Socialism might arrive by bicycle, but it won't be wearing Lycra

October 17, 2017

I’ve never been able to articulate it properly, but for a long time I’ve felt that there’s something about cycling that embodies and encourages socialist (or at least egalitarian) principles. Conversely, there’s something about car ownership, and especially 4x4 ownership, that seems to correlate with capitalism and selfishness. Essentially, I’m thinking of the contrast between Jeremy Corbyn and Jeremy Clarkson. Quite apart from the environmental aspects and connections of cycling, the cyclist holds the means of production of forward movement, and surely there’s something Marxist in that, by comparison with the power that a driver inherits from a car.

Perhaps I’m in danger of being a typical self-righteous cyclist, but I think that cyclists tend to be more connected to their surroundings than car drivers, more invested in their communities, more likely to stop and help someone with a puncture. At this point I should make it clear that I drive a car and ride a bike. Not at the same time, obviously, but I try to see both sides of this false dichotomy. If your mode of transport is human-powered, human-scale, you don’t just see the weather and the landscape as something you pass through - you experience them, sometimes viscerally. By comparison, shutting yourself away in a metal box tends to isolate you from your fellow travellers, to put up barriers between you and your surroundings. One thing about cycling, especially in a city, is that it provides near-constant reminders of the fragility of human existence. Meanwhile, some car drivers try to give themselves the illusion that a large vehicle can insulate them against the world, and protect them from danger. in a city we need to get along, and when we recognise our own vulnerability we’re more likely to recognise our need for help from others, and by extension more likely to see the need for public services. Those services need to be paid for, although let’s not mention ‘road tax’ when discussing differences between the attitudes of cyclists and drivers.

Maybe this is all just wishful thinking - I’m a cyclist, my politics are more or less socialist, and for some reason I want the two things to be connected. Do I have any evidence to back this theory? On the contrary, there are plenty of selfish cyclists, and there are plenty of city boys who have swapped Porsches for Pinarellos, FPKWs storming along the Albert Embankment with all the gear, and no idea. It may be that “socialism can only arrive by bicycle”, but it seems a fair bet that it won’t be on a carbon frame road bike, wearing Rapha. Sometimes it seems like cycling is in danger of becoming just another thing for people to spend large sums of money on - or if you prefer, the new golf.

It’s no longer true, if indeed it ever was, to say that cycling represents some loftier ideal. For every stereotype about Audi and BMW drivers, there’s another about couriers and Lycra louts, and there seems to be something individualistic about cycling itself. Coming back to politics, while Jeremy Corbyn might ride a bike, so does Boris Johnson. While I don’t believe that David Cameron really did, beyond a few carefully stage-managed photo opportunities, the left can’t claim that cycling is for plebs.

So perhaps cycling isn’t necessarily socialist, but as somebody once said in another context, “to those dead souls in their metal coffins, we show them that the human spirit is still alive”. Gliding past those stationary drivers stuck in traffic, the cyclist is free, going his or her own way, and as H.G. Wells may or may not have said, “When I see an adult on a bicycle, I do not despair for the future of the human race.”