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Op-Ed: It’s Time for More of the Bike Industry to Evolve Beyond Toxic Racing Culture

Toxic Racing Culture OpEd Path Less Pedaled sticker(Photo/Ron Frazelle) Path Less Pedaled sticker
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This will likely be an inflammatory statement: racing culture is toxic and harmful to our industry. That’s it.

We all have opinions, and this is mine.

I’m not saying that race culture shouldn’t exist. No, I think competitiveness is a natural part of human nature and can be very healthy. There is nothing wrong with wanting to race your bicycle.

Toxic Racing Culture OpEd racing DH
I raced DH back in the old days

A few of us do race our bicycles. Even I did at one point in my cycling life, racing XC and Downhill. It was a good time.

But, does racing culture need to embody every single aspect of our industry? For example, the majority of cycling-specific apparel that’s available is lycra and cut to fit the athlete’s body, often with no regard for the regular-sized cyclist, let alone the bigger riders. Clothing is cut to offer an aerodynamic advantage – often at the expense of comfort. But why?

Toxic Racing Culture OpEd Surly Bikes' opinion
(Photo/ Surly Bikes)

The bikes being designed and put forth by the biggest brands in the game are often made strictly for speed, rather than comfort. In many cases, these “race” bikes are far from versatile. Sure, I know, it’s fun to have a lot of bikes, one for each specific use/discipline, but that’s not very practical – or realistic for the average consumer.

I’m grateful that there are bike brands out there that embrace the non-competitive side of cycling and don’t just cater to race culture. But, as an industry, we need more.

More brands like, Surly, Soma Fabrications, Sklar, Marin, Rivendell, Crust, State Bicycles, and Bike Friday, just to name a few off the top of my head. These brands tend to see the bigger picture and offer cycling as a way of life, not just a tool to go fast against others that want to go fast. Because of that, these brands are thriving and surviving.

Toxic Racing Culture OpEd rando
A real-life example of a versatile bicycle

If you can’t afford to own a lot of bikes, and can only ride one, wouldn’t you want it to be as versatile as possible? We can’t get people to start thinking of cycling as a viable and realistic form of everyday transportation if we only push people to ride like they are racing. That is some narrow thinking for an industry that has been struggling lately.

Although choices are much better nowadays, there still is far less to choose from for the non-competitive cyclist who simply wants to ride rather than race.

Set Up for Success

The cyclists who don’t race their bicycles are the majority, right? Globally speaking, when you look at how many people use bicycles to get around, that has to be true. But still, bikes marketed as machines that can only “go fast” sell much better than bikes marketed as comfortable and versatile. But, there is (should be) more to it, when selling someone a bike.

Toxic Racing Culture OpEd backbay
Rivendell’s Clem Smith Jr. My allrounder

Hopefully, the shop person isn’t just selling a bike, but selling “cycling” as a whole. Right? Isn’t that the goal? Selling cycling as a lifestyle change for the better, and getting another car off the road. We should set customers up for success by getting them on bikes that fit and not on “what everyone else is riding”. We should be guiding them to something that makes sense for them, and not the $14k “Specialty” race bike.

Discouragement leads to another bike left in the garage. And, if a new cyclist isn’t comfortable, they won’t ride their bike. Period.

Like Sex, Speed Sells

There are many ways to ride a bike other than racing or charging every trail like no one else but you is using it. It would be nice if manufacturers would surrender to that, or at least acknowledge it. Instead, the bikes that “go fast” get better components, while the commuter bikes and all-round bikes get the lower-tiered spec. Again, selling discouragement. A bike that doesn’t perform well, gets left in the garage, and another opportunity is lost.

Shimano is making leaps and bounds in new offerings that cater to the new user, and affordable options. In the age of bicycle “transmissions,” these new Shimano groups have been a lil’ ray o’ sunshine, and another sign that maybe someone out there is paying attention.

Toxic Racing Culture OpEd Clem Smith Jr
Lookie: A perfectly operating 2×9 drivetrain, and rim brakes…oh, the horror. 1000 miles clocked, so far.

It seems that most of the major manufacturers still think that the people who buy these all-rounder-type bikes don’t deserve the good stuff because they aren’t “racing”, riding around wearing lycra, crushing “PRs”, counting calories, or counting grams, so they shouldn’t care how well the bike operates. Either that or they just assume that if you’re buying a bike that’s comfortable and versatile, you aren’t willing to pay for better-quality parts.

And, don’t get me started on how these cyclists are treated out on the trails by the “real” cyclists on their “better” bikes and their “serious” cycling costumes.

Toxic Racing Culture OpEd at the pool
Riding bikes to the pool, it’s a good time.

In the last few years though, it’s starting to change as brands seem to be acknowledging non-competitive cyclists more. Unfortunately, for the most part, the bike industry in general continues to “blow off” the non-competitive cyclist as a less-lucrative segment of users.

And therein lies the rub, and where it gets toxic. As mentioned earlier, cyclists who aren’t riding fast or wearing lycra are looked down on and treated as “less than” by those cyclists who do. I see it every time I ride my bike. Every time.

Let’s do Better

Look, we are all ambassadors of the sport and lifestyle of cycling when we are out riding our bikes. As cyclists, we have a responsibility to be kind and encouraging to fellow users of all types and skill levels. Let’s do better as individuals and as an industry in this aspect. We can be inclusive and encouraging, instead of resorting to tribalism.

We’re getting there. Helping to spread the word of the beauty of non-competitive cycling are people like Russ and Laura from Path Less Pedaled, Ronnie Romance of Ron’s Bikes, Grant at Rivendell Bicycle Works, Nolan over at The Bike Sauce, Cheech and Matt of Crust Bikes, Adam of Calling In Sick Magazine, and of course, John over at the Radavist.

Be the Cyclist You Want To Be

I never thought I would ride so casually on heavy bikes, and not care. Nor did I ever think I would ride in a position that is more comfortable and upright. It never entered my mind.

Based on what I saw in advertisements and marketing, I’ve always thought I needed to have zero body fat, be clad in Lycra, and ride fast all of the time. I always felt I had to have the lightest race-proven components slung on my bicycle to be taken seriously as a cyclist.

I am here to tell you, that this thought pattern is the farthest from the truth and quite toxic. No one is better than anyone based on the choices made for where, what, or how to ride your bike. That’s just silly and absurd.

Toxic Racing Culture OpEd me riding

I abandoned the race culture in 2014, and I have felt so free since. Not following the “race culture guidelines” feels so liberating, leaving me to be the cyclist I want to be.

Let’s quit taking ourselves so seriously, and ride like we were kids again. Yeah?

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