Bicycle touring is an incredible outdoor adventure and almost everyone I know who has ever given it a try has come back and said it was one of the greatest experiences of their lives. But if bicycle touring is so great, why is it that so few people actually know about our “sport” and choose to participate in it?
There are a number of different reasons for this, but today I want to concentrate of just one of my theories – the way that bicycle tourists come across to the general public.
I believe that if we are ever to get more people (especially young people) involved in this “sport” we’ve got to change the way bicycle touring is perceived by the non-cycling community. In a way, I think we’ve got to make bicycle touring “cool”.
Unfortunately, “cool” isn’t exactly built in to our persona. The word “tourist” alone (as in “bicycle tourist”) is enough to turn many people off. In addition to being labeled as tourists, we’re looked down upon (or at least ignored) because we don’t win races, we don’t do tricks, magazines don’t feature us, and for the most part, the general public doesn’t know we exist.
So, when I set out to discover what the average person thinks of bicycle tourists, I invariably came back with three common stereotypes:
The Homeless Bum
By far the most popular word that came up in my research was “homeless.” The word “bum” followed closely behind.
It seems that whether you pack your belongings in a backpack or on a bicycle, people invariably view you as homeless. And when most people picture a homeless person, they think of a dirty, smelly old man who has been living under a bridge, pushing his belongings around in a shopping cart and begging for money to support his drug habit.
The word “bum” certainly doesn’t drum up the images that I first think of when I imagine the life of a “bicycle tourist” (i.e. adventure, wonder, nature, education, global citizen, etc.).
Another image that seems to spring to the front of many people’s minds is that of the “hippie”. This is the “all-grain granola” cyclist who rides a bike because it’s good for the earth. This person wears clothes made from hemp and feels it’s her responsibility to let the people around her know that their cars and their lifestyle (in general) is destroying the planet.
For many people, cycling is just a fun way to get about from one place to the next. The fact that it helps the environment in some small way is of little to no importance.
But some people, it seems, take this notion of “bicycling is good for the planet” a bit too far by pushing their way of life onto those around them. While these people have good intentions, their pushy ways seem to make some members of the general public view cyclists as a clan of self-righteous, long haired, green peace, save the planet, pot smoking hippies.
The Spandex Sportsmen
Finally, when I asked members of the non-cycling community to describe what a bicycle tourist looks like, they often times came back with two similar phrases:
1) Tight shorts
2) Bright colors
Cyclists, it seems, are known for wearing tight spandex shorts (which some people think are too revealing) and bright flashy colors (such as neon yellow, neon pink, neon blue… or just about anything in the neon to fluorescent range).
Maybe cyclists get this image because of the popularity of the Tour de France and other televised bike races where spandex is all but required? Or maybe the public views cyclists as bright and tight hard bodies because the only cyclists most (American) citizens see are those crazy few brave enough to wake up at 5 AM on Saturday morning and ride around in the cold with a small group of other spandex clad loonies?
Whatever the case may be, cyclists (whether they be “bicycle tourists” or not) are often times viewed as neon colored flashes of spandex and skin.
But Do Bicycle Tourists Really Fit These Stereotypes?
There’s no denying the fact that much of the general public has an image of what bicycle tourists (and bicyclists in general) look like. When I asked members of my own family, friends I had grown up with, and strangers off the street what images first came to mind when they thought of “bicycle tourists”, the fore mentioned images were brought up again and again.
But do bicycle tourists really fit these stereotypes?
In a way, many of us do. Not all of us, but many!
Take me for example. I’ve been guilty of at least two of the three mentioned stereotypes.
Here’s a picture of me on my first bicycle tour (on the far right), looking (in my mother’s opinion at least) like a homeless bum. Take note of my dirty brown butt and padded down helmet hair (not to mention that CamelBak I’m sporting):
And here’s me on my fourth long distance bicycle tour down the Mississippi River – looking at least a bit like that of our spandex sportsmen discussed above:
So, I’m guilty of it too!
But Are These Stereotypes Really That Bad?
The fact is, looking like a bum, a hippie or a neon yellow light bulb isn’t really hurting anyone.
But many people (young people especially) do care about the way you look. And as I’m discovering only now (at age 25) looks are important!
The way you look says a lot about you. People make judgments about you based off the image you put out. Looking the right way can mean the difference between landing the job, getting the girl, signing the contract, hitching the ride, being invited to dinner… and a million other important moments.
The way you look says something about you – whether you like it or not!
The Way We Are Perceived By The Public Has Got To Change
I could be wrong here, but I think the way the general public views cyclists has got to change!
As you may or may not know, my big goal here at BicycleTouringPro.com is to get more young people involved in bicycle touring. Traveling by bike has made a huge impact on my life and I think the sport could positively influence other young people as well, if only they 1) knew that bicycle touring existed and 2) weren’t instantly turned off by the sport because of the image given off by current bicycle tourists.
In a future article I plan to release my thoughts and ideas on how I would like to see bicycle tourists perceived by the general public. I will discuss in detail the way bicycle tourists could be perceived and I will detail my strategies for making these changes come to fruition. But in the meantime I’d like to hear what you have to say.
Do you agree with my findings about the perception the general public has on cyclists? And what do you think could be done to change the way bicycle tourists are perceived by the non-cycling community? Let me know by leaving a comment below.