Types of cycle culture

Warning. Some cheek in tongue has been employed here. I ask, what is your country’s cycle culture? The most obvious quantitative measure aside (how many are cycling?) I propose (with a twinkle in my eye) that we could have a look at two things. The torso angle and the handlebar measure.

To remind ourselves again, the word culture is highly contested in the social sciences (and the so-called natural sciences would have nought to do with the concept of culture at any rate). There is no common understanding of the meaning of culture. For the sake of this article let’s define culture as a community that has a common way of doing and thinking.

If you have been lucky enough to experience the Dutch cycling culture, you will be familiar with the concept of culture that is noticeable to an outsider. In the UK, where I am writing from, cycling is the prerogative of the fit and the brave, as not many want the stress imposed by riding motor traffic. And without ridding the UK of its loopy lanes and deadend solutions, there are not many options. Look at the Dutch “cycling culture” and you see people, big, small, all colours of the rainbow on a bike.

Whether the Dutch know they have a cycle culture is a good question. The answer could be similar to this, I suppose: the Dutch have a cycling culture only in relation to other countries not having one. The differential of the “two worlds” causes the striking moment of realisation. We should not forget that Ducth cycling also is a stereotype, so much so that it is often joked about that the Dutch have “cycling in their DNA or genes” or suchlike. Wearing clogs and eating cheese, and sporting these funny starched milkmaid hats are in our stereotype DNA of the Dutch too.

The quantitative measure, the cycle mode share, tells you about the strength of the cycle culture in relation to its popular culture. Let’s get back to the subject in hand.

The torso angle

space4cycling_GermanHypothesis: the more upright the cyclist, the more popular the cycling culture

If you have many riding in a racing position, where the back of the cyclist is nearing a horizontal position, leaning forward to reach the bars, you have culture that suits the fit and the brave. It’s not all embracing. Fast riding is necessary to keep up with motor traffic, and it most likely means that comfortable routes, separating the rider from motor traffic, are not available. You may spot some upright cyclists, perhaps on the pavement (a highly contentious space for cycling), but the general bulk of biking is flat-backed. With lots of cyclists leaning forward, you have a niche cycling culture.

The handlebar measure

2016-09-01 16.27.59Hypothesis: the more Dutch-type handlebars there are, the more popular the cycling culture

Similar to the above, the more your urban design relies on riding amongst motor traffic, the fit and the fast will brave it. Another indicator to look out for are handlebar shapes. If you spot overwhelmingly drop handlebars or mountain biking bars, it is a sign for an exclusive fast cycling culture. Stop at a bike parking place and have a look at the handlebars. If not many Dutch-style bars can be spotted you probably have a subculture of cycling rather than a popular culture.


Afterword. Naturally, if you wanted mass cycling, more people cycling, we cannot forbid the type of bikes sold in your country or promote only a certain type of bike. The bike is an indicator, a reaction to the urban environment. What type of cycling is urban design affording the population? It would not make sense to just swap the bikes and handlebars, we need to swap our urban design to make it a habitat for relaxed and easy-going bikes.


3 thoughts on “Types of cycle culture

      1. Yes, I am wondering if somebody has done a comparison study where there are many ‘upright’ and ‘sporty’ cycles to compare, safety-wise. Possibly Cambridge is just the place to do that.

        Sadly, trying to Google for such a study mainly pulls up papers about posture for road-racing…


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