Trends in Books, Bikes and Real People

What happened around 1940? That’s when references to the bicycle peaked in books written in English, according to this Ngram created using Google’s newest toy search tool. Could it have something to do with the invention of the cable-shifted derailleur in 1938?

Or was it in 2000 that things peaked, based on uses of the word “cycling”?

Hard to say for sure what happened in 1940 since I hadn’t been born yet, but the rise in references to cycling, biking, bicycles and biking over the past 50 years is heartening.

Remember the Presidential Fitness Test from grade school? I have dim memories of having absolutely zero hope of completing even one pull-up.

Looking at a timeline where you can learn more about bike history I discovered that test—the bane of many a grade-schooler—launched in the year of my birth and may deserve some of the credit for increased interest in the bicycle for recreation and fitness. (Maybe because riding a bike doesn’t involve pull-ups, push-ups or curl-ups.)

As another factor there’s Earth Day in 1970 (for the record, I was eight at the time). By 1978 thanks to the oil crisis more bikes than cars were being sold in the US.

Although "cycling" is the most-used term what I find most interesting is the small but steady rise in the use of “biking” over the past 20 years.

A recent post by Mia Birk talked about the “real cyclist” phenomenon: fragmentation inside the community of people who ride bikes so that one group defines itself as “real” and others as somehow not real.

As I commented there, I'm real enough, but I'm moving away from using the term "cyclist" to describe myself. I find the phrase "bike rider" a tad awkward but I like it better, or just “someone who rides a bike.”

I ride my bike: lots for transportation, some for fitness/health, some for time with friends, some to see if I can do a really long ride while supporting some local good cause—but always because it's fun and freedom and now I can't imagine not riding.

And I call what I do biking as much as—more than—I call it cycling.

Cycling for me summons up Spandex and sweat, intervals and heart rate monitors and pouches of sugary carb supplements. (Yes, Sweetie, I’m talking about your training for races J)

People who drive cars mostly don't go around referring to themselves as drivers. They're people who drive cars, and I doubt they worry about whether they're authentic or not.

Is the little old lady who only drives her car to church on Sundays somehow less of a driver than the guy in the tricked-out hot rod or the suburban mom in her SUV, let alone a NASCAR or Formula One driver? (Well, okay, maybe those last two.)

It occurs to me that the problem isn't with defining "real"--it's the word "cyclist." I think for the general non-riding public "cyclist" (real or not) brings up images of brightly colored Spandex and Lance Armstrong (they don't know who Contador is). If they can't envision themselves ever being like that--and how many of us can really attain a body fat percentage near zero?--they have no point of connection.

For them "cyclist" just isn't the lady in heels on her step-through. She's not a "real cyclist." It's as if all drivers are either NASCAR/Formula One or they aren't real drivers.

Let's be people who ride bikes. Hard to say someone isn't a real person. Then the trend line in future Google Ngram searches will keep biking on the climb.

P.S. If this flashback to the Presidential Fitness Challenge makes you nostalgic you can check out the Adult Fitness Test.

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  1. Barb: Here in NYC the fragmentation you mention occurs under the rubric of hipster, commuter, cycle chic, spandex rider, and so forth. The greater the focus on "people who ride bikes," the more likely it will become that non-riders can envision themselves in the bike lanes. Here's to a continued steady climb of the trend line. BTW: Totally with you on nostalgia for Presidential Fitness Challenge -- right down to the badges!

  2. Hmm, I have always thought of "biking" as riding a motorcycle, and of a "biker" as someone who rides a motorcycle.
    Because of that, I always use cycling/cyclist to refer to riding a bicycle. To me the term is generic from there, to encompass all bicycle riders.

    It's always interesting how the same words can mean such different things to different people, even within the same region.

    "Someone who rides a bike" definitely works though.


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