Cyclist. For some the very word conjures thoughts of a different being. They’re not like us. They can’t be, for they don’t obey red light laws like us. They travel at speed limits that respect the rules of the road. They expose themselves to the elements. In winter! That’s no behaviour I recognise for sure, non-bike owning humans often think.
If men are from Mars and women Venus, cyclists are from Pluto or perhaps an incomprehensible parallel universe where humans are forced to travel by means of their own energy. Banana eating, Lycra wearing pedal pushers, go back to your own planet, we don’t want you clogging up our country lanes, the Daily Mail might say.
Not that such distinctions are reserved for cyclists. We humans often struggle to comprehend anything beyond our own experience and so resort to bewilderment, disinterest or criticism.
“Don’t criticise what you don’t understand”
Bob Dylan, cyclist
We’re intellectually lazy, more often driven by emotion and so called instinct rather than rational thought. That’s why stereotypes and clichés exist. Our brain relies on such crutches like the parent who uses the television as a surrogate parent, we know it’s wrong, but hey, it’s easy.
Cycling small talk
So it is that the cyclist often hears the same old questions. Behold, the vagaries of small talk. We Brits are worse than most. Our lives are small talk. Never has a nation talked so much but said so little.
I’m often asked what I did at the weekend. Nothing is my usual reply. This is easier than trying to explain why on earth I decided to do some hill repetitions, of which I’m not entirely sure myself. Or why I woke up at 5.30am to hit the quiet roads and cycle 100 miles for the sheer hell of it. Not that being asked about my weekend is the greatest small talk sin. Oh no. What could that be?
The weather. Please, somebody, for crying out loud, talk to me about the weather. As a cyclist I know all about the weather. I check forecasts more than your average sailor and yet I still struggle to engage in weather talk, an exercise in stating the bloody obvious if ever there was one. Yes, it is cold. Yes, it is wet. Warm. Windy. Yes to all those, I exist on the same planet as you and despite your best efforts, you do not walk around in your own bubble.
The weather is the first and last resort of conversation. Which is where the bike comes in. Cyclists are easy prey for small talkers. They’ve got the weather and this bicycle thing. A perfect small talk storm. Unfortunately, the range of such conversation extends little further.
>>What did you do the weekend?
>>Rode my bike.
A look of incredulity follows. How old are you, your inquisitor wants to ask but doesn’t.
>>I did 15 laps of Regents Park
Weirdo, they, and probably other cyclists, think. Or, I rode to Brighton, I’ll say, their face equally perplexed. That’s why we made trains, they want to say, but don’t. You know, the industrial revolution and all, that’s why we no longer have to ride bikes like children.
>>That’s nice, they eventually say.
>>It’s cold today isn’t it? They finish, returning to familiar territory.
Small talk takes the path of least resistance. Thus the conversations between those who do and don’t cycle often have the hint of absurdity about them. For example.
>>Did you cycle in today? Person Y asks person X who is wearing Lycra and some sort of polystyrene basket on their head.
>>No, wrestling match, we think but don’t reply.
>>You don’t wear a helmet? Person Y will ask person X upon seeing Lycra but an uncovered head.
>>No, what about you Mr/Mrs Pedestrian, we don’t reply, repressing statistics and reality whilst muttering something about unproven science.
>>You cycle at night dressed in black? Person Y asks the shadow of a ninja before them.
>>Touché my dear pedestrian, you think, But I brake for the shadows crossing the road in between slow moving traffic. Funny how I see you eh?
>>You cycled in today? Person Y asks on a cold day, a look of incredulity on their face.
Person X nods whilst refraining from reminding person Y of the invention of clothes and gloves, of which person X is wearing three pairs.
>>Did you get wet, person Y asks a clearly soaked person X.
>>No, I ran out of clean towels and decided to drip dry after my shower, person X doesn’t reply.
>>It looks mighty dangerous out there, person Y states as if talking about some distant battlefield. Do you not get scared?
>>I could die in this conversation, person X thinks but does not say. It’s fine, person X eventually replies. Safer than walking down the stairs, they do not add.
>>You didn’t cycle today? Persons Y asks, looking at person X in ‘normal’ clothes, seemingly perplexed how you made into work.
>>No, we reply, not adding something about the existence of public transport and being able to travel just like you humans.
Without small talk there is no big talk
And yes person Y, don’t worry, most of us are rubbish at small talk. Person X gives you a hook, a theme. I understand. We’re all ships passing in the night, navigating the void of uncomfortable social silences, our panicky small talk fingers hovering above the foghorn button.
Without small talk there would be no big talk. Sadly we rarely progress beyond the infinite circular talk of weather and what we did at the weekend. Not that I’m advocating you jump straight into big talk. After all, I’d be pretty worried if somebody walked up to me and asked me for my thoughts on cognitive dissonance or began telling me about their irritable bowel.
Cut the crap
That said, it is our responsibility to raise the low bar of small talk. Think of it as a challenge. How deep can we go here? Can you get from the weather to the person telling you about their fear of digestive biscuits or some other equally revealing fact? You’d be amazed what people get up to in their lives.
Sound like hard work? Yup, it is. Maybe you’re hungover and just want some quiet. In which case, the next time your opponent makes the first move and asks you about your ride, counter with an unexpected reply, for example, it was great thanks, can’t remember his/her name though. Or if somebody asks, how you are feeling, tell them about your lactate threshold in great detail.
Whatever you do, don’t create a small talk top 10 list as recommended here. Oh dear. Or seek articles on how to be better at small talk. Take this one, which recommends asking “What does your name mean? What would you like it to mean?” To which the only reply is “Sorry did you say something? I can’t quite hear you, I’m deaf.” Or this peach: “If you could teleport by blinking your eyes, where would you go right now?” Anywhere but stood here beside you, is the only answer to this inane babble. That article is worth a read. It’s hilarious.
Where was I? Oh yes. Beautiful day isn’t it?
Small talk is a bonding ritual. We should be thankful. Monkeys bond by grooming one another for fleas and ticks. Try that at the watercooler on Monday. Oh hello boss, come here you, pick, pick, num num…
What about you? Confess your small talk sins and pet hates below.
The shit cyclists say
We’re all guilty of talking gibbering nonsense, cyclists more so than many others. How many of the lines in the video do you recognise?
Images courtesy of 1) Strava (adapted) 2) National Geographic (adapted) 3) The excellent Modern Toss 4) Unknown