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Mistaken Identity?


For the past few years, when I find myself discussing transport with people, I have been playing a little a game for my own amusement. At some point in a conversation with a typical British person - that is, one who drives everywhere - I like casually to ask, "Could you ever see yourself riding a motorbike?"


In most cases, the response has been a brief gaze at the ceiling, as the person tries to imagine themselves in that situation, before they laugh, shake their heads in a slightly bemused fashion and say something like, "Goodness me, no! No way."

Now, it's always a mistake to generalize, but for those of you who don't spend much time hanging around motorcyclists I should explain that they can basically be broken down into four types:

  1. Harley-Davidson riders. In the popular imagination these are rebellious, hairy and violent; clad in beards, leather and torn denim, they live fast and ride hard, resplendently bearded outcasts from a society they reject. In reality, of course, that's just the lingering influence of Easy Rider: Harley owners tend actually to be middle-aged finance workers who enjoy polishing chrome in their garages far more than they enjoy their annual ride of fifteen wobbly miles to a pub.
  2. Speed daemons. Think race tracks, precision engineering and the heady scent of burnt petrol. Or, more accurately, think monstrously uncomfortable one-piece leather suits, visors so heavily tinted that you could weld with them, and a sorry end wrapped around a road-side tree.
  3. BMW riders. Universally disdained by other bikers for having more money than sense, particularly if they bought their bikes only after watching Euan McGregor in Long Way Round.
  4. The rest.

Where am I going with this, other than making lazy jibes about groups with which I don't identify? My point is that when I've asked people to see themselves on a motorcycle, I can't help suspecting that the reason people reject the idea quite so firmly is that one of these images immediately pops into their mind - most likely the first one: the giant hog, the torn denim and, above all, the beard. It is, I suspect, the huge gulf between this mental image, and how people see themselves, which causes them to look quite so bemused and to reject quite so resoundingly the idea that they would ever get on a motorcycle. Riding a motorcycle is, to most people, something that other people do - people whom they do not resemble.

Of course, what I'm really interested in when I carry out this exercise is bicycles. Might the images of cycling that people have in their minds prevent them from cycling more often? After all, we know that there are millions of bicycles sitting in people's shed and garages, unused. Could this partly be because when cycling is suggested, people mentally look back and forth between themselves and 'A Cyclist' and see two very different people?

The problem is that we can't simply ask people whether they could see themselves on a bicycle because in a sense they can - most people have at some stage ridden one. This is why in my informal studies I've looked at the issue using motorcycles, which most people have never ridden. But might there be some way in which we could get at people's ideas of what 'cyclists' look like whilst definitely talking about cycling? 

This question was asked not too long ago by Birgitta Gatersleben at Surrey University and, particularly, her student Hebba Haddad. They took a fairly large group of people, which included cyclists and non-cyclists, and gave them a set of statements about cyclists. Some of these statements were about cycling behaviours ("The typical cyclist that I see cycles on the pavement", for example); others were about cyclists' motivations for cycling ("The typical cyclist that I see cycles for fun"). The people in the study could agree or disagree with each statement to various degrees.

The researchers then used a statistical technique (principal components analysis, for fellow geeks), which let them see which of these statements tended to go together. For example, let's say everybody agreed that "The typical cyclist cycles for fun" and everybody disagreed that "The typical cyclist cycles on the pavement". In this case, we would know that cycling for fun and avoiding pavements are both parts of a single cycling 'stereotype' in people's minds.

Of course, this being the real world, there wasn't total agreement on anything. But nevertheless some pretty clear stereotypes emerged. Visitors to won't be at all surprised to learn that cyclists recognized more different types of cyclist than non-cyclists, so I won't go into that. What was more interesting was that for the non-cyclists, one cycling stereotype dominated all the others: an image the researchers called the 'die-hard' stereotype. The die-hard cyclist, as revealed by this study, is a person who wears Lycra, clip-in shoes and a helmet; who rides an expensive bike as fast as possible and who doesn't cycle for practical purposes like shopping. Now, I'm not saying these cyclists exist, you understand; I'm simply saying that this image appears to exist in people's minds - particularly people who don't cycle.

Could this hard-core image really be what pops into many people's minds when they hear the word 'cyclist'? If so, it wouldn't be very surprising if people who currently don't cycle find it to be an image they don't relate to. Sure enough, the non-cyclists in Haddad and Gatersleben's study didn't feel any affinity at all with this image when tested. In fact, the only image of cycling they could personally relate to was the 'necessity' cyclist - the person who commutes to work on their bike, in all weathers, because they have no other choice.

It would be wonderful if we could now do a similar study in a culture where cycling is much more normal - Denmark or the Netherlands being the obvious candidates - to see whether the popular images of 'cyclists' differ. If we did, the outcome could go in various directions. It might be that the non-cyclists in these countries see an even larger gulf between themselves and cyclists - after all, they are essentially refuseniks, and may have a stronger sense of 'not being cyclists' to support this. Perhaps most interesting of all would be if no clear stereotypes of cyclists emerged at all in countries where cycling is commonplace, and we found that stereotypes of cycling only exist in places like the UK where it is a minority activity. Not only would this help us understand why people don't cycle in the UK, but it would also give us a way of measuring changes in attitudes about cycling over time.

Of course, it's possible I'm overthinking this. Perhaps the real conclusion is that, if we want to encourage more cycling, we just really need to think twice before putting on bib-shorts to visit the supermarket.

A research psychologist by day, Ian spends quite a lot of time on bikes, particularly commuting between Bristol and Bath or doing audax rides. For years he was an ultradistance runner, but this came to an end when he realised getting back onto a bicycle offered the chance to race over much more preposterous distances. In recent years he has ridden in the Transcontinental Race, the TransWales and the North Cape 4000. He has even finished first in some of these. 

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