May 31, 2010
Total mileage: 856
Q. What do you get when you combine crazy t-shirts, psychedelic jerseys, and talk about cranksets?
A. Bike culture.
Mr. Spoked and I just got back from our annual bicycle trip to the tallgrass prairie on the Cottonwood 200. It’s a three-day trip capped at 250 riders. The first day we bicycled from Topeka to Council Grove, the second day made a round-trip between Council Grove and Strong City, and the third day returned to Topeka, for a total of 200 miles (hence the name). It’s been hosted by our local group, the Kaw Valley Bicycle Club, for the past 34 years. Maybe we’re prejudiced, but we think it’s one of the best rides in the Midwest. The scenery is fantastic, the ride is well organized and supported, and there’s a fairly small group containing familiar faces. It feels like a family reunion.
The Cottonwood is our first multi-day ride of the year, and every year it’s a bit of a shock to be re-immersed in bike culture. Different groups around the world have their own patterns of beliefs and behaviors that make up their culture. Here are a few of bicycling’s strongest cultural norms.
Most ride registrations include a t-shirt, often with an outrageous graphic or saying. One of the coolest around is from a Lawrence ride known as Lizard Under the Skillet. It is important cultural behavior to wear these t-shirts in the gym or around the campsite after putting in the day’s miles. This is akin to wearing a note pinned to your chest that reads, “Ask me about . . . [fill in the ride’s name]. ” It’s an important icebreaker with either strangers or returning friends. And really, there are no strangers on a ride where you sleep in a gymnasium with 200 other people and see them naked in the locker room.
These specially tailored shirts are made of high-tech material to wick away the sweat from your skin during a ride. They also aid in rider identification. Underneath the helmet, sunglasses, and spandex is a person you might not recognize in the gym after he’s showered and changed. How do you find him? You ask if anyone knows the name of the guy in the Oklahoma Freewheel jersey riding the black Trek. The best jerseys also make you stand out on the road, thus bike jerseys in screaming colors and wild designs are common.
Bicycles are the conversational focus of a multi-day ride. They are an extension of your body as well as your personality. If you’re bored with your book after dinner, just take a walk down the corridors where the bikes are stashed for the night. Something’s bound to catch your eye, and at least one other person will be doing the same thing so you can socialize. It’s an opportunity to salivate over the present (what you see in front of you), reminisce about the past (old bikes you’ve known and loved), and gloat about the future (what you’re going to buy next year). It often leads to exchanging email addresses or promising to meet up at other rides later in the season. This significant cultural practice is the main reason I have memorized the names of bike parts such as crankset, headset, and chainring.
There are other fun aspects of recreational bike culture, such as the rubber chickens and dinosaurs some people affix to their bikes. In my other life these behaviors would seem quite strange, but as an active participant and member of bike culture, I think they’re great. I love it, I love it so, and I am happy the season is here so I can engage in the odd rituals that make up my culture. Thank you, Cottonwood 200, for reminding me that bicycling is so much more than exercise.