Aug 052011

What happened around 1940? That’s when references to the bicycle peaked in books written in English, according to this Ngram created using Google’s search tool that examines book contents, and references to “cycling” started to climb.

Could it have something to do with the invention of the cable-shifted derailleur in 1938? Or did we just start the trend toward informality, since “bike” starts climbing around the same time?

Trend lines for use of the words "bike" and "cycling" have risen sharply in the past couple of decades, based on a Google analysis of book contents.
Hard to say for sure what happened in 1940 since I hadn’t been born yet, but the rise in references to cycling, biking, bicycles and biking over the past 50 years is heartening, especially if you extrapolate the two blue trend lines that swept sharply upwards in recent years.

Remember the Presidential Fitness Test from grade school? I have dim memories of having absolutely zero hope of completing even one pull-up.

Looking at a timeline where you can learn more about bike history I discovered that test—the bane of many a grade-schooler—launched in the year of my birth, around when the blue lines really started going up, and may deserve some of the credit for increased interest in the bicycle for recreation and fitness. (Maybe because riding a bike doesn’t involve pull-ups, push-ups or curl-ups.)

As another factor there’s Earth Day in 1970 (for the record, I was seven at the time). By 1978 thanks to the oil crisis more bikes than cars were being sold in the US.

Although “cycling” is the most-used term what I find most interesting is the small but steady rise in the use of “biking” over the past 20 years and the sharp increase in the word “bike.”

Cover image of the book Joyride: Pedaling Toward A Healthier Planet by Mia Birk. Available from Amazon:
Joyride: Pedaling Toward A Healthier Planet by Mia Birk. Available at your wonderful local independent bookstore or from Amazon.

A post by Portland planner and bike advocate/author Mia Birk talked about the “real cyclist” phenomenon: fragmentation inside the community of people who ride bikes so that one group defines itself as “real” and others as somehow not real.

As I commented there and in a post on the politics of the Cycle Chic movement, I’m real enough, but I’m moving away from using the term “cyclist” to describe myself. I find the phrase “bike rider” a tad awkward but I like it better, or just “a person who rides a bike.”

I ride my bike: lots for transportation, some for fitness/health, some for time with friends, some to see if I can do a really long ride while supporting some local good cause, and as often as possible with my sweetheart—but always because it’s fun and freedom and now I can’t imagine not riding.

And I call what I do biking as much as—more than—I call it cycling.

Cycling for me summons up Spandex and sweat, intervals and heart rate monitors and pouches of sugary carb/electrolyte supplements.

People who drive cars mostly don’t go around referring to themselves as drivers. They’re people who drive cars, and I doubt they worry about whether they’re authentic or not.

Is the little old lady who only drives her car to church on Sundays somehow less of a driver than the guy in the tricked-out hot rod or the suburban mom in her SUV, let alone a NASCAR or Formula One driver? (Well, okay, maybe those last two.)

It occurs to me that the problem isn’t with defining “real”–it’s the word “cyclist.” I think for the general non-riding public “cyclist” (real or not) brings up images of brightly colored Spandex and Lance Armstrong (they don’t know who Mara Abbott or Cadel Evans is).

If they can’t envision themselves ever being like that–and how many of us can really attain a body fat percentage near zero and wattage in the 400s?–they have no point of connection.

For them “cyclist” just isn’t the lady in heels or Chacos on her step-through with the basket and the ringy-dingy bell. She’s not a “real cyclist.” It’s as if all drivers are either NASCAR/Formula One or they aren’t real drivers.

Let’s be people who ride bikes. Hard to say someone isn’t a real person regardless of her/his choice of bike, clothing, route, or riding pace.

P.S. If this flashback to the Presidential Fitness Challenge makes you nostalgic you can check out the Adult Fitness Test.

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