Bicyclist, Biker Or Cyclist: What’s In A Name?


Bicyclist, biker, or cyclist. Are these descriptive names or are they examples of pigeonholing? A reader recently brought this interesting question to my attention. He had seen a letter to the editor in The Washington Post where the author made this exact point.

In the letter, he wrote about an article published in The Washington Post describing an altercation between a motorist and a 22-year-old man who was riding a bicycle. The motorist hit the bicycle with his SUV because it was being ridden down the middle of the road, and did not move out of the way when the driver yelled and honked his horn.

When the guy on the bike pulled over onto the sidewalk, the driver followed him and they got into a fight. At one point, the enraged driver threw the bike at its owner, after which he started punching him until bystanders intervened. As a result of this incident, the man who had been riding the bicycle had to to have a skin graft taken from his thigh and transplanted to his foot.

The motorist was found guilty of assault with his SUV and fists. He will be sentenced in early September.

The letter writer, a man who rides a bike and drives a car, read this article and made the following observations:

“What is it about newspaper editors that makes them so insistent on categorizing someone riding a bicycle as a “bicyclist” [“Man guilty of assaulting bicyclist,” Local Digest, July 4]. I am used to seeing this odd characterization turn up in headlines, but the story on an encounter between a person driving a car and a person riding a bike was remarkable in its determination to continue the pigeonholing. The convicted man is referred to only once as a motorist, in the first sentence, then variously as “man,” by his name and with masculine pronouns. The victim of the assault was referred to only once by gender and repeatedly as “bicyclist,” “biker” and “cyclist.”

I ride a bike to work. But I also drive a car and certainly don’t consider myself a “bicyclist.” Do people who drive to work consider themselves “motorists”? Do they wear one of those leather hats with ear flaps and eye goggles?

A headline of “Motorist guilty of assaulting man” would have fit as well.”

As someone who does not exclusively ride a bicycle, the author of this letter does not see himself as a “bicyclist.” Many people who ride bikes, frequently or occasionally, also do not see themselves as “cyclists” or even “bikers.” They are people who just happen to ride bikes.

Why, then, do newspaper reporters insist on referring to them repeatedly as “bicyclists,” particularly when the story is about an assault, not bicycling?

Some of it has to do with prejudice against people who drive slower moving vehicles and who are members of a minority group. Rather than focusing on the actions of the motorist, the reporter honed in on the fact that the man who was assaulted was riding a bicycle down the middle of the road.

Just the description the reporter used, “driving his bike down the middle of the road,” shows bias and ignorance of cyclist rights. The man on the bicycle was taking the lane, as all cyclists are permitted to do. But describing it in these terms makes it appear as if the person on the bike has done something wrong and thereby provoked the assault.

The constant references to him as a bicyclist, biker, or cyclist reinforce the idea that the crux of the problem was that the victim was riding a bicycle. But, not only was he riding a bicycle, he was one of “them,” you know, those bicyclists who think they own the road.

While this subtle use of language conveys a bias against people on bicycles, it also omits details about the man riding the bicycle, which might make us understand who he was and what transpired between the two men. Other than the driver’s obvious outrage over having a bicycle in his path, we are told very little about why, after striking the bike, the driver felt it was necessary to get out of his SUV and punch the man whom he had forced off of the road.

That the reporter went out of his way to label the victim as a “cyclist” is obvious. What is less obvious is why he presented the man on the bicycle in such a unidimensional way. It could have been done to mitigate the heinous act perpetrated by the driver of the SUV. Or, it could have been a combination of bias and poor writing.

There were many ways the man on the bicycle could have been described. He was young. He might have been a student or a local resident. Any attribute could have been selected to make him more human and to drive home the egregious nature of this assault.

In addition to dehumanizing him by only telling us that he was a cyclist, the reporter paints a more rounded picture of the motorist. A scene unfolds of an animated, irate motorist who attacks a man for the mere act of riding a bicycle down the road. One party is human and acting out of passion. The other is an object that was in  the human’s way.

With respect to the letter writer’s objection to being called a bicyclist, we have to wonder whether he doesn’t want to be identified with cyclists who give all cyclists a bad name or whether he doesn’t want to be defined by the type of vehicle he is driving. It’s possible to imagine a world where vehicle operators are not separated and defined by the type of vehicle they drive. Unfortunately, we haven’t arrived at that point yet.

We have only made it to the stage of sharing the road. Vehicle types are currently defined by size, speed, and needs; despite these differences, they are obligated to follow a single set of rules. As bicycles become more mainstream so will the people riding them. They will be seen as seniors on bikes, kids on bikes, executives on bikes, and mothers on bikes. In other words, they will be people first and bicyclists second.

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