Thursday, January 15, 2015

Are Bicycles the New Motorcycles?

Throughout history, bicycling has had a radical, scofflaw sub-culture. In the early years of the modern safety bicycle, machines were expensive and their use was primarily limited to the affluent. But over time, things changed. Bicycles became less expensive and were eventually available to the working class. When the bicycle was made available to the masses, a culture of scorchers and drags were born. It was this class of crazed speed addicts that gave rise to the adrenaline-fueled, danger-seeking sub-culture that would continue throughout the history of bicycling.

The 1970s saw the birth of klunkers and early mountain bikers. BMX was all the rage in the 80s. Bike messengers ruled the 1980s and early 90s. And let's not forget about the fixed gear resurgence of the last decade. For over a century, the bicycle scene has had an undercurrent whose members were considered frightening lunatics to the more genteel members of society.

When you compare the history of bicycle culture to that of motorcycle culture, the two paths are surprisingly similar. Motorcycling has also had a sub-culture of lawlessness and rebellion. Rockers and tons, motorcycle clubs, and modern street bike racing are not so different from early scorchers, bicycle clubs, and alleycats. And like bicyclists, motorcyclists have been consistently pushed into the margins of society.

At the most basic level, both bicycles and motorcycles are modes of transportation that provide their riders with feelings of freedom and independence. And both have a rich past that is closely tied to counterculture. As a bike commuter and general bicycle geek, I tend to feel a certain camaraderie with motorcyclists. We face many of the same dangers and harassment out on the road. But more and more often I see motorcyclists joining the ranks of those who find it entertaining to harass and maliciously endanger bicyclists. It seems almost ironic, given that motorcyclists have historically been subjected to the same types of persecution by motorists.

Is this really all that surprising, though? The average motorcycle rider in the U.S. has an average age of nearly 50 and, here in southwest Missouri, is almost invariably a white male. Add to this demographic a prevailing culture of machismo and - at times - violence, and the resulting population doesn't exactly have a track record of tolerance and courtesy.

I have no intention of generalizing here. I've certainly gotten plenty of respect - both on and off the bike - from motorcycle riders. But it's so easy for a handful of experiences with rude people to ruin the reputation of the entire group. Preying on more vulnerable road users is certainly grounds for tainting the well. For someone who's on a bicycle everyday, that makes it easy to put motorcycles in the same category as cars: larger vehicles to be regarded with caution and fear, whose operators can be malicious and dangerous. This is completely antithetical to the freewheeling counterculture that has traditionally been associated with motorcycling. On the other hand, bicycling continues to represent the very thesis of counterculture: freedom, individuality, environmentalism, and minimalism. I'm not arguing that the bicycle is some type of modern-day freak flag, but I am certainly arguing that bikes are cool. They always have been. They always will be.

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