Things you notice when cycling #2 – the Hidden Hierarchy

Posted April 18, 2011 in ephemera  |  2 Comments so far

I’ve been a cyclist for a few months and am still learning about bike practise and etiquette in London. I posted before about the Easy Rider, a type of cyclist that you encounter a lot. But the Easy Rider occupies just a small niche in the broader community of bikers, a community that has its secret rules, signs and codes. It’s these signs and codes that make up the “Hidden Hierarchy” of London cyclists.

It was in September 2010 that I first cycled properly in London, getting on one of the best road bikes near the IMAX and wobbling uncertainly across Waterloo Bridge. I didn’t realise that I’d entered the hidden hierarchy at its very lowest level and had become an untouchable of the roads. When I look back I almost wince with shame. But why does this matter? And what is the hidden hierarchy anyway?

Boris on his bike

Don’t follow him down a dark alley

The hidden hierarchy is something you start to get a feel for the more you cycle, and while it’s easily mistaken for basic snobbery it’s more than just the class system on two wheels. In fact it can be pretty helpful in certain situations. The way it works is that you gauge the trustworthiness or seriousness of other cyclists all the time, largely subconsciously, and figure out where they stand in the hierarchy. This then affects how you behave towards them. Do you follow their lead on scary unfamiliar roundabouts? Do you wait behind them if they’ve parked up behind traffic? Should you try to move ahead of them when pulling away from traffic lights?

You can work out someone’s position on the hidden hierarchy using various criteria, including:

  • Do they look like they know where they’re going?
  • Do they seem confident in their interactions with traffic?
  • Do they travel at a decent but responsible speed?
  • Are they dressed sensibly and safely?
  • What kind of bike are they on?
  • Are they riding in an appropriate gear, or are their legs pumping wildly even though they’re only doing 6mph?

The hidden hierarchy isn’t about whether someone is wearing expensive cycle gear or if they’re on a sleek and expensive bike. People like that can seem inappropriately overequipped, like men who bring their own snooker cues to play 50p frames of pool in soggy pubs. If anything the most trustworthy people tend to have older, well-worn equipment whose battered state makes them look like people who have been around the block a few times.

A bit overdressed

A bit overdressed for a 20-minute ride

Here’s an example of the hidden hierarchy at work. When I started cycling I was nervous about moving through traffic jams. I didn’t have a feel for how big a gap I could get through and my balance wasn’t great either, so I worried about hitting cars. So usually I would just wait in the jam, as if I was a car, rather than take the risk of moving through the gaps.

Now imagine an experienced cyclist saw me, with no helmet and wearing normal clothes, sitting awkwardly on a Boris bike in front of a big gap between two buses. They’d probably try to get past me and move through the gap without hesitation. It wouldn’t trouble them that someone as low-level as me has decided to wait. But what if the person waiting at the gap looked like a veteran cyclist? Maybe they knew something was up – maybe there’s danger ahead? The cyclist might think twice, and maybe even decide to stay back as well. When someone doesn’t look, ride, or behave like a bewildered novice, their actions will have a stronger influence on everyone else.

The more I cycled the more I understood the hierarchy, and found myself taking cues from people who seemed savvier than myself. Today I don’t look for guidance as much, but the hierarchy has other effects, such as on my position at traffic lights or deciding whether to overtake someone.

But I often wonder how others perceive me. After all, I ride a fold-up bike so people must think I’m pretty low down on the cyclist food chain. Is that a problem? I’m not sure it is. If you start to care about the hidden hierarchy, and go out of your way to look the part, you’re in danger of becoming one of those conspicuously overequipped fanatics I mentioned earlier, in which case your credibility will suffer. Maybe there’s only one true way to rise in the hidden hierarchy: just try not to care about the hidden hierarchy.

2 comments so far.  Post a comment

  1. April 18, 2011 at 7:46 pm [ Permalink

    Hurrah for bicycling. Of note: you’d be surprised how much better an amazing bike is.

  2. October 12, 2011 at 2:34 pm [ Permalink

    There are hidden depths here that you have only just started to plumb. There’s not just one hidden hierarchy, there are several. You’ve noticed the people who equip themselves like professional bike racers—you can hardly miss them. But there are other groups who react against this tendency. Some express their contempt for the speed weenies by cycling as stylishly as possible (London Cycle Chic), others affect a robust no-frills practicality (Real Cycling), and some just like to pour scorn on everyone (Bike Snob).

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