A master’s student at the University of Alberta’s Faculty of Agricultural, Life and Environmental Sciences wrote her thesis on how people’s identities are connected to their bicycles. The findings suggest that cyclists are attached to their bikes and form strong emotional bonds with them. It’s a conclusion that won’t surprise many avid or frequent cyclists who have experienced a lot with their two-wheeled steed.
Karly Coleman is the proud owner of 15 bikes herself and wanted to explore how people express the attachment they have formed with their bikes. These attachments develop as a result of the types of experiences they have with them. Coleman interviewed 28 cyclists to explore the ways in which people’s identities become connected to the two-wheeled machines they ride.
“They all really loved their way of getting around and how they can interact with the world as a consequence of the way they’re moving through it,” Coleman explained to Metro News about the findings of her research.
As a result, cyclists were also more likely to become familiar with their city and surroundings because of riding their bike through it. “You know your neighbourhood intimately; you know the stop signs, the potholes, your neighbours, the dog that will brush the fence,” Coleman said. “It creates a way of knowing a place that is really, really strong.”
An important part of the attachment people form with their bikes is a result of the friendships they help create and the memorable experiences cyclists have on them.
“It does create a desire to ride it more frequently,” Coleman said. “You experience pleasurable memories of going out with your friends…I think that’s why people are so devastated when they are stolen.”
From her research, Coleman concluded that bicycles act as special objects in the lives of their owners in five important ways.
First, Coleman theorized that because bikes are one of the very few things from a person’s childhood that continues to be used in adulthood in a similar way, it is a powerful generator of memory and emotion. “My research found that people are really attached to their bicycles for all kinds of reasons. When they are using them to get to work, to run errands, to see friends, they encounter a different way of living that is unique and really compelling. It brings out self-sufficiency and self-reliance—which are also nostalgic feelings. A bike is one of the few things from childhood that is still used in much the same way in adulthood, so it’s a powerful generator of memory and emotion,” she explained.
Secondly, bicycles can also help create and maintain a person’s identity and riding a bike will then engage with memories of autonomy, competence and relatedness.
The third aspect of her conclusion was that riding a bike was identified with reinforcing a person’s sense of self, their personal relations and his or her community. This can help develop a strong bond to a place because of the complex ways in which a bicycle engages the senses.
The fourth part of her conclusion was related to the theory of age-grading which categorizes different periods through which individuals pass through. “It’s fascinating to me that the people I interviewed said adults didn’t ride bikes, yet every one of them is an adult riding a bike. How did that shift come for them? I think it tells us that those boundaries are changing in a way we can attribute to healthier, older baby boomers—they don’t want to sit on the sidelines,” Coleman said.
Finally, she concluded that the definition of a bicycle has evolved from what was primarily considered a toy for children to something that has become an adult object for exercise, recreation, transportation and leisure.
Cyclists who spend a considerable amount of their leisure time riding should not be surprised of these findings but the way in which they relate to our sense of community and knowledge of our cities is interesting as Canadians debate how to best implement cycling friendly infrastructure. It’s also interesting to those considering their next bike purchase as the one you pick will likely become intimately attached to the memories and friendships you create on it.
Coleman is now working on her PhD doing research on bicycle infrastructure in cities.