Reclaiming the word “cyclist” as an unmarked term.

These are “cyclists” not “transport cyclists”, “utility cyclists”, “Dutch cyclists” or any other marked term.

The second half of the twentieth-century was a dark age for bicycle transport. Cycling (by which I mean cycling for transport) became so uncommon that the word “cyclist” was taken to mean someone in lycra and special shoes. In linguistic terms, the marker, or qualifying prefix, “racing” could be removed from the ordinarily marked term “racing cyclist”. His power and presence meant the racing cyclist could be called a “cyclist”, in the same way as a citizen of the United States is called an American, with no regard for those living in Central or South America, or Canada, who are all Americans too.

During cycling’s Proto Renaissance (nominally 2008 until now) it made sense to use marked terms like “citizen cyclist”, “transport cyclist”, “utility cyclist” and so on, to differentiate the A-to-B cycling that was making a comeback, from the plethora of A-to-A forms of cycling (rides that circle back to their starting points with no destinations) that the bicycle industry had by that stage concocted—road racing, bike touring, mountain biking, fitness cycling, BMX, etc, etc..

If we believe transport cycling is here to stay, it is time to stop marking the term. Linguistic philosophy teaches us that marking a word—for example putting a “wo” in front of the word “man”—is a way of differentiating normal things from difficult variations, in the case of this example, saying men are humans in their default state, and women are difficult versions. Until someone comes up with some acceptable variation of boar and sow for the human, I’m sure we’ll be stuck with woman and man for a very long time. As for reclaiming the word “cyclist” as a word to describe the most normal, mainstream, and non-problematic use of a bike, as a mode of transport, the bicycling community can change that in a year. We just need to stick to our guns.

Can I encourage you all, to make 2018 the year when the word “cycling”, on it’s own, came to mean A-to-B cycling, for transport. May it also be the year when “cyclist” came to mean someone going somewhere on a bike. By the end of this year, all the effete types of cycling and cyclists will be the ones with marked terms, reminding us that those are the difficult variations that may need exceptional rules, such as helmets or special hand signals. Just as we take the word “driver” to mean someone driving for transport, and “rally driver” or “racing car driver” to mean people driving for sport, we will naturally call a person cycling to a destination a “cyclist”, and start marking those riding in circles with terms such as fitness cyclist, leisure cyclist, mountain biker, road cyclist, bike tourer, racing cyclist, etc..

Unfortunately, it will require us to be grammar Nazis or nags, like those Colombians who chastise us for calling the United Sates of America, America, or those from Barcelona who insist we say Castilian and not Spanish when referring to the main language of Spain. They can seem rude, but by golly, those nags make a memorable point.

If you would like to leave a comment here, or via twitter or facebook or wherever, I would be especially interested in seeing a list grow of organisations using the unmarked terms cycling and cyclist, in ways that fail to acknowledge the preeminence now of cycling (no prefix) as a mode of transport. For example, I think pressure should be put on sports cycling bodies such as the Australian Cycling Federation and the Union Cycliste Internationale, to change their names to the Australian Sports Cycling Federation and the Union de Sports Cycliste Internationale—if you’ll pardon my French.


  1. I have, where possible, been using the phrase “person(s) riding a bicycle” instead of cyclist. I feel it makes the rider human again rather than an object.

    • Steven says:

      That’s why you’re not a published author. Very verbose 😉

    • Lloyd Alter says:

      It may be verbose but it is important to recognize that they are just people getting around, as are pedestrians. People who drive are drivers; people who walk are walkers; in the 19th century, people who cycled were cyclers. I think we should bring that back.

    • troy says:

      Both are good to use… at the same time. There is value in the phrase ‘people on bikes’ when communicating with the broader public for exactly the reasons you mention, but it’s impractical to use in every instance when speaking or writing. Using the two interchangeably and simultaneously links the ideas. Reprogram ‘cyclist’ to mean ‘person riding to the shops’.

      “More people riding to the local shops results in increased profits, so it makes sense to improve facilities for cyclists.”

    • Anonymous says:

      Lloyd Alter – You’ve got a much more concise term right there in your second response: Cycler. I’m going to use that.And I agree that the sports cyclist is a cycler, too.

  2. Colin says:

    Queue the sports cyclists claiming this is “divisive”.

    (Answer: the division is real; recognising it doesn’t create it.)

    • Steven says:

      I’m a cyclist and a sports cyclist, so personally, don’t have a problem. However, most people I know through sports cycling are cretins who can’t go to the shops without taking a car. When they call themselves “cyclists” tell them they’re not.

  3. Always a cyclist but like to play with different variants of.

  4. Andrew Derbyshire says:

    I actually found it quite ridiculous to be honest. I live in a city that has majority cyclists who do so purely for A to B. Also the wo and man point is foolish. Difficult variations? Perhaps if you numberwang in some philosophers study you can argue that.

  5. Anonymous says:

    I ride a bike. I’m not a cyclist.

  6. Tim Regester says:

    I prefer the term Cycling Road User, since 87% of cyclists are also drivers, it makes more sense and removes the them and us connotations of cyclist and driver.

    This is important when your audience is all road users, not merely cyclists.

  7. Esther Sullivan says:

    Thanks for the article, encouraging us to “normalise” using a bicycle as a mode of transport. Yes, more people should talk about it the way you suggest in order to make it commonplace that the person on the street riding a bicycle – young or old, profficiently or otherwise – is doing so mainly on legitimate business – school, shopping, going to work, visiting friends, etc.

    Do please let’s have more of what you have to say on this matter.


  8. troy says:

    I’m down. Also, the terms ‘pedal cyclist’ and ‘push bike’ need to be purged!

    • Steven says:

      Pedal cyclist? I would keep that, if just for teaching kids the meaning of the word tautology. As for “push bike”, I’m hearing you! There are bikes and motor bikes.

  9. Jason says:

    I prefer the term “biker.” It’s more straightforward and descriptive. The verb To “Cycle” can mean many things besides riding a bike. Simply stated, someone who drives is a driver, so someone who bikes is a biker.

    • Steven says:

      Outside the US, many people cringe when they hear the word “bike” being used as a verb. So here we are, back again, saying “cyclists” are people using bikes to make trips.

  10. 7homask says:

    I’m down with this and will henceforth characterise my A-A rides as “road rides” in which I was being a road cyclist, and my quaxxing / commuting as simply cycling. Out of interest, how do the local bunch riders take to being called cretins? I would like to try that, but I am too afraid.

    • Steven says:

      My oldest and most dearest friends are cretins only by the standards of this blog. We can all sleep easy that it has limited reach.

  11. Torbjörn Albért, Uppsala says:

    Agree. Though in Sweden “cyclist” has always had the meaning that you wish for.
    There is the Cykelfrämjandet, Cycle Promotion Association, which promotes touring the outskirts, but also advocate cycle traffic policies, then there is Svenska Cykelförbundet, the Swedish Cycle Federation, which organize road racing, BMX, MTB and so on. But at least their bikes all have some prefix.
    When different kinds of bikers are described in scientific observation ordinary bikers (going to work, shop or
    so) have the prefix of normal cyclists, others are described fast c., comfort c. (slow) or electric c.
    The racing club in Uppsala had the slogan “Everyone can bike” for their big race. Something we in the Cycle Promotion could contradict having our courses to learn adults to cycle.
    Angry car drivers refers everyone, whatever bike they have, wherever they occur, as “bloody cyclists”, whenever they interact.

    • Steven says:

      You have just reminded me not to demonise bicycle racing. Without it, and commuting for the purpose of staying race-fit, I might not have cycled at all from 1992 to 2009. Most of the members of the racing clubs I’ve been a member of all of my life, would likewise be thrilled to see anyone cycling, on any bike.

  12. Torbjörn Albért, Uppsala says:

    Om the other hand: Road engineers never make an ordinary cycle path as level as the motor road (unless the ground is totally flat), unconsciously meaning that
    cyclists love to exercise.

    • Steven says:

      There are two ways of looking at this. A few years ago I had a PhD candidate hypothesising that undulating paths with optional challenges off to the side help riders into a flow state, that helps the time fly and keeps then sane. I’ve been told that some of America’s first highways caused crashes by being totally straight, and that later ones, even crossing flat plains, were given slight curves and undulations.

  13. I’m good with this in principle, though like @troy, I often say ‘people on bikes’ to push toward the main objective of reminding non-believers that cycling is a normal thing for normal folk (women and unwomen). Once I’ve made that clear, I can use ‘cyclists’ and have it understood correctly

  14. Emma S says:

    Personally, I cycle to work and I hate the term ‘cyclist’. Any time a car driver cuts in front of me or does something dangerous I want to shout ” I am you! I’m a human”. I think the word ‘cyclist’ is dehumanizing and creates an ‘us and them’ culture on the road. Cycling as a means of commuting is gaining a resurgence here in Dublin but because of the polarizing culture this has ironically made things more dangerous for people on bikes. With more prominence on the road we are now seen as an even bigger threat than a few years ago. I think the point is the same as yours – to normalize the idea of people cycling to get around – but perhaps I am more pessimistic of how close we are to achieving that.

    • Steven says:

      This is a tangent, but I have a theory that women on bikes are bullied more than men are. These kinds of things rarely happen to me, but it happens to my wife and other women I know all the time. I just think people just aren’t as frightened of a woman catching up to them at the lights and taking violent retribution. So there’s an argument for all abuses of women on bikes to be treated as sexist attacks, not attacks on “cyclists”.

  15. Sam B says:

    Coming somewhat late to this discussion, I completely agree with the argument about finding a word “to describe the most normal, mainstream, and non-problematic use of a bike, as a mode of transport”. I have been using the term “bike rider” for this, differentiating it from (sports) cyclist. I suspect the battle to reclaim “cyclist” may be an uphill one, as it has far too many connotations these days. The key to changing attitudes is to normalise bike riding, so we’re not all “bloody cyclists”.

    I can’t speak for them, but I don’t really see Cycling Australia (Australian Cycling Federation) becoming Sports Cycling Australia, as they would see themselves as more than that – they are also about participation and recreational riding, different again to riding for transport.

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