Rapha asked me if I could write something for a special project they were doing about urban riding. I wanted to try something that gave some really practical tips but also acknowledged that when it comes to being a cyclist of any type, behavior is secondary, at best, to bearing. I also wanted to try to something a little tricky and see if I could sustain a tone that made the story almost mock itself for taking the appropriate tone. Not sure I sustained it, because Rapha ended up cutting a fair bit when they published it, but I hit it here and there. And the tips really are useful. This is the full text here. The edited version is at Rapha’s City Scopes.
We must begin with the abstract. Certainly there are useful and concrete tips to be distributed, all the way down to the minute level of “when wearing vintage red suede Mostro Adidas, which are easily and rather too permanently besmirched, position yourself upwind of the lorry’s exhaust pipe.” But the quintessential aspect of the impeccable city rider is defined, as so much of style is, not by behavior but by bearing.
The city rider exemplar both possesses and is possessed of a spirit of daring conviviality — dashing in all connotations of the word: audacious, consciously and a bit proudly splendid, graceful in typical operation and even more so when pulled from grace into necessarily awkward situations by erratic happenstance (like that damned rubbish hauler splashing the puddle every which way), aware of an audience yet mindless of its judgment, and, of course, speedy in acceleration, momentum, technique, thought, instinct and most impressively, and, paradoxically to those who look on, in manner of repose. (My god! How coiled and poised we appear with one foot down at a stop sign, the slant of our shoe from heel to toe pointing skyward, a barely manifested jiggle of one leg that communicates not anxiety but anticipation, fingers drumming some lost love song atop the handlebar, and perhaps a casual swipe of snot away from the nose like the gesture of a duelist confident he need only worry about appearing presentable for the daguerreotype after the event.)
City riders, as must be plain to see, cannot follow any list to enter such a state, neither can they hold the ideal at bullet-point and demand its fealty. To be a city rider of the purest sort one must simply be a city rider in the purest manner, for which there is no guide. There is only the right way, which starts but certainly does not end here: Ride among the weaker, the slower, the more slovenly and more ignorant with kindness — the bigger the disparity the greater the kindness; and pedal through the angry, the insulting, the aggressive and even the outright dangerous in humored aloofness. It’s no good cutting the sharpest figure on the street in a snappy tweed windjacket if spittle sprays from your mouth as you swap obscenities of dubious achievability with the sad chap peddling falafel from a cart.
Now then, having achieved exaltation, you might turn your attention to these refinements:
Take the lane. Don’t hug the curb, don’t brush car doors as you pass. Ride fully in the lane and gain respect.
Find the flow. Traffic is tidal, and when what surfers refer to as a good set comes in, make the most of it: Surge as necessary to stay with the current — perhaps even squeezing a yellow light in the crux — but once you lose the wave sit up and gather yourself before you begin flailing.
As with white shoes so go pant cuffs: No rolling them up to avoid the chain after Labor Day. Employ a cuff band.
Do not trackstand at stop signs, stoplights, while waiting for friends to catch up, or within 100 feet of schoolyards. Children, especially, ought not to be exposed to such abominations.
Do not swivel your head to further observe an alluring person as you pass. Salute the existence of beauty on this earth with a subtle upward tip of the chin and pedal on. Doing thus, you turn yourself into the one worthy of extended examination — and, as well, the fleeting nature of your passage increases your appeal.
Never forget that your helmet looks stupid. You can overwhelm this mandatory dorkiness with the effect of the rest of your kit, but it’s best to never quite lose track of the fact that you have a mushroom suffering from elephantitis growing from your head.
To the front of stopped traffic. Always. And always without apology.
Eye contact is important — but meaningless. You’ve made a human and humane connection but you’ve not guaranteed in any way that you won’t get smashed into.
Engage your compatriots. Cycling is at its core an activity and sport that reaches its apogee in packs, and though the city rider often plies the streets solo, honoring this central tenet even in passing will strengthen you, those you engage, and the presence of all bikes throughout all cities. But understand this does not mean you must befriend every cyclist or suffer unduly those desperate to befriend you. The accepted and beneficial degrees of interaction range from a brief and jaunty fingerpoint to a rolling conversation and at any time can be curtailed by announcing your apologies that you must turn off.