The idea here is that “cyclist” is not just a neutral word for a person on a bike. Instead, all sorts of extra meanings have become attached to it.
For certain people it has become a sort of horrid boo-word. “Cyclists” are those vile people who hold you up on the way to work, those demanding brats who are indulged with cycle paths and then don’t use them. “Cyclists” are endlessly whinging highway incompetents. “Cyclists” wear funny clothes, don’t pay enough tax, yada yada yada.
For certain other people, “cyclist” is a wholly positive term. It is what the sociologists call an “identity” – identity is part of “who you are” and threats to identity are painful and will be resisted.
For example, the lovely Dave Horton has recently suggested that if everyday utility cycling becomes the norm in the UK, then perhaps some current “cycling identities” will no longer be viable, because they are founded on cycling being a bit of a struggle, on those who cycle against the odds being rather heroic. Riding a bike won’t be special anymore. Being a reflective social scientist, he is aware that he has mixed feelings about this and can deal with them. Perhaps others cannot and perhaps identity-threat is involved in some of the vicious infighting which I gather has been a long-standing feature of the UK cycle-advocacy scene?
Anyway, to go back to language, the thing is that the word “cyclist”, in the current linguistic environment, suggests membership of a some sort of “group” and whether stigmatized or lauded it is a minority group. This is not what we want – what we want is cycling to become more like walking. It is rare for someone to have an identity as a “pedestrian” – I used to identify strongly as a “walker” but I’d never have called myself a “hardcore pedestrian” – it is not a real category, it’s just what everyone does when they’re not doing something else.
Even as things stand, a few minutes observation of the roads of central Bristol show that even now not everyone who pedals past is a “cyclist”. Saddles at the wrong height, gears all over the place, flapping trouser legs, bearings just screaming for some lube – there are clearly plenty of bikes whose owners regard them as mere transport rather than members of the family.
Yup. “People who ride bikes” is in many cases the phrase to use in preference to “cyclists”. However, there are probably more important verbal tweaks. Ding! Next!