This blog begins with two short anecdotes from recent rides.
The first: a relaxed morning road ride, watching the city wake up, balloons in the air, chatter coming from in front, behind and by my side. Then, one by one, a number of riders started sprinting up the side of the bunch, pulled wide, snapped a photo or three from their smart phones, then dropped back into the bunch again.
We reached the top of a hill. More photos. A green grassy section, one or two more. An obstacle, more. Post ride, still more.
There was someone on the ride who I hadn’t met before, but wanted to chat to. A good rider, an ambassador for the sport, someone ‘insta-famous’. During a brief pause while we waited for the bunch to regroup I rode toward her to say hi.
I stopped a few metres short. She was looking down at her phone. Not wanting to interrupt (phones have that effect), I felt a little sad that this is normal behaviour for so many people now. I had an enjoyable chat with someone else.
The second anecdote comes from a mountain bike ride. My second ride on a brand new bike. My first ride in a new location. The riding was super technical, my fellow riders highly skilled, their clothes brightly coloured. The landscape was a dramatic mix of dark browns and bright greens, the result of recent rain and a less-recent bushfire. Add some sunset light and it was a bike photographer’s paradise.
Half way through the ride I found myself saying how glad I was that I’d forgotten my camera. Instead of pausing for images, we rode, we laughed, we tried new things. We met other riders and received a guided tour down a second, flowy descent.
Again, I did a double take. You can only be glad about forgetting your camera if interrupting the action with photos has become synonymous with going for a ride in the first place. At least for some people. You’ve probably stopped reading this unless you're starting to query the positive aspects of this practise too.
The appeal for these social bike snaps is what makes them so tricky to judge. They have quickly become a key part of most brands’ marketing strategies and they are a crucial practise for sponsored riders and ambassadors. In cases like the first ride I described above, they’re an enjoyable way for a good number of us to share what we do, what we enjoy, and who we enjoy doing it with.
The social documenting of the sport has dramatically raised the profile of women’s cycling, niche brands and riders who enjoy cycling as a lifestyle rather than for competitive aims. But it’s not always healthy.
Following a peak in social media use and a new industry of influencers, every day people who have amassed a significant following, a backlash has begun. Essena O’Neill’s withdrawal from Instagram is one such example. She blew off her huge fan base by re-captioning images with explanations about how constructed they were. She pushed a new message: “Social media is not real life”.
Following a short lived media storm, O’Neill’s account is now private and she is embarking on other projects using the skills she developed during the first one.
So what is real? What’s real at the moment is that some people are spending more time photographing their bikes than riding them. They’re taking detours, stalling and, in extreme cases, sabotaging rides to collect images that convey the morning’s experiences. They’re putting other riders and themselves in danger as they ride with one hand and try to capture an image with the other, while swinging into the car lane.
Sometimes people make me feel like being seen on ride is more important than the ride. Other times they make me feel that their own ride experience is more valuable than the experience of the cyclists around them.
I write this article fully aware that I’m far from guilt free in this regard. I justify these actions in the name of work, and in doing so I make it harder than it needs to be. I carry an actual camera with me in addition to my phone. And rather than post them straight away, I take the time to edit these images before sharing them.
The only reason the rider in the image at the top of this page is standing there all alone taking a photograph with her phone is because I’d already pulled the ride off the road, and onto a nearby path to capture an arty silhouette of someone riding against a vibrant sunrise. Embarressed by my actions, I've been taking steps to reduce the impact of my work life on other people's 'bike lives' ever since.
So how much is too much? When are photos adding to the positive experiences had through riding and when are they detracting from it?
As we ‘like’ and consume these images we favour and encourage the inspirational narratives. It’s as though every moment of every day is supposed to be extraordinary rather than ordinary.
In contrast, I’ve been struck by the less positive narratives that are the subject of catch ups with friends both on the bike and at coffee afterwards. Serious life events, medical issues, work instability, relationship break ups and breakdowns. The things we don’t talk about via social media, but (often) really need to talk about.
If you feel anxious until you’ve grabbed a photo from the day’s ride, genuinely feel that a blurry nine-photo selfie montage is better than a single shot, or you are constantly scanning the landscape for the next opportunity at the expense of relaxing, watching the road and properly listening to your fellow riders, it might be time to set some boundaries.
I’m not saying ‘no more’. Rather, as the New Year’s resolution period hits, consider a less is more approach. Consider pulling out your phone once a ride, rather than several times. Pick the rides you want to document and the rides where you leave your phone tucked away. Tell other riders if their actions make you feel uncomfortable.
Before you grab the next image, on a ride, of your kids, at your mate's wedding, of a delcious meal, because you went outside or did a thing, quickly ask yourself: do I really need it? Is it adding something to my day? Is it adding to the days of others? If the answer is yes, go for it. If you're unsure, consider whether something else might be better: a chat, some company, observing, a return to basics, a return to the reasons we enjoy things in the first place.