sort of like being goaded by a hillbilly while you're browsing an art gallery.
Why other cyclists don't like them: The Mountain Biker will drive four hours to ride for one hour; they listen to Pearl Jam; they have an Adam Sandler-esque approach to cycling attire; and they're the sort of people who have very large dogs and get really into barbecuing.
Compatibility with other cyclists: They can occasionally mingle with Roadies, though they are usually betrayed by their goatees (men), unshaven legs (women), sleeveless jerseys, and helmet visors (unisex).
The Urban Cyclist
First of all, the Urban Cyclist is a distinct entity from the person who simply lives and rides a bicycle in the city. Also, the Urban Cyclist is not a new phenomenon by any means. However, unlike other phyla such as the Roadie and the Triathlete, the Urban Cyclist's look and attire don't evolve according to innovations in equipment. Instead, the Urban Cyclist undergoes a complete aesthetic reinvention every decade or so depending on the Zeitgeist, just like David Bowie used to do.
Back in the late 1980s and early 90s, mountain bikes were cool, so that's what Urban Cyclists used to ride. But since the cycling Zeitgeist is currently track bikes and fixed gears, that's what Urban Cyclists are riding now. Of course, it's not quite as simple as that, but the majority of Urban Cyclists still share certain characteristics.
1) While often in their twenties, Urban Cyclists can survive well into their 40s before either finally accepting other types of cycling or moving on to some other trendy form of transportation, such as Vespas or café racer motorcycles.
2) Urban Cyclists generally laugh at people who wear brightly coloured Lycra, though they fail to find equal humour in their own colour-co-ordinated bicycles, boutique clothing, or the fact that riding for more than a few hours in jeans is liable to turn your crotch into a microcosm of the Everglades.
3) The Urban Cyclist professes a great love of and respect for track racing, despite the fact that they generally have a long list of reasons why he or she can't make it to the velodrome with his or her £2,000 track bike, though they're "totally dying" to do so.
4) The Urban Cyclist is one of the very few groups of cyclists among whom cigarette smoking is not only acceptable but considered "cool," which is sort of like being really into performance cars but driving around with rags shoved up your exhaust.
5) They endlessly seek "authenticity," and are often fond of "vintage" bicycle frames. They will also make fun of other riders on brand-new, off-the-rack track bikes. However, since most Urban Cyclists are roughly half the age of their vintage bikes, they're clearly not the original owners. So really, this means they're actually less authentic and more contrived than the riders of off-the-rack bikes.
In terms of appearance, the Urban Cyclist look is evolving, but presently it is still an appropriation of three distinct subcultures.
1) Eighties "peace punk s" or "squatter punks" (also called "crusties"). From this group, the Urban Cyclist appropriated the tight black jeans, the canvas sneakers, the ratty sweatshirt, the sleeve tattoos and the studded belt and/or exposed keys.
2) Bicycle messengers, whose lifestyle (and consequently appearance) often overlapped with the peace punks. From the messengers, the Urban Cyclist took the giant messenger bag, the track bike, the chopped handlebars and the frame stickers.
3) Ironic preppy. Since so few Urban Cyclists actually have roots in any of these lifestyles, there's generally a neatly pressed polo-esque undercurrent to their look. This is manifest in such elements as snug sweaters, close-fitting dark blue jeans or capris cuffed Audrey Hepburn-style, and slip-on canvas sneakers.
Also, the newer breed of Urban Cyclist is increasingly interested in performing tricks. This enables them to socialise and enjoy their bikes without having to ride them all that much. The fixed-gear freestyler takes his or her cues less from the above and more from "streetwear" and haute hip-hop fashion. They say things like "holla", they "peep" things instead of looking at them, and they call colours "colourways".
Why other cyclists don't like them: They are trendy.
Compatibility with other cyclists: Will sometimes mingle with Roadies, track racers, or Righteous Cyclists.
Like cobblers, blacksmiths, cowboys and Luke Wilson, bicycle messengers continue to exist despite increasing irrelevance and a constantly shrinking demand for their labours. Even though the rapid disappearance of paper means they have less and less to deliver, no other cyclist is as romanticised as the Messenger, especially outside the cycling world. They have even been immortalised in the 1986 film Quicksilver, starring Kevin Bacon. (Quicksilver is the greatest bicycle messenger movie ever made, inasmuch as it is the only bicycle messenger movie ever made.) Interestingly, despite being on the wane, Messengers are at the peak of their stylistic importance, as evidenced by their influence on Urban Cyclists all over the world.
Of course, people aren't taken with all Messengers — they're just taken with the "cool" ones. These aren't the ones who deliver things on bicycles because it is the only type of work available to them; rather, they're the ones with expensive university degrees. In this sense, being a Messenger is less a job than it is a lifestyle choice, and they're sort of a cross between surfers and stylish mail carriers.
Most importantly, unlike other cyclists who will try to recruit new prospects, Messengers often discourage aspiring Messengers. This is because the mystique of the Messenger depends on people thinking it's hard, and if people discover that riding around the city all day is actually pretty easy and also a lot of fun they might start running their own errands and the entire house of spoke cards may topple.
Why other cyclists don't like them: They act as though they're performing a public service, despite the fact that they're the only ones out of all of us who are actually getting paid.
Compatibility with other cyclists: Will allow Urban Cyclists to look at them and drink near them at bars. They hate moneyed interlopers, yet they will also model articles of clothing that cost more than their monthly salary for purveyors of Urban Cycling gear.
The Beautiful Godzilla
The Beautiful Godzilla is a particular kind of urban female cyclist who rides as though the rest of the world were created simply to yield to her. She's generally young, good-looking and clad in expensive clothes. She also rides an old three-speed or perhaps a 10-speed or Dutch city bike, carries her handbag on the edge of her handlebars and if she has a basket it usually contains a small dog or perhaps a baguette. She's on her mobile phone at all times and her approach to cycling in a densely populated city is a combination of self-entitlement and Mr Magoo-type dumb luck. Like any self-entitled person, she can't imagine a car would possibly hit her, even if she's riding against traffic and it's coming right at her. Actually, you sort of find yourself disappointed when it doesn't. And just like Mr Magoo would wander into a construction site and a girder would materialise right as he was about to walk off the scaffolding, the Beautiful Godzilla blithely rides through red lights and busy intersections, emerging on the other side unscathed and just as photogenic as she was when she entered it.
Why other cyclists don't like them: They should be dead but aren't.
Compatibility with other cyclists: Will accept deliveries from Messengers; will develop crushes on Messengers.
While the Roadie holds the Triathlete in contempt, the truth is they share common DNA. Actually, that may explain the contempt – Jews, Christians and Muslims share both monotheism and a bunch of prophets, but that hasn't stopped them from having their share of disagreements over the years. Specifically, the area in which the Triathlete and the Roadie are most similar is in their ability to reduce cycling to a fitness-building exercise, suck the joy from it and discard it so all that is left is a desiccated Lycra shell.
The Triathlete is one who partakes in triathlons – timed "races" in which the competitors swim, then "bike," then run. (You should always be suspicious of people who use the word "bike" as a verb.) Many people even argue that it is inappropriate to consider a Triathlete a cyclist, since in some cases they are merely incidental cyclists who only ride because cycling happens to be part of a triathlon. If they changed the cycling leg to something else, like 10-pin bowling, they'd probably all be buying bowling balls instead of bicycles.
Many cyclists also believe that Triathletes are bad bike handlers and criticise them for being middling at three disciplines instead of exceptional at one. (If triathlons involved bowling instead of cycling, Triathletes would probably roll their balls in the wrong direction and take out half the snack bar.) As such, Triathletes are regarded with general mistrust, since their amphibious nature leads other cyclists to view them as slimy interlopers.
Why other cyclists don't like them: They're the three-bird roast of the cycling world.
Compatibility with other cyclists: Can occasionally mix with Roadies, like when you see a couple of pigeons hanging out with a bunch of seagulls.
The Righteous Cyclist
I believe that cycling can help make you a better person. I also believe that riding a bicycle helps make the world better for other cyclists, since more cyclists means more awareness of cyclists. However, I stop short of believing that cycling can actually save the world. This is not true of the Righteous Cyclist, who is convinced that the very act of turning the pedals will actually restore acres and acres of rainforest, suck smog from the sky and refreeze the ice caps.
The Righteous Cyclist comes in many forms. There's the Unkempt Righteous Cyclist, who rides some kind of squeaky bicycle that's been recovered from a skip. Then there's the Laden Righteous Cyclist, who makes a point of transporting unwieldy objects by bicycle or even moving to a new apartment by bicycle. (This is to reduce vehicular emissions, even though the miles of traffic that forms behind the Laden Righteous Cyclist more than makes up for the three gallons of petrol they might have saved by not using a car to bring home the new-to-them sofa.) There's also the Europhile Righteous Cyclist, who will remind you at every opportunity just how much more bike-friendly cities like Copenhagen and Amsterdam are. Also, all of these cyclists will take great pains to remind you that they don't have a car, unless they can afford to own a car or a parent or relative gave them a car, in which case they will provide a lengthy rationale and tell you how they never use it.
Even though the Righteous Cyclist is outwardly completely different from the Triathlete, the fact is they are held in contempt by some because, just like the Triathlete, the Righteous Cyclist is a high-flight risk. If a Triathlete only rides a bike because it happens to be part of a triathlon, then a Righteous Cyclist only rides a bike because it doesn't use gas and is seen as "green". But, if something greener comes along, who's to say they won't leave the rest of us behind? It's difficult to ascertain how many of them are just a cleverly worded pamphlet away from defecting to Rollerblades.
Why other cyclists don't like them: They are smug.
Compatibility with other cyclists: Generally incompatible with competitive cycling and especially Mountain Bikers due to the car use.
The Contraption Captain
Well over 100 years ago the bicycle realised its current form and it has remained largely unchanged ever since. However, there are some intrepid souls who refuse to accept this and who embrace alternative designs for human-powered wheeled vehicles. And by far the most popular alternative "bicycle" is the recumbent.
The recumbent strikes fear into the hearts of nearly every non-recumbent-riding cyclist. If you've ever seen a dog growl at a plastic bag caught in a shrub because the dog thinks it might be some kind of weird animal, then you understand the reaction. Cyclists all notice one another, so when we see something that looks somewhat like a bicycle yet places the rider in an odd position with his feet kicking at the air as if he's defending himself from an attacking eagle, we become confused and disoriented. And when animals (including humans) don't understand something they become angry and defensive.
However, Contraption Captains mean no harm, and they're simply operating machines they feel are superior to regular bicycles because they're potentially faster and they don't require the rider to sit on a narrow saddle. Of course, they also can't negotiate tight corners, they're heavy, they're difficult or impossible to lock to poles or bike racks, they're unwieldy and can't easily be stored in small apartments or offices, they don't climb hills well and they require big tall flags since they're below automobile bonnet level. Yet none of these things keep the Contraption Captains from polishing their helmet mirrors, combing their beards, packing a day's worth of supplies in their bum bags, and taking to the roads.
Why other cyclists don't like them: Their vehicles are confusing and frightening.
Compatibility with other cyclists: Themselves. Will also join charity rides and deign to ride among "uprights".