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We don't need another hero

by Pip Carroll

Recently I appeared on The Conversation Hour with Jon Faine to talk about getting more women riding bikes. Given I was appearing with Olympic Gold Medallist, Paris Roobaix champion, Tour de France yellow jersey-winning, retired professional cyclist Stuart O'Grady - I entered the studio quite gratified that the ABC had found an appropriate warm up act for my humble opinion. 

It was a conversation not unlike many others, in which I was compelled to explain that 'cyclists' are actually unique and autonomous human beings, not a species indivisible in action or malicious intent. Yes, some of us run red lights. Some of us also work in emergency wards, teach your children and OMG wait for it, our legs aren't welded to our pedals, we also quite frequently WALK and are known to DRIVE CARS. I've seen it happen.

There was something in this interview that has stuck with me however, lingering like a unseen companion on the ride home, riding in my blind spot. When called upon to explain how women's motivations to ride vary from men's, and summarising the fairly obvious differences - like, for instance, we care less about equipment, speed and performance - it was suggested that perhaps this was a gender stereotype, and that women such as Anna Meares could disprove my 'theory' in a flash (a very fast moving flash, in fact) and act as an excellent role model for women interested in 'cycling'.

Like many Australians, I have much admiration for Anna Meares. Her determination, her grit, her 225 kg single leg press, not to mention her vertical leap (seriously check it out). In fact, i could think of no better role model for anyone (female or otherwise) who is applying themselves to a physically punishing, psychologically exacting and herculean task so demanding that nothing but complete and utter devotion to it's fulfilment will see it through. If I had to rescue civilisation from the grips of malevolent track-bike riding monkeys (imagine it!), I'd want Anna by my side.  But encouraging women to ride to the shop? Mightn't Anna's qualities be a little excess to requirement? Anna, we love you, but you aren't the hero for this job.

In fact, we don't need a hero for this job, or for the job of encouraging people onto bikes. The 'heroic'  and 'life changing' journeys so often held up in our bicycle culture as models for participation aren't doing us any favours, and they sure aren't helping the 'interested but concerned' see themselves on a bike. Last time I checked being a hero is hard. Most of us would rather sit back on the couch, beer or biscuits in hand and watch someone else do it. Like our sporting heroes for instance. Like Anna Meares.

Let's think about the word 'normalised' for a moment, It's often used before the words 'bike culture' to describe the kind of modal share and engagement with bike riding that we want. We don't ever describe a 'heroicised' bike culture. In fact, we complain about it when we see it on the streets. Heroes don't stop for red lights - they've got a mission to complete, momentum to maintain, distances and enemies to conquer. 

Unless the joke's on me, (and I'm all too happy to be an April fool) isn't it bleedingly obvious that to encourage a 'normalised' bicycle culture, we need to celebrate and facilitate 'normal' bike riding? The really boring stuff. The journeys that show just how EASY it is to ride a bike. The short but frequent trips that take cars off the road, add moderate exercise to our day and contribute to cohesion and tolerance in our communities. The kind of bike riding that makes heroes of us all. 

When the IPCC tells us that nobody on earth will be untouched by the impacts of Climate Change, when our children have shorter expected lifespans than their parents due to inactivity induced obesity, surely the most heroic thing any of us can do is stop driving ourselves to doom and despair, and quietly and simply put a bike between A and B.

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