Emigrating to Bike-World

Involvement in club racing can be extremely rewarding. Besides excitement and challenge, one gains physical fitness, confidence, self-knowledge and a social network. For many, bike culture is the background for life’s journey of self-discovery or provides a structure that gives meaning to daily living. Bike culture somewhat resembles a primitive foreign country however. The benefits of immigration are reserved for those willing to immerse themselves in the culture. The immigrant must learn a language that can’t be studied in school, become familiar with bizarre traditions, and join in painful and humiliating rituals. Living conditions in Bike-World include water of doubtful quality, novel foods, exposure to the elements, and unavoidable, daily hard physical work. For the first few months or even years, the immigrant is clearly foreign, showing through subtle signs of appearance and behavior that he or she is a visitor and not yet a part of the native culture. These signs, to which the immigrant is oblivious, engender treatment as a dangerous foreigner, creating an uncomfortable feeling of alienation. The uncomfortable immigrant may give up on assimilation and miss out on the benefits of immersing him or herself in the new culture. This is unfortunate. Bike-World culture is complicated, but accessible to all. No one is born a club cyclist, and no whole, healthy person is genetically unable to blend in.

Adjustment to the culture of Bike-World is much easier if one knows what to expect and how to make it less obvious that one is foreign. Full assimilation takes years and requires the establishment of personal relationships with locals from whom one can absorb the subtleties of the culture. These relationships are slow to form for the obviously foreign. There are a few behaviors the immigrant to Bike-World can adopt to speed the process of assimilation.

There are numerous sub-cultures in Bike-World, each with its own mores. The rest of this article deals with the sub-culture of road-bike racing clubs. Club racers regularly risk life and limb together and put their lives in each other’s hands. It should not be surprising that they are reluctant to accept outsiders who may not have the skills to safely join in the traditional jams and sprints, or that outsiders might be encouraged to stay at the back, observing but not participating in the delicate rituals of the attack and the chase. To overcome this rejection and marginalization, the immigrant to Bike-World has to learn to blend in.

Appropriate appearance, including dress and grooming, is essential to the ability to blend in. If one deviates even slightly from the standards of appearance, one will be treated as a deviant. All aspects of one’s clothing must be cycling specific. Shoes can be any color but must be set up for clipless pedals and have a smooth, stiff sole without tread. Socks can be of any color but must have a low cuff. Legs, if exposed, must be shaved on both men and women. On colder days, legs may be covered with close-fitting black leg warmers or tights. Solid colored, non-black tights and all baggy leg garb look foreign to the bike racer. The upper-body may sport a cycling jersey of any color or pattern, with certain limitations. The jersey must be made of a synthetic material, except during very cold weather. The jersey must be that of a local bike-racing club. Club racers don’t wear the team jersey of any professional team of which they are not a member, unless they got that jersey from a member of that team. Wearing a store- or catalog-purchased pro-team jersey is a sure way for the new cyclist to isolate him or herself from bike-racing culture while attempting to blend in. Similarly, riding in a national-team jersey or a jersey with the World Champion’s rainbow stripes is considered uncultured, unless of course the rider won the right to wear it, which automatically makes him or her an accepted member of any club he or she chooses to join. Jerseys with the names of centuries are generally frowned upon. Jerseys with the names of double-centuries or well-known, extremely hard centuries establish the wearer as an outsider, but an outsider potentially worthy of respect. If one is not a member of a racing club, solid colored jerseys are acceptable to the racer. Sunglasses and gloves are optional but must be cycling specific if worn. Facial and armpit hair do not need to be shaved. Helmets are optional but must be cycling specific and well ventilated if worn.

Intense body odor may cause other riders to avoid one, but does not, unfortunately, mark one as an inexperienced cyclist. The wearing of crash-torn clothing is treated similarly. While the temporary tattoo on the calf made by contact with a dirty chain is referred to as an “amateur mark”, it is not uncommon in the pack of club cyclists.

One doesn’t have to have the lightest or most expensive equipment to be accepted by club cyclists, though it certainly doesn’t hurt. There are some pieces of equipment to avoid however. Among these are toe-clips, hydration or other back-packs (except in very hot areas), any bike-mounted bags other than under-seat bags, racks, down-tube shifters, Brook’s or other solid leather saddles, vinyl-covered saddles, straight handlebars, hybrid bikes, and bikes with more than one but fewer than eight rear cogs. Aero or triathlon bars are acceptable only in the period before a traditional time-trial.

One doesn’t have to be the smoothest or most coordinated rider to assimilate, though there are some foibles that label one as a newbie. When starting, racers avoid “scootering” or pushing off with the ground foot. Rather, they push off by pressing on the front pedal as they lift their ground foot. Pushing off several times with the ground foot is a sure-sign of inexperience and identifies one as potentially dangerous. When racers work on the bike, they never turn it upside down and balance it on the seat and handlebars. Racers know the words “wheel”, “rim” and “tire” and how to use them properly. Tires go flat and wheels go out of true but not the other way round. Riding out to the side of the pack or off the back is a form of self-exclusion that also blocks assimilation.

More experienced club riders develop a collection of special skills, each of which serves a purpose and that, taken together, set the club racer apart from less experienced visitors to Bike-World. The sooner one learns the skills that allow one to ride safely and efficiently in close groups the sooner one can be accepted as a club cyclist. These include paceline riding, eating and drinking on the bike, and continuing to pedal even when distracted by a dog or passing car, among other skills. There are several underlying skills the immigrant can practice alone, as a foreigner might study a new. These include riding a very straight line, riding no-hands, braking gently, and descending at speed.

Very experienced riders develop additional skills that further set them apart but are not required for acceptance as a club cyclist. Being proficient and nonchalant in these are signs of complete assimilation, but attempting them in public and failing also identifies one as an idiot. There are many skills in this category, but some examples include track-standing rather than putting down a foot at a stop light, riding no hands to remove a jacket, or bunny-hopping up a curb.

In order to be accepted into a particular club or group, one must show up often enough to learn the common routes, to know the principal personalities on the ride, and to know where the riding is traditionally hard and where the stops are. One sure way to alienate oneself from an established ride group is to hammer in a traditional resting segment of the ride, or hammer past a regular water or bathroom stop.

As they do in many primitive cultures, the relationships between the sexes in Bike-World can appear bizarre to the outsider. For instance, typically several of the male riders in a group will be single, straight and allege that they’d rather be in a relationship. When a new woman shows up for the start of a ride, the men hover around her like bees around the hive, until the ride starts. Then as you might expect, they show off for her, but bike racers only know one way to show off: by riding hard. Unless she is a national class racer, the men drop the new woman, leaving her to ride alone or with the more mature but slower riders. At the end of the ride, the young bachelors ask each other what happened to the new girl and wonder if they’ll get to see her again.

One is not part of a racing club until one has ridden competitively with them; until they know one ‘s strengths and weaknesses and one knows them. Like dogs sniffing each other, cyclists exchange names, clubs and race categories when they meet, but they cement a mutual understanding by riding against each other. The new rider must establish a place in the pecking order. To gain respect and acceptance one doesn’t necessarily have to win the sprints or be first to the tops of the hills. In fact doing so on one’s first few rides is a good way to anger the established strongmen of the group. While one may earn respect, acceptance does not follow. The leaders will hope that the immigrant will remain a visitor, rather than become a member of the group, toppling them from their leadership positions. If one wants to join a particular group, it’s better not to be seen as too strong right away. One does have to keep up most of the time with most of the riders to earn one’s place in the group. Only when one keeps up will one be included in the all-important relationship-building conversations that occur while others are catching up and at the ends of rides.

As with arrival in many cultures, one of the surest ways to alienate oneself from club race bike culture is to assume knowledge about what matters in the culture. This is the old “it is better to keep one’s mouth closed and be thought a fool than to open it and remove all doubt” rule. If one wants to be accepted in a group one should spend a lot of time listening before speaking, especially if the speech is intended to establish a place in a pecking order. Imagine a kid with streamers in his handlebars telling everyone, “I have streamers! I have streamers!” Telling club-racers that one finished a century in seven hours, even if that was a great personal accomplishment, or that one is planning to do a charity ride, or that one got a new bike which is a big upgrade but not up to the group standard, may sound a lot like “I have streamers” to racers.

On first approach a new culture can appear monolithic and intimidating. Bike-World, like most cultures though, is made up of individuals and it is really the relationships with individuals that determine how well assimilated one is and whether one becomes comfortable in the new culture. Under extraordinary circumstances it is possible to be accepted into a new culture without assimilating to it. Very few individuals are adopted by the respected leader of a club as Heinrich Harrar was by the Dalai Lama in Tibet. For most riders, being accepted in Bike-World requires that they adopt the garb, grooming habits and traditions of the natives. Acceptance will bring treasured friendships, numerous challenges, the satisfaction of overcoming them, and the special feeling that comes from having spent time in a strange world. Do not discount the enjoyment of sharing the experience with others who have been there as well, even if they were there at a very different time. For those who are willing to make the needed sacrifices and changes, the rewards of emigration to Bike-World can be tremendous.