Cycling: Simple Act or Sheer Will?

Reactions to our bike commuting can come in two extremes.  Some act like we are superwomen or daredevils for riding everywhere, even in winter.  Others act like we are frivolous and silly for riding in skirts with Dutch bikes.   Neither of these extremes are accurate.

My gut reactions to these two viewpoints vary just as wildly. I want to assure the “superwoman” group that riding a bike is a simple and fun act that requires little more than sitting and pedaling, while I want to curtly inform the “silly” group that we are out there riding every day in any weather, while they are curled up on the couch reading back issues of Bicycling Magazine.

So I must ask myself, which reaction is more accurate? Is cycling a simple act that anyone can perform or a determined act of sheer will?  Can we reconcile the two?  (I was looking to capture a little of both in the photos.)

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60 thoughts on “Cycling: Simple Act or Sheer Will?

  1. Steven Vance says:

    You don’t need any special powers to ride a bike.

  2. “…while they are curled up on the couch reading back issues of Bicycling Magazine”

    : ))

    I get similarly “bipolar” reactions. I’ve gotten lots of messages from readers referring to me as “hard core” (what!), but I’ve also gotten a few hurtful anonymous comments implying that I am some sissy neurotic girl who can’t even cycle. After giving it some thought, I’ve decided not to fight it and embrace both misconceptions! Why not.

  3. Anne Hawley says:

    I’ve been called “hardcore” by far more athletic (but recreational/sport) bike-riders simply for riding to work in the rain. In my case, the astonishment reflects a different prejudice altogether: that a woman with gray hair and a far-from-athletic body getting on a bike is something like a disabled person overcoming real obstacles.

    As you say, riding a bike is easy. I mean, it’s fun and it’s cool and it’s definitely good for me, but I’m not amazing for doing it.

  4. cole says:

    who cares what other people say.if it makes you happy then do keep riding. i do have to say riding on sheer will makes for long winter some proper gear made for the weather makes it fun.

  5. mike says:

    “while they are curled up on the couch reading back issues of Bicycling Magazine”

    Well said!

    Ultimately, though, who cares what others think? I ride because I like it and I choose bikes I think are fun. Whether this meets with approval from other cyclists or anyone else is no longer of consequence to me… this is the consolation prize of middle age, and it’s a good one.

  6. Dottie says:

    @cole – No one plans to stop riding, but it is helpful to talk these issues out. Sharing our common experiences is always worthy, which is not the same as saying we necessarily “care” what other people say. I think it is a bigger issue for women than men, as the comments so far seem to indicate.

  7. Patrick in Chicago says:

    Cycling is a simple act that anyone can perform but may not want to without a determined act of sheer will. I was out all over town today and it was wonderful.

  8. Erich Zechar says:

    Or more likely, while they’re inside spinning on their trainer.

    Seriously though, yesterday it was 11 degrees in the AM and I rode to school. Got there and everybody was shaking their heads like I was crazy or brave. Truth is, the ride was pretty pleasant, and I’d much rather ride in weather like this than 90 degree heat. Most people would find riding in “difficult” weather is not so difficult at all if they just gave it a try.

  9. Joe says:

    The other day when I was getting on my bike to go to work it was snowing and 9F. A neighbor, who was brushing the snow of his car, said he he thinks I have a “mutant gene.”

  10. I think it’s a little of both. It is an act of will to decide to ride, but once that is past the actual riding is simple. And once it becomes routine, the act of will part starts to fade away.

  11. Goat Girl says:

    I’ve been thinking about exactly this issue while writing on my blog (launching soon). Think of all of the things that people used to just do, without drama, fuss or special gear, that now we can’t imagine doing, either in general or without having exactly the right stuff.

    Your site is a welcome relief from the technical, gear-head commentary out there. Thanks for encouraging everyone to just get out and ride!

  12. neighbourtease says:

    I have had all sorts of reactions, but probably the most persistently annoying one is that what I am doing is dangerous. This is frustrating because I do think fear keeps women away from cycling here and I hate to see that fallacy perpetuated because cycling is the absolute best way to get around NYC, particularly within Brooklyn, which really is experiencing an incredible cycling renaissance because of improvements in infrastructure. The ride from my house in Williamsburg to my office in Park Slope takes me about 35 minutes. The subway ride is almost an hour!

    I think you are right, Dottie, when you mention that it might be slightly different for women. I do receive a lot of “commentary” from men. This can be tedious (telling me I need a lighter bike or some special gear). It can also be kind of lovely — I was adjusting the basket on my back rack near a Brooklyn bike lane and three men stopped to see if I needed a patch or some other kind of help (!). Right along BikeSnob’s great hipster silk route, no less. Very gallant, actually. But not with my delta cruisers, darlings.

    My best friend, a guy, told me I was Jack Bauer with a vagina for biking to work the other day (ha and ew) when it was 15F. But truly, it is SO much colder to walk. Why don’t people get that?

  13. E A says:

    @Cyclin’ Missy – well put.

    And I do fit into both camps – I’m out there riding everyday (no technical wear) but I also enjoy curling up with the latest issue of Bicycling mag and finding the new gear/performance stuff. It’s hard to reconcile both and I hope that neither has to be an extreme. That said, I do think that there is a unity amongst all cyclists simply for being out on our bikes for commuting, fitness, enjoyment.

  14. Anna says:

    I think the “superwoman” tag is slightly more accurate only becuase it’s less insulting. I think people’s reaction to you is an extension how they feel about cyclists in general; if they approve, then they’re likely to vote “superwoman.” Of course, I think you two are inspirational simply because you ride a lot.

    I don’t bike commute now, but I’m seriously thinking about it. If I did, I would definitely cite you two as a primary inspiration.

    I think reconciliation between the two sides will come as exposure to bicycle commuters increases and people see it more as a regular thing.

  15. tom says:

    Big picture: grossly over simplifying things we do what we do because of our heredity (including personality) and our environment influences.

    Having friends as bike commuters helps (environment) … but there is an intrinsic element to cycling … a connection to the environment that keeps us cycling regardless of what others do (heredity)

    In short: riding a bike is simple. Riding it in uncomfortable situations is often a matter of will.

  16. what an awesome post, dottie! i think part of people’s more binarized reactions to daily bicycling is that it is an activity which is not yet normal for a lot of people, and so they think it should garner some kind of extreme reaction (either, you’re amazing or you’re ridiculous). part of what normalizes the normal-girl-in-dress-in-normal-below-zero-winter-weather is something like this blog.
    your photos (in this post and previous) are simply stunning! i am daily jealous of your views of the lake.

  17. Lanie says:

    Where I live (Austin) it’s fairly common to see all kinds of people riding, although the hipster crowds and tech-geeks definitely dominate. Part of what I love about cycling in general and especially commuting/ utility cycling is that neither characterization you mention is the ‘accurate one’- cycling is so versatile that most people can do it under most circumstances if they want to. I think this is an important message particularly for women, who seem to be more intimidated, here especially, by the “in-crowds” and the perceived dangers of weather and traffic. The more women and cyclists in general that people see enjoying their bikes for lots of different purposes, the better we send the message that cyclists are neither silly nor making a super-human effort just to ride, in any clothes and on any bike. I love your guys’ blog because you do that!

  18. E A says:

    @Lanie – “cycling is so versatile that most people can do it under most circumstances if they want to” and ENJOY IT! = exactly!

  19. Tali says:

    I think non-cyclists can generate an excellent excuse for not cycling for themselves buy viewing cyclists as somehow supermen/women or crazy. It make cycling something other people do, while Joe Average drives or takes public transport.

    However, going out on city streets to play a game where the odds are stacked against you in safety terms does require a fair bit of motivation. After all, if you can afford to drive a nice warm car to work, or take public transport and read/listen to music, etc, during the journey, why not? You have to really believe in any answer you give to the latter question to bother. If you can’t answer that, any you can afford an alternative, you’ll probably take it.

    Cycling has to be safe AND feel safe. People can learn the cold isn’t so bad, but perceiving greater safety requires something be done about the large metal objects speeding though the streets. Chicken and egg problem really.

  20. Lorenza says:

    well, I tell you… I think you girls are great :) it’s been very very cold here (-10 and all) and the snow has turned into slush then turned into proper black ice… there are no cycle paths for my 4 mile commute to work from home and I either ride in the middle of the road or I take a chance with the ice (not!) so I resort to grumble and take the bus! While you girls are out there in -12 wearing beautiful clothes, looking like it’s spring (ok the snow gives it away) and keeping on cycling… wow! I admire you very much :) and as soon as the ice/slush is gone I will be out there too… inspired by you!

    oh and about the people of the ‘silly’ group I’d just ignore them… if they are not moaning on this blog with their silly comments they’d be doing it somewhere else ;) some people are of the ‘no, can’t do’ attitude about themselves and any others lol!

    cycle love ♥

  21. Adrienne says:

    I gave up on trying to get others to “understand”. I just point out that all of us do something that others think is difficult or dangerous or crazy but we think is perfectly mundane and simple.

    When people say “Oh, that’s too dangerous!” they are not saying it is too dangerous for you, they are admitting that it is too dangerous for how they see the world. When we push boundaries it challenges the people who witness us into looking at things differently and they get uncomfortable and say silly things to cover it up.

  22. Christa says:

    Great observation and commentary, Dottie!

    I think it depends on the built environment and it’s sociocultural state.

    In Europe cycling in normal and it’s a simple act. In the most of North America, I would say it’s sheer will.

    Until North American cities adopt bicycle infrastructure systems, the society will probably view these “superwomen” as crazy.

    Thank you for asking these questions, for inspiring the culture to normalize cycling.

  23. Dave says:

    I’ve given this phenomenon quite some thought, and was actually just talking about this exact issue with Marc from Amsterdamize the other day. I think two big factors in this are 1.) The availability of automobiles to most people, and 2.) The level of personal comfort people are accustomed to.

    It seems to me that a lot of the “you rode your bike in that?” disbelief comes from the place of “why would you put yourself in the relative discomfort of riding in the ____ if you could drive or take a bus?” – and I really believe that a lot of people have sincere disbelief that someone would subject themselves to such “adverse” conditions.

    Of course, 50 years ago, it would have been completely commonplace and nobody would have blinked an eye about having to be out in the rain or snow. It’s not like it’s life-threatening.

    Personally, I rarely even think about having to go out in different weather conditions anymore (except I sometimes like to complain about rain, just because), until someone makes a comment like “you rode your bike today?” To which my reaction in my head is honestly and sincerely with no macho or superhero: “Why not? It’s not like I almost died or something.”

    It is simple, it just requires that you loosen up your ideas about comfort *a little*. Not even that much. Just enough to try it once or twice and figure out a good clothing set to deal with ______ weather.

  24. anna says:

    I would say it very simply: Cycling is very easy and everybody can do it (unless, maybe, disabled). It doesn’t need much, but willpower to start. And sometimes also some willpower to keep going (e.g., on a freezing cold winter’s day). But one learns quickly, and then cycling becomes rewarding and fun. :)

  25. MarkA says:

    An excellent post Dottie, and if anything it just goes to show how alien the very concept of cycling is to some people, which in itself is sad, but don’t let that stop you!

    I’ve just been watching a programme about the Arctic Circle and they went to the Svalbad Archipelego, the most northernly inhabited place in the world. These people’s houses were built on the permafrost. And you know what? They were cycling too! It’s all about doing what you feel safe and comfortable and conveniant doing within your own limits. Don’t be put off by the idiots with all the gear and no idea ;O)

  26. E A says:

    @Dave – and now that my rain pants have failed me I once again seek something to make cycling in the rain comfortable again…. (at least on the cold rainy days).

  27. celal says:

    @anna – There’s a student at my University that is missing a leg and rides a bike. He just swings his fake leg over the handlebars. Frankly, it looks like it’s easier than walking for him.

  28. celal says:

    @E A – Have you tried an umbrella? If your root is not too fast, it works like a charm.

  29. E A says:

    @celal – umbrella on the bike? not with the Chicago winds… I don’t mind getting wet on the ride home, but it’s a drag when it’s on the way in… and when it’s the cold rain.

  30. JOdycb says:

    I’m cool with being thought of as a superwoman whether I am or not. I’m also cool with being thought of as silly, though I don’t bike in nice clothing. That’s just my personality and choice though. I can’t pull off fashionable.

    I do get really annoyed when people act like I’m being irresponsible, and I get tired of people telling me they worry about me.

  31. […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Christa and Bike Omaha, Dot&Trish of LGRAB. Dot&Trish of LGRAB said: New post: Cycling: Simple Act or Sheer Will? ( […]

  32. Way to go!!! I think I’d ride my bike more if there weren’t so many hills around where I live! lol! I’m such a wuss I know… And I haven’t kept it in very good condition. Eep.

  33. cycler says:

    Great post, and lots of thoughtful comments!
    It definitely requires more will to go out and get on the bike these cold dark and snowy days. I find that a lot of it is habit and routine and having your clothing and setup all figured out. It doesn’t hurt that for me, biking is the fastest way to work and I’m often running too late to go any other way :)
    Once you have a system, often it becomes easier just to bike than to drive/park or walk/ take public transportation.
    It may look harder from an outsider’s perspective than it actually is, if its your routine. To take a contrary example, it seems like it would be such a pain for me to drive downtown every day and find a parking spot and pay through the nose for it. But one of my co-workers does it every day. It’s just what she’s used to, and to her it seems like the simple thing to do.
    This year for the first year I have another co-worker who is commuting through the winter, and it’s a nice source of (mostly unspoken) support to reinforce the idea that you’re not some kind of outlier. Web communities like this are also a great help in reminding me that there are lot of others who also make bicycling an ordinary part of their normal lives without a lot of fuss about it.

  34. @Anne Hawley – “that a woman with gray hair and a far-from-athletic body getting on a bike is something like a disabled person overcoming real obstacles”

    Hear, hear. But that it takes so little for us to overwhelm expectations can help feed a conviction that we *can* do everything.

  35. Dottie – I love the picture! Simple will.

  36. Vee says:

    Love the picture. Love the comments.

  37. Blanaid says:

    love the site, love what you’re doing.

    just getting started with my own Irish Cycle Chic site – will be back on the bike once the thaw arrives..


  38. Candis says:

    Dottie, these photos are gorgeous. And yes, I’m sure we’ve crossed one another in a past life–maybe on that 8 mile road between our beloved institutions.

  39. celal says:

    @celal – Have you tried it?

  40. Molly says:

    Wow, Cycler, great point about habit and routine. There doesn’t need to be a real reason for something to seem strange and impossible – it’s enough to be unfamiliar. While riding to work in January in NYC, I often remember just a couple of years ago being surprised by the idea of riding in the cold and thinking it didn’t sound like fun.

    But when it was pointed out to me that I walk and run in the cold, I had no answer for why cycling should be any different – it just seemed WEIRD and outside of my experience. Of course, I hadn’t seen pictures of Dottie making it look easy at the time . . .

  41. Elisa M says:

    I get the same and am equally annoyed. I seem to also get a lot of people acting like I am a moron. Yes, staying in shape and helping the earth is absolutely moronic.
    I am getting worked up just thinking about it…I think a blog post may be in the works about this for me as well.
    GREAT FUCKING PHOTOS! (can I say that?)

  42. Catherine says:

    I feel like I can’t really chime in much because I haven’t biked my commute since December 2nd (mostly because I had to call in sick with a nasty cold on December 3). I have been biking all around my town, though (mostly to/from Metro, errands, karate class and social engagements). That, to me, is nothing. Even on the coldest of the cold, provided I’d dressed appropriately, I haven’t had a problem and I don’t see why I wouldn’t bike.

    The commute is a whole other story, though. It warmed up today (we’re in the 40s!) so I may give it a go next week (I’m off tomorrow and Monday–yippie!).

  43. Dave says:

    Catherine: is your work commute a long ride? Why is it so much different than errands around town? (just genuinely curious)

  44. Catherine says:

    Dave, it’s about 10 miles (I keep forgetting to write down the odometer info) and takes me between 45 minutes and an hour. So for me, that’s really different from going a few blocks here and there, but going inside, then back out. Most of everything I need is in about a 10 block radius of my apartment–just under a mile, so I’m not out in the elements that long.

    I know that people have been doing it all month (I can see them from the Metro–it’s above ground here and goes more or less along the bike trail)–I’m just not as hearty as some folks I guess :)

  45. Dave says:

    Catherine: Yeah, that is a big difference. My work commute is my longest ride as well, but only about 5 miles, so I’m not really limited much in terms of what I can/can’t wear and what not. Hope it warms up and you can get back on the bike to work!

  46. sara says:

    I, too, would actually take superwoman or silly– I don’t really care, but I really wouldn’t agree either. However, once people start commenting (either outright or passive aggressively) that I am a bad parent for being a family bike commuter and cycling in a city with my kids, now that’s the label that I will vehemently reject.

  47. Step-Through says:

    Hilarious and stunning photos (this and recent days). I suppose people will always revere or belittle something they don’t understand. Why do things have to be so contentious? I’ve encountered these attitudes from people who really should know better – other cyclists, folks who rode a bicycle in college or in another city – but have fallen into the mindset of impossibility. Or faux practicality. Or whatever it is that keeps people from seeing that their way is not the only way.

  48. I’d have to say both that it’s a simple act AND that sometimes you need the sheer will to keep going.

  49. Dottie says:

    @Lovely Bicycle! – That makes me so angry to hear. Some people unhappy with themselves like to use the internet to spread meanness. The best thing to do is ignore them and keep spreading your lovely message! Which you are doing :)

  50. Dottie says:

    What a great discussion! I’ve so enjoyed reading everyone’s comments. I like the idea many people expressed that it is both – but maybe one before the other as more become familiar with the concept first.

  51. Dottie says:

    @sara – I know, I get riled up when I hear people say stuff like that, and I don’t even have kids. I can understand why it would put you in a fighting mood! I thank goodness every day that there are people like you out there blazing the trail for future North American cycling parents.

  52. Dottie says:

    @Joe – “Mutant gene” – I like that! lol

  53. Dottie says:

    @Goat Girl – Thanks! Send us an email when you launch your blog and we’ll make sure to add it to our bike universe.

  54. Dottie says:

    @neighbourtease and @JOdycb– The whole dangerous issue – that will have to become a post of its own. The other day I walked into work at the same time as another woman I did not know. She remarked that I was brave to ride my bike and I said, “The roads are actually plowed really well so the snow’s not an issue.” Her response, “Yeah, but it’s not the snow that will kill you – it’s the cars.” Well, good morning to you, too! Geez.

  55. Dottie says:

    @Dave – Absolutely. My advice to people is to try riding in the winter once (or twice). If you don’t like it, that’s okay, but you’ll never know without trying.

  56. Dottie says:

    @Imaginary Bicycle – “Simple will” is a beautiful way of putting it.

  57. Christa says:

    “Simple will” – very nice.

  58. sara says:

    Why, a big THANKS for that, Dottie.

  59. Laurie H says:

    I totally admire those who ride their bikes daily especially in bad whether…..Not that you are “hardcore” or that you have magical powers or anything but because it’s a lifestyle choice that many think is a difficult one. That’s why I love this site because it’s cool to see other taking on this task, and breaking it down. Showing it’s actually quite fun and easy, even in the snow. In collage I was one of those chicks that Dottie describes…I often biked despite the odds (in the rain with an art portfolio or juggling a giant ikea bag stuffed with sewing supplies…wearing a skirt (but granted I went to UC Davis so it wasn’t that strange and I was biking mostly on campus) But I wasn’t making a statement or doing anything special. I did it out of necessity. I needed to get to class. I’m impatient and hate waiting for the bus….

  60. Petey says:

    When I was studying in Waterloo, Ont. I used to commute quite a lot by bicycle during the winter–I even went skiing (the skis went on my back)! It was not a particularly harsh winter this year, judging by the fact that it’s almost spring, but I took my bike out a few times in January and it was freakin’ cold! Maybe I’m getting old or something, but I just about froze my feet off. How do you keep your toes warm??

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