My sojourn in the Swiss wilderness came to an end on Monday and I’ve reflected a few times about how my Kalusenpass climb was really an opportunity for me to indulge in a “sub” and extreme side of biking. There’s a lot of discussion in the cycling world about cycling sub-cultures and how sub-cultures can undermine efforts to make utility cycling mainstream. There’s a vast array of sub-cultures, most of which I don’t personally identify with, and each with their own stereotypes. A few that come to mind are the BMX stunt riders, the urban hipsters on fixies, the fierce downtown bike messengers, and the carefree bike polo players. Then there’s the spandex crowd which encompasses everything from weekend warriors to the velodrome and cyclocross racers. There are mountain bikers who abhor concrete and some cyclists have an odd proclivity for riding nude—usually in very public settings. Utility cycling advocates fear that these sub-cultures brand cycling as an activity that is all about speed, risk-taking, and performance, thus preventing “normal” people from considering or pursuing utility cycling. Biking sub-cultures are also focused primarily on recreation and utility cycling is about transportation. It may be true that certain sub-cultures give cycling a bad name, but these sub-cultures aren’t going anywhere and we’re going to have to get comfortable with the blurred line between recreational and utility cycling.
I observed that, while utility cycling is extremely prevalent in Denmark and Holland, there isn’t as much of a recreational cycling culture in those countries in comparison to the United States or Switzerland. The Swiss already have high rates of recreational cycling and they seem to be leveraging their existing cycling cultures to increase bicycle ridership rates in urban areas.
I rolled into Zurich on Monday afternoon at rush hour and I noticed, like Basel, that there were many commuters on mountain bikes, some of them muddy, presumably as a result of a recent trip to one of the many verdant mountains that beckon Zurich residents out of their lakeside city. The Swiss, like Americans, have a more complicated relationship with the bicycle than the Dutch or the Danes. We primarily use our bikes to play. We use our bikes to connect with the landscapes we love. We spend hours on our bikes circumnavigating lakes, climbing mountains, and following winding rivers. Why all this pointless cycling?
Because many of us love the sport of cycling. I think it’s hard for Americans to begin using bicycles as a form of transportation for the same reason it would be hard to work with a spouse or lover. Our love for bicycles is rooted in our desire to recreate. Using a bicycle for transportation in a city isn’t about recreation—although it can be quite fun at times—and so just like the couple who runs a business together, we may need to develop two distinct relationships with our bike. A personal relationship (weekend joy riding) and a working relationship (biking to the office/grocery store). The lines will blur sometimes, and that’s OK, but we need to set realistic expectations for each relationship.
Once I arrived in Zurich I had to shift into utility cycling mode. I’d done a lot of daydreaming while I was touring and I needed to be alert in the city. City riding requires more decision-making, more counciousness of what is happening around you, and more focus—especially when you’re in a new city. I eventually found the home of Brigitta and Reudi Aebersold, long-time friends of my family. Brigitta and Reudi lived in Seattle for many years, but returned to Switzerland—where they both are from originally—a few years ago.
Reudi is a cyclist (a recreational and utility cyclist) and a top biomedical scientist. His research focuses on early cancer detection mostly and he also does some work, with mixed feelings, on type 2 diabetes. Reudi and I had a fascinating conversation about lifestyle diseases—like type 2 diabetes—and he described the concerns he has about developing pharmaceutical drugs to treat a conditions that can, in many cases, be remedied through changes in diet and exercise. The problem, he explained, ”is that you can’t just give people a bicycle and teach them how to cook vegetables.” The rise in lifestyle related diseases is the result of multiple social and infrastructural trends—fast food culture, car culture, sprawling cities, the proliferation of desk jobs, and unsustainable approaches to exercise. We’re experiencing epidemiological crises in the parts of the United States where there is a confluence of these lifestyle trends. Reudi and I discussed how immensely complicated it will be to reverse these trends. Active transportation simply isn’t an option for many people in the United States who must drive 30 or 40 miles to their job every morning. The cheapest calories are usually still found at McDonalds. I don’t have the answers, but I do believe that increasing the walkability and bikeability of our urban and suburban areas will be part of the solution.
I only stayed in Zurich for one night because I had a flight to Spain on Tuesday—but I’ll be returning there for a few days to test drive an electric assist bike on their hilly streets and investigate the license plates found on most bikes in Swiss cities. I’m writing from sunny Barcelona now where I’ve been enjoying the beaches, the Latin culture, and the blossoming bicycle culture. My brain is somehow accessing Spanish vocabulary that I thought I had lost forever.
It’s been hard to stay inside and work on my computer, but my mind and notebook are full of ideas and inspiration and I’ve met some wonderful people here. I’ve also been doing a lot of thinking about the rest of my trip and just updated my itinerary. More soon about Barcelona! And a few pictures.