intellectual pretensions stepped up a notch

It was inevitable, that my blogging would eventually see me going off to air my wisdoms at some scholarly forum. Below is an abstract that, straight after I have posted it here, will be sent for refereeing by the committee in charge of the healthy cities conference in Brisbane this coming July. 

The subcultures behind the cultural ascension of cycling and commuting by bike

Research aimed at increasing bicycle commuting, has focused on physical factors. From such work it has become increasingly clear that cities with comparable terrain, density, bicycling infrastructure and deterrents to driving, do not necessarily have the same numbers of cyclists. Only so much can be learned from physical studies. The need now is for research into bicycling culture. Specifically, we need to know what satisfaction is derived by that tiny fraction of commuters, who by choice cycle when they could easily drive.

The topic cannot be approached from the hegemonic standpoints of environmentalists, health policy makers, traffic engineers or others with agendas extrinsic to the motivations of actual cyclists, as this would be to presume that cyclists too are environmentalists, excessively fearful of morbidity, or inexplicably pleased that their pedaling might be abating congestion for drivers. Neither would it be terribly useful to focus on cycling culture in old European cities, that were spared car dominance because they could not be so thoroughly retrofitted for driving as cities in countries like Australia were. It would be similarly fruitless to study what motivates the poor to ride bikes, at least while plans aren’t afoot to increase the size of that demographic. If we are to encourage drivers to switch to cycle commuting, we need to know the culture of affluent cyclists in typical cities where driving is likely to remain a viable option.

Starting from the premise that middle class cyclists seek what Pierre Bourdieu has termed "Cultural Capital", the paper examines the connection between cyclists’ motivation to cycle, and the messages they convey to each other through their careful choices with regards to equipment. As a prosthesis, fashion statement and emblem of ones aesthetic values, bicycles are the status symbols cars can no longer be.  Cultural aspirations, pretensions, and tribal affiliations can be relayed by what one commutes on, be it a lugged and braised "fixie", a "Dutch" city bike, a new road bike, an old road bike, a mountain bike (further divided by degrees of suspension), a utility bike, or a bike from the emerging minimalist art niche. Understanding cyclists’ subcultures, is key to understanding how each might be given opportunities to grow.

or, the 250 word version that I actually submitted:

From studies into the physical factors effecting bicycle commuting, we know cities with comparable terrain, density, bicycling infrastructure and deterrents to driving, can have varying numbers of cyclists. Given cultural factors must be at play, what social advantage belongs to that tiny fraction of commuters, who by choice cycle when they could easily drive?

The topic cannot be approached from the hegemonic standpoints of environmentalists, health policy makers, traffic engineers or others with agendas extrinsic to those of actual cyclists, as cyclists can’t be presumed to care for the planet, morbid illness, or the fact they are abating congestion for drivers. Neither can the topic be understood by studying cycling culture in atypical cities like Amsterdam, where retrofitting for driving proved difficult, and cycling thus flourished. Likewise, reasons why the poor cycle don’t count here, as increasing their numbers is not something governments might strive toward.

From the premise that cyclists seek what Bourdieu terms "Cultural Capital", the paper examines the connection between cyclists’ motivations and messages conveyed through their choice of equipment. As a prosthesis, fashion statement and emblem of taste, bicycles are the status symbols cars can no longer be. Cultural aspirations, pretensions, and tribal affiliations can be relayed by what one commutes on, be it a "fixie", "Dutch" bike, road bike, “training” bike, mountain bike (further divided by degrees of suspension), utility bike, or a bike from the emerging minimalist art niche. Understanding these choices, is key to understanding how cycling subcultures might be fostered and grown.


  1. Anonymous says:


    Cannot help thinking you might be heading up the wrong cyclepath here.

    While there are some riders who indulge in high priced equipment and do “display” it, I think they represent a very small proportion of middle class cyclists.

    The commuting cyclists I know ride a wide variety of bikes. The majority of them are riding serviceable bikes that are velodromes away from high priced exotica. I know a few who are riding “boutique” or “exotic” bikes but to the average person in the street the distinction would not be apparent. To quote Brad Pitt’s assessment of John Malkovich’s bike knowledge – “He thinks it’s a Schwinn!?!” – most people would not be able to discriminate a bespoke titanium Lynskey from a Malvern Star or (quel horror!!) a Huffy.

    It is possible that those who do indulge in some sort of bicycle exotica do get some kudos from within the cognoscenti. I know I (secretly, forlornly) hope that riders I encounter on the trails can appreciate my good taste in the bike I ride and its mix of parts. God forbid that they judge me on my riding abilities!?!

    I admit I get some sense of “pride”, (hopefully not hubris), when I look at my quiver of bikes but I am very aware that most people will have no idea why I would feel that way.

    (will come back to this …)

    • Steven says:

      thanks for confirmation that you get from discussions, according to what you put in.
      Firstly, I don’t know the Brad Pitt quotation. Where is it from? A movie?
      Second, despite your initial reticence, I get the impression you’re finding yourself agreeing with me. I don’t expect the great unwashed to appreciate my leather soled shoes, or my TI Lynskey. I’m bemused, and amused at how they ooh and aah at my bright red cannondale, that’s hardly worth a zac anymore, but it is bright red, and has a name on it they know.
      As for the Lynksey, it is important to me that only those in-the-know, know.
      This makes me think of Britain’s Sloanes, who have so many protocols no-one could hope to read a book, buy some clothes and then fake it. It takes generations of immersion to become a part of that clique.
      And this makes me think of the middle aged guy who parks his full carbon bianchi outside 2300 cafe each Sunday morning. He’s got the entire look right, but any insider knows he’s an outsider, having coffee while the vet’s races are on!
      So along with the gear, perhaps, goes the desire to belong to a tribe, and know all its rituals. And coming back to your initial remark, this could as easily be done with cheaper equipment. I had utmost respect for the teen-aged kid on the 30yo bike who out-sprinted all of B-grade last weekend. When I learned his dad was velodrome champ, I knew this kid got the old bike, and put him on a pedestal well above mine.
      Anyway, this is a red hot discussion, so I’m calling on the faithful to all have their piece. Thanks!

    • Steven says:

      I do plan to amend the abstract thanks to your comment, perhaps to “…the messages they seek to convey through their carefully chosen, and sometimes very high priced, commuting equipment.”

  2. Anonymous says:

    Quote is from “Burn after Reading”


  3. Anonymous says:


    If you are trying to work out ” how cycling subcultures might be fostered and grown”, I am not quite sure how engendering pride or cultivating cliques assists cycling or its place in society.

    The last thing we need is hundreds of fixed gear bikes on the road!?!

    If we are trying to increase cycling use for transport reasons then using a high end bike makes as much sense as driving a Ferrari or similar in peak hour traffic.

    My commuting bike, when I get organised enough to use it, is a mid range mountain bike with disc brakes, front forks and as a concession to pedalling ease, narrow road tyres. For me, this bike makes the most sense when dealing with the vagaries of road surfaces and other factors that affect my commute.

    I know I do enjoy going for a cruise on my “nice” bike along the foreshore, but it is really when it is used for its intended purpose, hammering through Glenrock or similar, that it comes into its own. (I don’t associate myself with the people who cruise the foreshore so as to be seen in their accessorised cars – perhaps I am fooling myself?!?)

    But again, I cannot quite see how encouraging such attitudes improves the state of cycling.


    • Steven says:

      Points taken again, and thank you. It was at the back of my biased mind to conclude that councils provide road racing and mountain biking courses, and build fancy clubhouses for cycling clubs, so that more people race, and thus want to commute for training purposes. I can only wish for the masses that they be more like me, and have a selection of commuting bikes, one for each mood, ranging from a slick-fitted mountain bike like your own, the race day bike, the former race day bike now fitted with rear mud guard and hard tires, the old Raleigh, and the keenly awaited Velorbis which may even be in port botany by now!
      Yes, fixie fiends have a penchant for danger. I saw 3 hooking along at night together with no lights in traffic, no helmets, one on his cell phone, one drinking coffee, one juggling knives. They’ll be on skate ramps next, if not already.
      May I remark though, that you are approaching the topic from the hegemonic standpoint of a planner? When you say, the last thing “we” need, who is “we” who are speaking at that point?

  4. Hello Behooving,

    Hope you are well. Apologies for my absence in recent weeks, this darned work caper has had me far and wide and with little time to indulge myself in your fantastic blog.

    Having quickly scanned your paper and the comments of “Anon”, both of which were extremely eloquent, I do think that “Anon” does raise some valid points regarding commute cycling. I am not a commute cyclists and probably never will but I personally would tend to favour something practical, with a couple of inches of suspension, some roadie type tyres and a lot of gears. There is the argument about grime splash on the “hybrid” type bikes, however retro fitting some mud guard would be a painless and cheap exercise I would imagine. Whilst I do agree that the Velorbis is achingly beautiful its application to the Newcastle commute scene does seem a stretch [3 gears and 18kgs makes for some tired going at the end of a long day at work] and would probably go unappreciated by the majority.

    I would love Newcastle to be a cycling town, but I think that alot of people are deterred by its hilly nature. I class myself as relatively cycle fit, but one of the first considerations when riding anywhere other than the bush, is “how flat is it?”. I love riding up hill and down dale on my mtb, that is why I love the sport, but my primary consideration when riding out of necessity is the ease with which I can do it, oh…and planning my route to be as far away from large rectangular shaped heavy things which might kill me.

    I don’t know what the answer is to increase the commutability of our town. I think the Fernleigh Track is a great initiative, but I think it would be more used by weekend people wanting an out and back ride in relative safety, rather than by hard core daily commuters. Yes, there appear to be a few, but it seems a rather circuitous route to get into the Newcastle CBD. Where does the track go after Adamstown train station and what are the options to make the CBD safely? I suppose it would be to ride parallel to the drain, cross the intersection at Broadmeadow [is that the 9 ways or something?], then ride behind Energy Australia stadium and through Hamilton, over the bridge blah blah blah. Hardly as the crow flies. The other option would be to turn right at the Adamstown train station and go up Glebe Road, but for me that is just too terrifying a proposition to be an option.

    Anyway, there is my 2 cents, hope it was on point. Sorry I missed the bike polo on the weekend.

    • Steven says:

      welcome back wecanride,
      From Adamstown station I use the footpath if necessary until I get onto Teralba road, then head to town via the racecourse and cooks hill. My route from Newcastle east to the uni follows throsby creek to the Tafe, then runs along side the train line.
      Any route will have a few hairy sections. This is nature’s way of weeding impatience from the species. Guys like me, who weave along footpaths for a few blocks, will still be here impregnating risk takers’ widows for decade to come.
      While I am bragging, I’ll say I commute to race. The heavier the bike, the more hills, and the more circuitous the better: ie, newcastle east to the uni via redhead and mount sugarloaf. This is why I’m loving the old raleigh. It doubles the energy required of my trip, without adding 1k to the journey! When I get my velorbis, I’ll be filling panniers with sand, to give them just the right shape! I’m ranting. I’ll stop.

  5. Anonymous says:

    zero vanity

    Being personally unattractive has many benefits, nonetheleast of which is being able to happily use mudguards for commuting when others find the look uncool. But real joy comes from powering past lycra racers (and pretty boys on fixies) with my mudguards and dynamo lights, and knowing that the love that goes into tuning and feeling my bike is of greater impact than its original purchase price. Greater impact on performance anyway.

    • Steven says:

      Re: zero vanity

      today is a rainy commute day, and I’m on the raleigh and have no lycra packed. I love watching water gush from beneath the mud guard. A free wash, for my bike and for me!

  6. Welcome to my new identity!!!

    My commute in Newcastle was from Hamilton to the Uni and there was a choice of routes to use. Was possible to use a combination of on road and off road cycle paths or just go on the roads you wanted to.

    The distance via cycleways or via roads was very similar and at the time, 5 years ago, I did not find the traffic a disincentive.

    Making the decision to go a slightly less direct way to use a segregated cycle path was not too critical for me – traffic does not worry me too much.

    While hills are something the commuter usually wishes to minimize, a lot of the city, inside the ridgeline that runs from Merewether, Adamstown Heights, Charlestown, Kotara, New Lambton Heights is “generally” flat.

    Yes, there are some local hilly bits, and getting to the Uni or JHH requires some climbing. And if you need to move from one side of the ridgeline to the other some climbing will be involved. Fernleigh Track provides a way through the ridge and may in time become the link between the two sides of the city.

    Getting from the Adamstown end of the Fernleigh track into the city or Hamilton is relatively easily achieved. Streets that run parallel to the busier ones are there. To avoid Glebe Road ride down either side of the Racetrack, Darling Street or Dumaresq Street. Once past Stewart Avenue quiet ways into the city centre can be found.

    There are some old easements and former trainlines that allow you to ride to certain destinations away from traffic. Fernleigh was an old train line and when it goes through to Belmont provides a potentially useful corridor. There is a similar line that runs from behind GardenCity/Westfield/whatever it is called now, through Kotara South and comes out near the little Mortels Sheepskin Shop on Charlestown Road. Blackbutt provides a car free link between parts of NewLambton through to Lookout Rd and the JHH, though bikes are “technically” not allowed there.

    Roberto (an unreconstructed hegemonic planner)

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