Sunday 21 January 2018

Race tribes... Which type are you?

Conor O'Hagan classifies our cycling community

Cycling is driven by tribal faction
Cycling is driven by tribal faction

Perhaps, to an extraterrestrial visitor, all cyclists are the same; functionally and morphologically identical; two legs, one head, two wheels, self-propelled, gyroscopically stabilised in one plane, inherently unstable otherwise.

But that's where the global fraternity of cyclists begins and ends - on another planet. For cycling is as driven by tribal faction, subcultural one-upmanship and contrived mutual scorn as any human activity this side of popular music. Like any family, really.

If you're about to parachute into this Babel of cycling and don't know where to land, don't worry; it will all fall into place. Unless you're a genuine one-off or determined iconoclast, you're going to find yourself casting your lot with one or more of these groupings.


Road racers are the natural aristocracy of cycling; in endless pursuit of the alchemy that converts energy into speed and distance steeped in history, legend, mythology and obsession, the road warrior doesn't carry anything that isn't essential to staying in the saddle, least of all body fat.

There is almost no discernible limit to the money you can spend on a road bike and the associated gear and accessories, so the road racer is either single or about to be. Obsession makes for a lonely bed, as does narcissism, and both are essential to the roadie.

Everyone knows that you can lose in a week the weight you'll save with a thousand euro upgrade to your wheels, but that's just so not the point.

It's an austere calling; there is no tougher test of pain endurance or mental strength than a road race, no state closer to physical perfection than the body of a (clean) Pro. Every cyclist with drop bars and a Tour de France Team Replica shirt knows this. He or she may be an imperfect disciple, but knows without question for whom the gates of heaven will be held open - and that's nobody on fat tyres.


Triathletes are externally similar to road racers, with the lamentable addition of 'aero' or 'tri' bars - the unwieldy-looking aesthetic travesties that allow improved aerodynamic performance. Internally, the triathlete values cycling only as the mandatory bridge between swimming and running. He is not a true believer.

Urban cyclists

Urban cycling is dominated by two sects; those for whom the bicycle is the only morally defensible, economically feasible or temperamentally bearable way of getting to work, and those for whom it is an aesthetically pleasing way to express the individuality and stylistic purity they treasure. That's hipsters to you.


Commuters are liberally decked in either hi-vis or plaster; they have mudguards, racks, lights. They play a long game. Cycle commuting is a functional pursuit, thus inherently unstylish. Attempts to defy this dictum almost always end badly - see foldaway bikes such as the high-profile Brompton and its cousins - one of the most expensive ways to be uncool yet devised.


Hipsters ride vintage high nellies with chromed rims and fat tyres, rod brakes and if they can stand the abuse, wicker baskets up front. Alternatively, no-gears or even 'fixies' - for which they deserve grudging credit, even from road racers. These gorgeously stripped-down, achingly minimalist modern design classics more than make up in lethality what they lack in virtually everything except style and economy.


Rarely seen these days, but still out there somewhere, the cycle courier is 140lb or less of high-tensile, bronze-plated organic steel, able to maintain a feet-up stationary position for hours when he chooses, which is never at traffic lights. Unrelated, unaffiliated and uninterested in other tribes; a natural, professional non-conformist. You are not his brother.


The aesthetic and moral purity of road cycling demands that for every downhill there must be a (preferably prior) uphill; anything else is unbalanced.

But if the road is a religion, the trail is a drug, and if road cyclists hail spiritually from France, mountain bikers are from California, where they think different. Knobbly, low-pressure tyres, suspension - the sort of thing that a road cyclist gets a panic attack just thinking about. It takes a different kind of mind to be at peace with hauling unnecessary weight around.

Mountain bikers

MTB-ers come in three basic shapes; downhill, cross-country and endurance, in reverse order of their reliance on cars and body armour. Downhillers will happily accept a lift from a passing helicopter if it helps them avoid cycling uphill. Their sport is gnarly and awesome, and requires protection of an order that road racers could do with, but will never accept on aesthetic and aerodynamic grounds.

At the sharp end, the mountain bike industry is consumed by an arms race whose ultimate purpose is to produce a machine with a price tag to match anything Pinarello can sell to road racers (a moving target, but the Pinarello Dogma F8 is apparently worth every cent of €17,000 or so). At present, the ceiling for MTB-ers is held down by the amount of money a bank manager is prepared to lend someone dressed in a lumberjack shirt and talking gibberish.

The cross-country biker is a more complex soul, choosing endurance over adrenaline, but without the gratification of precise statistical analysis that sustains the road rider.

No two miles are the same, no experiences directly comparable. It's all there to be stored, shared and re-lived in the pub. Perhaps more than any other form of cycling, it's where sport, leisure and lifestyle meet.

Cargo Bikers

In the spirit of inclusivity, cargo bikers rate a mention as the lost tribe of freight-carrying cyclists. Often described as 'a great alternative to a second car', (though actually more expensive), cargo bikes are usually made in Holland, and are popular in low population-growth areas such as Dublin's Ranelagh for transporting children.

Irish Independent

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