Hors catègorie, beyond classification

According to “Portland Bicycle Plan for 2030,” the city’s cyclists can be divided into four types based on their relationship to bicycle transportation: 1) Not interested in bicycling, 33%; 2) strong and fearless, 1 or 2%; 3) enthused and confident, about 10%; and 4) interested but concerned, about 50%. Without a doubt, I am one of the two percenters who “will ride anywhere, regardless of the bicycle facility or lack thereof. They are comfortable on busy roads without bicycle lanes and may—in many circumstances—prefer to have no bicycle facilities at all” (p. 11).

As I cycle around town and sit in coffee shops observing Portland’s cyclists, I think of a second way to classify the riders on our city streets, this one based on their use of bicycles as statements about life style.

1)   Pragmatics: regular commuters, students, low or no income adults, and bicycle workers, like messengers, who use bicycles to carry out their business. A high percentage of these cyclists use old bikes, cheap bikes, or a new type of machine designed to function well in the welter of urban traffic. A few now use specially designed cargo bikes to carry large or heavy loads through city streets.

2)   Sophisticates: cyclists who use their two-wheeled mounts for a wide range of activities, including going to the office or campus, or to rendezvous with friends at the neighborhood coffee shop or brewpub. Many of these two-wheelers dress up with skirts or tailored slacks, and they handle their bicycles with a certain cultivated air. A French counterpart would be the Parisian cyclists referred to in the New York Times as “bobos, or ‘bourgeous bohèmes,’ the trendy urban middle-class” who are the primary users of the bicycles provided for Paris’ bicycle rental system.   

3)   Ideologues: cyclists committed to environmental goals and others who are strong believers in an urban life style. Because bicycles as a transportation mode are compatible with these values, they have become the vehicle of choice. Some cyclists in this classification tend toward the counter-cultural in their attitudes and habit. They sometimes sponsor critical mass events, bike-naked rides, and other attention-getting activities. Some of these cyclists design and build high-rise machines. In my city, a few of these cycle-centric people are proponents of the  “keep Portland weird” mindset.

4)   Recreationalists: a miscellany of athletes, tourists, and occasional bicyclers. The aggressive athletes compete in organized events, maintain serious training programs, and engage in rigorous club programs. Tourists take trips, some carrying all of their gear and camping at night and others traveling with minimal supplies and staying in public accommodations. Still others take quiet rides around the neighborhood or on designated bicycle trails. Some recreational cyclists have taken up the sport in order to improve health and well-being.

The categories listed above overlap and many cyclists show characteristics from more than one of the above groups. My hunch is that most cyclists can identify most closely with one of these descriptions.

Some of us, however, don’t quite fit this coffee-shop typology. I, for one, am more a pragmatic than a sophisticate, more an ideologue than a recreationalist. Yet all four of these life-style modes are present in my cycling activity, which, I think, is true for most of the two percenters reported in the Portland survey.

Like the most celebrated mountain grades in the Tour de France, the people who love bicycles are hors catègorie, beyond classification.

Note: Image derived from 100 Years of Bicycle Posters, by Jack Rennert (Harper & Row Publishers, 1973).

2 Responses to Hors catègorie, beyond classification

  1. Erik Ulberg says:

    Hm, how would you categorize me? I use my bike for trips where it is a little far to walk or where public transportation is not convenient, and occasionally for medium length (you would probably say short) rides. I feel like I touch a little bit of all of them but fall closest to the spirit of 1. 

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