What is a Cyclist?

This seems like a pretty simple question but I think we need to understand what is a cyclist before we can design a suitable travel infrastructure that will be used by people on bikes. Isn’t anyone who cycles a bike a cyclist? First off, I don’t like the term cyclist used to define somebody who uses a bike as a basic mode of transport. I wouldn’t describe someone who races Formula One as a motorist but we constantly use the term cyclist to describe anyone on a bike, regardless of their intentions and motivations.

They might all be cyclists but they are not the same.

For me, a bicycle can be used for 3 distinct purposes;

  1. Sport
  2. Leisure
  3. Transport

It’s important that we make this distinction as it will help make the bike as a mode of transport much more appealing to everyone and easier to promote. So let’s look at each of these individually.


Competitive sport cycling.

Sport cycling at the top end involves competition, the most common being road racing. There are also various disciplines within mountain biking and BMX with the latter once again growing in popularity in recent years. To be a sports cyclist, you need to train. It’s takes effort and you are going to sweat. You will suffer. There is also an element of risk involved as regardless of the racing discipline, competitors will push themselves to the limit of their capabilities so the likelihood of crashes is greater than what it would be if you were going for a leisurely spin in the park barely above walking pace. Cycle sports are great as I’ve experienced them all but they are not for everyone. Road racing is by far the most popular cycle sport in Ireland and I would say there are hardly 1,000 active competitors in total and that’s being generous.

Social sport cycling.

At the other end of sport cycling would be those who cycle to get fit, lose weight, participate in mass cycle events such as sportives instead of racing, etc. While this type of cycling has a much greater social element to it, those participating still like the effort involved, and afterwards, the reward. It is an alternative to the gym. Everyone involved in sports cycling uses specialised bikes and wears specialised clothing for both comfort and performance purposes. Those participating in sport cycling do so almost exclusively in the evening or at the weekend.


Cycling for leisure.

Leisure cyclists are those on bikes purely for the joy of it and have no interest in speed. While cycling is a healthy activity, their motivation is not to get fit. Leisure cyclists are interested in the environment surrounding them or spending time with the people they are cycling with. A family cycling in the park? Leisure cyclists. An elderly couple cycling the Great Southern Trail? Leisure cyclists. Tourists cycling the Wild Atlantic Way? Leisure cyclists. Leisure cycling does not involve a need for speed or intense efforts so specialised equipment or clothing is not required. Leisure cycling is similar to sport cycling in that people usually leisure cycle in the evenings or at the weekends.


Cycling as a basic mode of transport.

The third and final group are those that use a bike as a mode of transport, usually to commute to and from work although the bike can also be used as a utilitarian vehicle to transport goods or even other people. The motivation here is purely functional, to get from A to B. No specialised clothing required. The key differences with this cyclist and the previous two are the following:

  1. Cycling as a mode of transport is not usually limited to any particular time or day
  2. Cycling as a mode of transport primarily takes place in urban streets unlike sport or leisure cycling which usually takes place on rural roads or parks.
  3. Cycling as a mode of transport is about what you are going to do at your destination, not the journey. Again, this is the opposite of the previous two types of cycling where the experience is all about the ride itself.

When using a bike as a mode of transport, you don’t need any specialised clothing or bike. Any bike will do although most people in Ireland use bikes not suitable to commuting which I’ll address in another post in the future. One thing you definitely don’t need is specialised clothing. If your route is under 6/7km, you should be able to dress for your destination, not the journey. By this I mean if you are cycling to work, you should be able to wear your work clothes for the journey. This is important to understand because if we can’t do this, cycling as a mode of transport will never succeed.

So let’s go back to defining what is a cyclist? If asked to describe a cyclist, most people would probably describe someone wearing lycra, a high viz jacket and a helmet. That will hardly come as a surprise as that is the persistent image of a cyclist we are presented with, the one that is constantly promoted by advertising and the one that we are now conditioned to accept. Unfortunately, the constant reinforcement of this image of a cyclist is hampering any chance we have of making the simple bike a mass mode of transport in urban areas.


Who looks safer – bike commuters in Ireland (top) or the Netherlands (bottom)?

By promoting the sports cyclist image as the default profile of what a cyclist is, we are creating a psychological barrier to entry for those who could use a bike as a simple mode of transport. The sports cyclist image reinforces the need for strange clothing, safety equipment and a specialist bicycle. Why would anyone choose a bike over a car for a short commute to work when the bike involves so much hassle? If I use my car, I will shower at home, wear my work clothes during my journey and when I arrive at my destination I am ready to start my day’s work. If I have to cycle I will have to dress accordingly and bring a change of clothes to change into after I’ve showered at work. I will have to repeat this process again for my journey home. Even writing this is putting me off cycling. This is why we need to separate the different modes of bike use from each other and start telling people that using a bike as a mode of transport is as easy and comfortable as using a car, that you don’t need specialist clothing or equipment and that you don’t need to shower after every trip. Take a country like the Netherlands where cycling as a mode of transport is ubiquitous (the bicycle as primary mode of transport ranges from 30%-50% depending on the city) and you won’t see anyone hunched over the handlebars of a sports bike wearing lycra, fluorescent clothing or helmets. Despite the cities being packed with bicycles, there are no ‘cyclists’ anywhere. Instead you have normal people, wearing normal clothes doing normal things. Using a bicycle as a mode of transport needs to be normalised in this country. We do of course need a cycle infrastructure to make cycling as a mode of transport more appealing too but can we at least start off by understanding what a cyclist is first and stop using the lazy definition we have today which damages the promotion of the bike as a simple and efficient way for anyone to get from A to B?