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.