The Chainlink

How to Explain Your Bike(s) to Non-Cyclists

By Brett Ratner

"What are all those bikes for?"

If you own more than one bicycle, you've likely heard these words, or at least some variation.

And even if you own one bike, but actually use it for things beyond the occasional sunny day toodle to Starbucks, I'd venture to guess you risk a Spanish Inquisition from non-cycling friends and co-workers whenever you ride in the rain, snow, wind, traffic, high pollen count, or any other less-than-idyllic cycling condition.

Hopefully most of you reading this article agree that getting people on bikes is generally a good thing. But getting people on bikes can at times seems a monumental challenge when it's hard enough simply explaining them to people.

I mean, it boggles my mind how half of Chicago understands a power play in hockey, or can tell you without hesitation that a safety is worth two points in Football...yet can't wrap their heads around the notion that you might want one type of bike to ride dirt trails and a different type of bike to ride on pavement. Or, that the upside of getting a little damp commuting in the rain is that you don't have to endure an hour sitting in gridlock staring at an "Eric and Kathy" billboard.

To put it another way, I know nothing about fishing, but I can make the mental leap that fishing in different conditions (river, lake, ocean, etc.) may require different rods, reels and bait. And while sitting in a boat for hours does not seem appealing to me personally, I can appreciate and respect that it's relaxing, enjoyable and beneficial for others.

There are many non-cyclists who are genuinely interested in learning more about the activity that we collectively love. And I love talking to those people. But there seems to be another, more confrontational breed of non-cyclist. I'm not sure what their collective end game is when they grill me with questions. Maybe it's to make me question my interest in bikes...or perhaps it's to justify their non-interest in bikes. 

Whatever the reason, their inability (or at least lack of willingness) to understand cycling has taught me to explain things in terms they can understand; CARS! 

Here's are some examples I've had success with in the past:

  • Mountain Bike = Jeep Wrangler. You can ride it on pavement, but it's sluggish, heavy and handles weird. However, it feels right at home bouncing over roots and plowing through rock gardens.

  • Road Bike = Porsche 911 Turbo. It's not the most practical bike to own, it doesn't carry things well, and you have to be careful going over the curb at the end of your driveway. But it's fast, expensive, sleek and (if you ride north of the city) likely to get you in trouble with the law.

  • Cyclocross Bike = Subaru WRX. This splits the difference between a road bike and a mountain bike. It comes alive on gravel and dirt roads, crushed limestone paths, and of course taped-off cyclocross race courses.

  • Commuter/Touring Bike = Toyota RAV4. It's not sexy or flashy, but this is what gets you to work, to the grocery store and (if you're lucky) to the occasional weekend camping trip.

Photo Courtesy of Green Machine Cycles

  • Cargo Bike = Ford F150. They won't believe you, but you CAN actually haul over-sized stuff on a bike. Admittedly this isn't a level of commitment I've personally been able to uphold (I did go car-free for a year once and used a trailer for trips to Home Depot, but it didn't stick). However, if you've got what it takes, this is the bike to do it with. NOTE: You could also equate a cargo bike to a Chevy Tahoe, in the event it's outfitted to haul children around.

Photo Courtesy of SnowyMountain Photography

  • Track Bike = Pimped-out Honda Civic. Track bikes have had an interesting evolution in recent years. While a small percentage are used for actual racing on a velodrome, the vast majority served duty as urban transport for the PBR-swilling crowd. Then that went away and now fixies seem to be the ride of choice for teens, who can be seen roaming around Chicagoland in large packs. Along with this trend seems to be a boom in fixie-specific bike shops. It might seem like I'm doing the "get off my lawn you crazy kids" thing. But actually, I'm quite thrilled. True, I question the logic of riding an ultra-stiff aluminum aero frame on our pothole-ridden streets (brakeless no less). But the bottom line is a lot of people in the younger generation seem to think it's cool to ride bikes, and that's awesome. And hopefully many of these kids will continue cycling well into adulthood. Anyway, like the Honda Civic with the aftermarket exhaust, "shocker" sticker, custom rims and lowered suspension, the track bike is something they'll probably grow out of one day.

  • Dutch Bike/Rivendell/Raleigh 3-speed/Schwinn Paramount = Vintage Jaguar XKE. You know, the car your uncle keeps in a heated garage and loves to show off at the local cruise nights? Well, cyclists like to look stylish and classic too. And the best part? These bikes are not parking lot queens. They're meant to be ridden. NOTE: The bike in the photo above is a very classy Pashley Roadster Sovereign.

  • Fat Bike = Dune buggy/ATV and/or Snowmobile. Those ultra wide tires may look weird, but they float over snow, sand and mud. People who ride fat bikes say they love them because they can ride practically anywhere. NOTE: The bike in the photo above is technically a "29+" which sits on the skinnier range of the fat bike spectrum. A Specialized Fatboy and Surly Moonlander feature massive 26" x 4.0 and 26" x 4.8 tires respectively.

Well, there you have it. Hopefully this will help answer their questions. If it doesn't, you can instead give them an equally blank stare and ask them to explain why they'd rather sit in traffic on the way to a gym to ride a stationary bike.

About the Author
Brett Ratner (brett@thechainlink.org) began commuting by bike in 2005. Shortly thereafter, his interest in cycling expanded to century rides, bike camping and trail riding. The competition bug bit in 2012 and nowadays he races cyclocross, track, mountain bikes, criteriums and gravel for The Bonebell.

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Comment by David Stone on September 14, 2015 at 10:45am

I always respond by asking if they own more than one pair of shoes. Of course they do - probably multiple pairs of dress shoes, a pair or two of casuals, running or training shoes, etc. NOTE: While this response works equally well with both men and women it is NOT a good response when the question is from your spouse or significant-other-female.  I like the cars analogy, but don't know many people who own multiple cars - maybe because they spent all their money on bikes!

Comment by Meghan Pillow on September 13, 2015 at 7:29am

Great article! Your title made me laugh. :)

Comment by Christopher Wallace on September 12, 2015 at 6:59am

This is a great article about what a bike is for. It misses the point of what the bike does for the person. Example (what a bike can do) This bike can climb a mountain. (How a bike affects a person) I love being out in the woods and being able to ..... it lifts my spirits for days!

I ride bikes because it is FUN and I can tell you a thousands of stories about the fun I have related to bikes, would you like to have fun with me? is how an activist converts people to be cyclists.  It is not about the bike, it is all about the fun.

Comment by Nancy L. Fagin on September 11, 2015 at 10:06pm

At one of the Dutch-bike conferences (ambassadors from the Netherlands) one of them mentioned that the Dutch own 2.5 bikes per person (or something like that).  The American/Chicago audience laughed - they all (including me) had more than 2.5 bicycles.  

Comment by Vandarken on September 11, 2015 at 3:10pm
My problem is explaining my 50+ bikes when I hardly ride at all!!
Comment by Lisa Curcio on September 11, 2015 at 2:28pm

Nice, Brett!  But I think I will just go with the last one.  It is faster! :-)

Comment by Alan Lloyd on September 11, 2015 at 2:27pm

N+1 is the number of bikes that you want when N is the number of bikes that you already have. Or S-1 is the number it is safe to possess when your partner will leave you if you owned S bikes. But what if S=N+1 ...

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