The photos to the right are the two images that first appear when you type “cyclist” into Google. What do they tell us about the common perception of cyclists? These cyclists look sleek, fit and fast. Both have intensely focused expressions, as if they are staring fixedly at a podium or calorie-packed buffet table. And if cyclists have a “uniform,” these two are wearing it. Bike shorts, fitted jersey top, racing helmet and clipless shoes. It is this image that is broadcast around the world each summer through the Tour de France, and it is the same image that pops into the minds of many non-cyclists when they think about biking.
I get a sense for the popular image of cyclists by teaching classes and talking to people at transportation fairs and in the community. The other day a coworker said she showed up to a meeting on bike wearing looking professional in a dress, and one of the other people at the meeting said it totally “changed her perception of cyclists.”
So how accurate it this perception? To get a a general idea, I woke up early one Friday and observed cyclists crossing the Fremont Bridge between 6:30 and 9:00am, grouping them into loose categories based on appearance. Before anyone gets excited, I know this is not a very statistically rigorous process, and I’m not promoting one “outfit” over another. I was just curious; how many cyclists wear street clothes vs lycra, and just accurately does Google’s image search results reflect bicycling on the streets of Seattle.
Not accurately at all, it turns out. On one end of the spectrum I classified riders who would not look out of place on the Tour de France. These riders most closely matched those in the two photographs above. Their opposites – the cyclists who, without their bikes, still look complete – I placed in a group at the other of the scale. These cyclists wouldn’t warrant a second glance at any coffee shop or moderately-priced restaurant. Between the camps are two further categories, divided arbitrarily by the amount of bike specific gear I could see the from my perch at Peet’s Coffee.
So, onto the results:
|Full Speed Racer||Mostly bike specific gear||Mostly casual, with some bike gear||Street clothes||Total|
|18 cyclists||83 cyclists||154 cyclists||365 cyclists||620 cyclists|
Almost 60% of cyclists bike to work (or wherever) in street clothes and only 3% in a full lycra. I expected a much more even split, and I’m really surprised that the majority of cyclists ride around without any visible bike-specific gear at all. This is great, because when a prospective cyclist sees someone riding a bike in “normal” clothes, they think, “Hey, I could do that!” The more items added to the perceived uniform, the more barriers to bicycling for new riders. Since doing this count I’ve been paying attention to the cyclists I see, and the proportion holds up; the majority of cyclists are riding in street clothes. I would bet that this percentage will rise as more and better bike infrastructure is built around Seattle and people can bike from point A to point B comfortably. Of course there will always be hills, 15 mile commutes and hard saddles, and bike gear will always have a place, just expect to see less of it in the future as Seattle continues to build out its bike infrastructure.