When I decided to contribute to NPR Music’s Sweatin’ To NPR workout series, I knew I would write about biking. After all, I am a proud bike commuter and the gym, to me, is about as foreign as Turkey. The post, combining music with cycling, would be inherently controversial so I wrote cautiously, trying my best to convey an attitude of respect and safety without sounding too preachy. Despite my efforts, the story was flooded with criticism from cyclists and non-cyclists alike. Here are some gems:
“Riding with headphones on in the city… Good way to get killed. And kill someone else. Nice one NPR” (Christopher Genovese)
“This total absence of synthesis is troublesome for me. I’m losing faith in some my ‘fellow mankind.’ (R D Harmony)
“No helmet, no brakes, AND headphones!?! (based on the image above) Deathwish. Someone didn’t think this playlist through very well…What a stupid way to die.” (K Cook)
“We need NPR to promote “agression” in transportation? We don’t have enough road rage from drivers of cars? We have to have a picture of a biker, no helmet, the article promoting use of earphones, a horrible degradation of our social interaction, let alone unsafe in a car or a bike.” (David Pearce)
A reader called Brim Stone, at one point, asked, “Did this piece get edited? It now says ‘boombox,’ ‘not too loud,’ ‘helmet.’ ” The answer is “no.” The piece appears now as it was first published, meaning the majority of commenters did not read the text at all. They simply jumped to conclusions and took the opportunity to a.) condemn cyclists as a whole for being wreckless; b.) condemn ME as a cyclist for giving good cyclists a bad rep. I did have a small (but very much appreciated) bunch of defenders:
“C’mon people! Whoever, other than the first poster, said anything about wearing headphones while biking?!? Certainly not the author or NPR. At some point, you gotta let the stupid people (both bikers and drivers) live and learn. No amount of ranting in the comments section is going to change their minds about wearing headphones while biking. Anyone have anything interesting to say about the music, which is really the point of the whole article? I’m still listening but so far an interesting mix.” (ReNae Gorder)
“Just like the ‘wistful workout’ for depressed people and other past NPR workout mixes, this is just another fun way of introducing people to new music. and no where in the story does the author encourage the use of headphones while biking. Take it for what it is, another enjoyable mix of music from the nice people at NPR.” (Meg Ruddick)
Initially, I was a little disturbed that so many people had responded negatively to my list. But as the comments poured in, I became more concerned about the general attitude about cyclists.
Comments from fellow cyclists almost universally condemned the “recklessness” of certain riders, particularly fixed gear riders (fueled by the photo I chose for the story featuring a man with no helmet on a fixed gear bike). There was an air of superiority, even: an attitude of “I ride more safely than you,” if you will. For those of you that don’t know, a a true fixed gear bike has neither a free-spinning hub nor brakes. It makes for clean and simple aesthetics, a look I consider beautiful, but calls for incredible skill in the rider. I don’t possess those skills and thus, I don’t ride a fixed gear. But they can be ridden safely, and that went unrecognized by most readers.
Both cyclists AND drivers condemned wearing headphones while riding, and I agree! But of course, that doesn’t matter. These people didn’t actually read my text, in which I wrote, “So strap a boombox to those handlebars, crank it up (not too loud, because the sounds of the streets are vital in the battle of bike vs. car) and pedal to the beat.” Will you really strap a boombox to your bike? No, and it doesn’t matter. This list is hypothetical, but that point was clearly misunderstood.
Finally, cyclists and drivers reacted to my call for aggression — healthy aggression, though that part was also ignored by readers. One reader’s criticism distinguished aggression from defensive riding, but I consider it one and the same. Respect pedestrians and drivers. You are, after all, a diplomat of sorts. But if they disrespect you, I believe in letting them know. Ding your bell, shoot them a glare, or even verbally tell them they almost killed you.
Why did I write this overly long defense/reflection of my bike list? Well, as a cyclist, I take pride in being a safe and respectful rider, and I needed the last word even if no one reads it. In the larger scope of things, the comments revealed to me how utterly dysfunctional the relationship between drivers and cyclists is; even among cyclists, the vibe is less unified than I expected. We need to change that. So Washington Area Bicyclist Association, expect a donation from me very soon.
You can read the post in question here.