Wednesday, October 5, 2011

The Wrong Kind of Smugness

Cycling community, I am disappoint.

Image credit: Peter Drew.

I'd seen the above image once or twice online, but I hadn't really thought about the social implications of it until I read Lovely Bicycle's post on the "fit/fat" controversy as it relates to drivers vs. cyclists. (I also didn't know the graffiti was as widespread as it apparently is.)

Look, people, I'm not against smugness. Lord knows, I take great pride in my tiny carbon footprint, even as I consume my roughly ten pounds of meat per day and take care of my three cats, whose combined non-biodegradable "leavings" for 2011 could probably build a structure the size of Angkor Wat. Yes, I have even been known to wear a T-shirt proclaiming my transportation method's lack of fossil fuel use for all to see. But something about trumpeting your smugness over weight and/or fitness just leaves a bad taste in my mouth.

To state the most obvious problem with signs like this, not all drivers are fat and not all cyclists are fit. Some of those drivers are dedicated gym rats, and some of those cyclists (like me!) don't partake in any exercise other than transportation cycling. Some drivers are vegan raw-foodists who carefully analyze every calorie that comes into their body, some cyclists (me again!) would subsist on a diet entirely composed of candy necklaces and peanut butter if their spouses would let them. And I see a lot of cyclists (when you are one, you pay attention), and aside from the spandexed athletes, cyclists come in all colors, genders, and yes, sizes. True, you don't see many 300+ pound people on bikes, but that's likely more of a structural issue with the bikes themselves.

To state the second most obvious problem, cycling isn't great exercise. Oh, it's better than sitting in a car, of course. Most activities are. But compared to other sports like swimming and running, and especially when you consider the reduced speeds and mileage of transportation cycling vs. sport cycling, there's just no comparison. According to Dave's Bike Blog (which cites a bunch of science-y folks), "riding a bicycle 20 miles at an average 15 miles per hour is equal to running 5.6 miles at any speed." Considering that most commuters/everyday riders don't clock nearly 20 miles per trip, and also ride somewhere around 8-10 mph, it becomes clear that transportation cycling is only a marginally more effective exercise than working a slot machine. At least that will tone your arms.

At 10 MPH, I don't even burn off the bugs I swallow whilst riding.

I even think these measurements are too generous to cycling, because they don't factor in coasting, which you don't do in a paceline or athletic event but which takes up at least a quarter of your time when everyday cycling on a non-fixed-gear bike. Nothing feels as good as coasting down a gentle hill, it's the closest thing to human flight that isn't hang-gliding (and far more accessible), but calories burned? Somewhere between zero and one, I reckon, and less than that if you're eating a candy necklace while you coast.

Think about it: The bicycle was invented because people were too lazy/impatient to walk everywhere and horses are a PITA. (Also, they have an annoying tendency to die off during global cataclysms.) The same impulse to save time and energy underlie the choices of both transportation bicyclists and SUV drivers, and while I can rail against the driver for contributing to global warming and suburban sprawl and the death of untold millions, I can't rightly claim to be less lazy than him or her. Let whosoever among us is the least lazy cast the first stone, and man, casting stones is work. As is finding parking spaces, which is something that I almost never have to worry about. (See, it's perfectly possible to be smug over things besides weight!)

Image credit: Peter Drew.
To state yet another obvious problem, signs like these further prop up the falsehood that fatness is always unfit, and that thinness is always healthy. Anyone who's struggled with an eating disorder knows that the latter is definitely untrue, and there's quite a bit of anecdotal evidence on the Lovely Bicycle post re: larger, fit commuters that invalidates the former. I'm not too keen on the martyr-type attitude that often comes with fitness advocates, anyway. You see it in Cathy-level jokes about foregoing dessert or boasting about how many hours you've plugged away at the gym, with no hints that fitness can be fun or fulfilling. What does "fitness" mean, anyway? Wikipedia (always a trusted source!) defines physical fitness as "a measure of the body’s ability to function efficiently and effectively in work and leisure activities, to be healthy, to resist hypokinetic diseases, and to meet emergency situations." Nothing about this definition relates to weight specifically, and it's not a state that requires intense training (or dessert skipping) to achieve. Personally, I would like to see the concept of "fitness" dumped, to be replaced with a more holistic view of physical activity that doesn't require setting aside time for exercise. For 95% of people, daily transportation cycling or walking combined with smaller activities like climbing stairs instead of taking elevators is all you need to achieve a level of fitness that is perfectly adequate for any of your needs. Anything else is just gravy.

In closing, you have the right to feel smug over the person who drives a mile to the gym. But not because you're fitter than them, because you might not be, and it doesn't matter anyway! There are so many reasons to champion bikes for short-haul urban transportation, ones that don't require shaming a large (no pun intended) segment of Americans who are likely going to be put off by your exclusionary slogans.


  1. Sent this page to a head-up-his-ass buddy who is infected with this particular strain of smug. Recently got into an argument with him over the antisocial behavior of him and his cronies during the monthly or bi-monthly critical mass in LA...they will often slap car windows, pelt vehicles with empty beer cans, and he feels it's justified! Glad to see someone who is a bike advocate without being a bike fanatic!

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