A wiry thirtysomething guy bikes out of the Whole Foods parking lot, a pannier of organic produce strapped to his rack. He’s on his way home to make dinner after a couple of hours spent door-knocking for Greenpeace. He pulls into the street, pedaling quickly, but he’s not moving fast enough for a hulking SUV whose impatient driver doesn’t want to change lanes. She tailgates him for several yards, laying on the horn, then swerves into the other lane and tears past him, yelling something about getting on the sidewalk. The cyclist gives her a one-fingered salute, then notices a McCain-Palin sticker on her bumper.
Bike commuters hit the streets in massive numbers last year, and scenarios like this one–starring the lefty cyclist and the GOP-loving driver–have been bandied about in media reports and water-cooler anecdotes. But not everyone on two wheels is out to curb climate change or stick it to the man. There are conservatives who integrate bikes into their lives just as thoroughly as their liberal counterparts do, which raises the question: Do bikes and politics really have to mix?
Mitch Berg is a conservative talk-radio host whose blog, A Shot in the Dark, is divided between political content and chronicles of his bike-commuting experiences. “I grew up in rural North Dakota, and biking was one of my escapes when I was in high school and college,” he says. “It’s my favorite way to try to stay in shape. And if gas fell to 25 cents a gallon, I’d still bike every day.”
Berg doesn’t believe there’s anything inherently political about riding a bike, and plenty of conservative pedal pushers seem to agree. “I do not care about gas prices or the environment. I care about fun and getting where I am quickly,” writes Old Scratch, a poster on Bike Forums, an Internet discussion site for all things bike related. “I find cycling to be a very conservative activity,” writes Maddyfish. “It saves me money and time.”
However, Berg says, “people on both sides of the political aisle do ascribe political significance to biking. The lifestyle-statement bikers, of course, see the act as a political and social statement. And there’s a certain strain of conservatism that sees conspicuous consumption–driving an SUV and chortling at paying more for gas–as a way to poke a finger in the eyes of the environmental left.”
The impression that biking is a political activity, and a liberal one at that, is reinforced by the most vocal members of bike culture. These are the folks who corner the media spotlight (and draw drivers’ resentment) with high-profile events like Critical Mass, a group ride that floods downtown streets in many cities as riders zealously reassert their right to the road. Similarly, when the price of gas climbed to four dollars a gallon last summer, the media couldn’t run enough stories about the unprecedented popularity of bike commuting. Activist bikers leveraged the newfound media attention to promote certain messages: that bicycling is an inherently political activity; that cyclists care about traditionally progressive causes like environmental protection; that more tax money should be allocated for bike paths and a transportation infrastructure not focused on cars.
In fact, bicycle advocacy is not a necessarily partisan issue. In Colorado, Republican state senator Greg Brophy, an avid cyclist, worked with Bicycle Colorado to pass Safe Routes to School, an initiative that teaches bike skills and safety in schools. Brophy and his colleagues are also discussing a “Green Lanes” bill to give bicyclists safer routes through metro areas.
Conservatives on bikes represent the breakdown of clichéd culture-war stereotypes that so often keep people of different political stripes from connecting. Berg says he has made liberal friends based on a common love of cycling, and so has William Bain, a retired naval officer in the Pacific Northwest whose bike commute is a 43-mile round trip. “Cycling is the common bond I have with my liberal friends,” Bain says. “We can get in a heated passionate argument about politics and then go out and try to ride each other into the ground. Good clean fun.”
They also, of course, represent more bikes on the road–something all of us on two wheels, regardless of our political idiosyncrasies, can agree is a good thing.