Portrayal of Cyclists in American Popular Culture

Introduction

In America the automobile is the dominant form of transportation, and bicycling is seen as somewhat of a joke. Nationally cycling as a mode share of commuting is only 0.6% of all trips[1], while 86.1% of people drive in some way. This fact is mirrored in American popular culture; cyclists are a minority in all forms of media. As with many minorities that are not well represented in mass media cyclists tend to be shown in a light that is far from reality. Often bike riders are shown as immature, losers, or extreme athletes. The one way cyclists are not shown is as normal people going about a normal activity, despite the fact that in many parts of the world it is just that.

 

Common Portrayals of US Cyclists

The Cyclists as the Loser/immature

The most common portrayal of cyclists in America is that of the immature loser. This archetype is best summarized in the film 40-Year-Old-Virgin. In the film actor Steve Carell plays Andy, a 40 year old loser who works a menial job at an electronics store and has never had sex. He also chooses to ride a bicycle to work.

Throughout the film Andy’s bike riding is a source of ridicule, some purely for comedy (speaking to a woman he meets at a bar and wants to take him home, “I hope you have a big trunk…’cus I’m going to put my bike in it!”), but much of it as an association between his lowly social status and his choice of transportation. As an example there is a scene where Andy gets a date with his eventual love interest, Trish, she asks him to pick her up, but he cannot because he rides a bicycle. Not only is Andy obviously embarrassed by this but Trish says “Oh?” with a disappointed/surprised inflection[2].

(starts at 0:15)

Later in the film during a failed sexual encounter with Trish the following exchange takes place:

Trish: I’m just…I’m trying to help you grow up, Andy.

Andy: Well thanks a lot.

Trish: I mean, my god, you ride a bicycle to work in a stock room.[3]

(starts at 1:57)

There are many other parts of the film in which Andy’s bike riding is a point of humor and ridicule. In the end Trish joins Andy on his bike rides, although it is shown as an acceptance of his eccentric personality rather than a normal activity a couple would do together.

Other examples of the loser/immature stereotype include:

Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure, in which an eccentric and immature man named Pee-Wee Herman rides a bicycle.Screen Shot 2014-05-31 at 17.24.59An advertisement from General Motors[4] that depicts a cyclist as self conscious about his mode choice and implies he should grow up and get a car.Screen Shot 2014-05-31 at 16.36.49And Napoleon Dynamite, in which the two incredibly nerdy/loser protagonists ride bicycles. [5]

Finally the stereotype is so pervasive that there is an entire blog devoted to the portrayal of cyclists in popular culture as losers and perverts.

These descriptions demonstrate that popular media in the US sees cyclists as immature losers who ride bicycles because of their deep personal and social flaws. These depictions do not show bicycling as normal or for people who are not losers.

 

The Cyclists as the Extreme Athlete

Another popular media portrayal of cyclists that comes from the adrenaline sports perspective. Before this section begins a bit of background; cycling for sport can be divided broadly into two classes, road riding and mountain biking. Road bikes are sleek, fast and built for going distance at speed, think the Tour de France. Mountain bikes are designed for off-road riding and for big-air tricks, think the X-games. There are additional categories that include BMX riding, Cyclocross racing and adventure touring. What they all have in common is that cycling is portrayed as an action and/or adrenaline sport, only for the hyper fit and fearless.

Mountain biking maybe the most watched type of bike riding in the US, and is generally portrayed as a sport for the extreme young white male. Examples include riders like Danny MacAskill[6]. Although mountain biking is not shown widely on television it is a large presence on YouTube and in specialty magazines.

The advertisements associated with the sport are often bike brands and energy drinks. Red Bull energy drink sponsors many events, the Red Bull Rampage[7] being just one example. The ads are overwhelmingly geared towards young white males, and often contain the mandatory scantily clad female extras and other stereotypical devices.

The road riding half also tends to show hyper-athletic men participating in competitions, with similar advertising but without the same viewership. Additionally the coverage of the Lance Armstrong scandal[8] resulted in a large amount of negative coverage for cycling in general. Add to that the spandex and alien looking helmets, and a picture of a person that is abnormal emerges.

These two classes of extreme cyclist show a version of the sport, one which is open only to elite athletes, especially those who are white and male. There is a near total absences of females, minorities or riders over 30. All this creates an image of a rider that is totally unlike the vast majority of cyclists, i.e. a normal person.

 

Cycling as Normal

As mentioned previously the one way cyclists are not portrayed is as normal people going about a normal activity. In many parts of the world cycling is a major form of transportation, and cyclists are seen as regular people. What does a regular person look like? They are from all walks of life, genders, ages, and races. They wear normal cloths, not specialty athletic apparel. They ride in a calm manner, not at top speed as if in a race. Children can ride unaccompanied by adults. They stop by the store to grab dinner. In short they do everything that a normal person would do in the US except that they ride a bicycle instead of drive a car.

An excellent example of this is the following video[9]  and weblog[10], which are the observations of a person from the Netherlands commenting on American cycling culture and how it compares to his home country’s. The video notes many things about the American cyclist that can be seen reflected in US popular culture; it is seen as a child’s activity or for those who have yet to “grow up”, that it is for the young, fit and daring. The lack of cycling specific infrastructure (the “infra” the video refers to) is noted and the types observed are criticized for their faults. The main premise of the video is that cycling in America is abnormal, where-as in the Netherlands it is a normal day-to-day activity.

As an interesting contrast the depiction of cyclists in the US is changing. The rate of commuting by bicycle is growing[11], and with it the examples of bicyclists shown as normal people. In the US these depictions are currently primarily limited to alternative media sources like cycling specific blogs. Many of these sources make an active effort to portray cyclists in the light of normalcy. Examples include: bikeportland.org, pathlesspedaled.com, bicycletimesmag.com, momentummag.com, and copenhagencyclechic.com (from Europe, but is often cited). All of these blogs show cycling not as an extreme sport or the realm of losers, but as normal and even fun.

Despite the prominence in alternative media bicycling is beginning to creep into the broader popular culture. In the 2012 film 21 Jump Street the protagonists are at first seen ridiculing their assignment as bike cops until they go back to high school undercover. One of the protagonists drives a muscle car to school and is teased for wasting fuel by the “cool kid”, who says, “we ride bicycles when we can…global crisis and what-not.”[12]The scene is representative of the generational shift away from driving[13] and towards other forms of transportation, which include cycling.

Additionally many major news outlets have started to pay attention to cycling, and in a way that speaks to its normality. NPR recently ran an article about cycling etiquette when commuting[14], and another article on the increase in commuting by bike to work[15]. The NPR affiliate in Portland, OR went so far as to have a race between staffers; bike, car and bus[16]. In a testament to the normalcy of the challenge the bikes won.

Other examples of the change in media perception of cyclists include: an entire news subheading on the Huffington Post[17], the numerous stories about bike sharing systems[18], and local newspaper blogs like The Oregonian’s Hard Drive Blog[19], which regularly feature stories about cycling.

 

Closing

Despite its portrayal in US popular culture, cycling is not only for losers, children or the hyper-athletic. Cycling is in fact a normal activity practiced by normal people. The portrayal of cycling in the media undoubtedly influences the behavior of Americans, and despite the recent increase of cycling overall, the commute rates, as noted before, remain at 0.6% nationally. What may be the turning point in US cycling rates is the portrayal of cyclists in American media. When portrayed as a normal activity, as opposed to the domain of losers and athletes, cycling can finally obtain a popular and accepted status. There may even be a day when cycling is shown as just as banal as driving in a TV show.

 

Footnotes and Sources

[1] US Census, Commuting In The United States 2009, Sept 2001, accessed 13 May 2014, http://www.census.gov/prod/2011pubs/acs-15.pdf

[2] 40-Year-Old-Virgin, 2005, Universal Pictures, clip from YouTube, accessed 14 May 2014, from 0:15 – 0:52, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=99UdqbS8q2M

[3] 40-Year-Old-Virgin, 2005, Universal Pictures, clip from YouTube, accessed 14 May 2014, from 1:57 – 2:12, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OJ3gsR-DqAE

[4] Maus, Jonathan, GM ad urges college students to “Stop pedaling…start driving”, Bikeportland.org, Oct 11 2011, http://bikeportland.org/2011/10/11/gm-ad-urges-college-students-to-stop-pedaling-start-driving-60399

[5] Napoleon Dynamite, Fox Searchlight and Paramount Pictures, 2004, clip from YouTube, accessed 29 May 2014, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1PhUAUsGuu4.

[6] Promotional web page, accessed May 17 2014, http://www.dannymacaskill.co.uk/

[7] http://rampage.redbull.com/#highlights/best-of-rampage-2013.

[8] Wikipedia, Lance Armstrong, accessed 17 May 2014, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lance_Armstrong.

[9] Wagenbuur, Mark, Cycling in the US from a Dutch perspective, 19 June 2013, accessed 17 June 2014, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=m2THe_10dYs

[10] Wagenbuur, Mark, US cycling form a Dutch perspective, 20 June 2013, accessed 17 May 20414, http://bicycledutch.wordpress.com/2013/06/20/us-cycling-from-a-dutch-perspective/

[11] League of American Bicyclists, The Growth of Bike Commuting, published 2013, accessed 29 May 2014, http://bikeleague.org/content/bicycle-commuting-data.

[12] 21 Jump Street, Sony Pictures, 2012, clip from YouTube, accessed 13 May 2014, starts at 1:10, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QSa368X1Z2w

[13] Pulmer, Brad, Why Aren’t Younger Americans Driving Anymore?,  Washington Post Wonkblog, 22 April 2013, accessed 14 May 2014, http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/wonkblog/wp/2013/04/22/why-arent-younger-americans-driving-anymore/

[14] Silver, Marc, Don’t Salmon, Don’t Shoal: Learning the Lingo of Safe Cycling, National Public Radio, 15 May 2014, accessed 15 May 2014, http://www.npr.org/blogs/health/2014/05/15/312455673/dont-salmon-dont-shoal-learning-the-lingo-of-safe-cycling

[15] Corley, Cheryl, Across the U.S. Bicycle Commuting Picks Up Speed, National Public Radio, 15 May 2014, accessed 15 May 2014, http://www.npr.org/2014/05/15/312486947/across-the-u-s-bicycle-commuting-picks-up-speed

[16] Profita, Cassandra and Kristian Foden-Vencil, Commute Race: Bike Cruise to Finish Line in 18 min, Oregon Public Broadcasting, 17 July 2012, accessed 15 May 2014, http://www.opb.org/news/article/commute-race-bikes-cruise-finish-18-mins/

[17] http://www.huffingtonpost.com/news/bicycle-culture/.

[18] Google News search, accessed 29 May 2014, https://www.google.com/search?hl=en&gl=us&tbm=nws&authuser=0&q=bike+sharing&oq=bike+sharing&gs_l=news-cc.3..43j43i53.3390.5731.0.5882.12.5.0.7.7.0.210.507.3j1j1.5.0…0.0…1ac.1.8AYfWHMFalo

[19] http://blog.oregonlive.com/commuting/index.html

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One thought on “Portrayal of Cyclists in American Popular Culture

  1. This was such a well written and interesting essay. Well done. I enjoyed reading about the different types of cyclists you referenced. Living in a city like Portland, we see them all too. Thanks!
    Julia

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