QUESTION: Is there any difference between biking and cycling? I’ve heard it both ways, but I’ve also heard a guy in a group ride say something about he’s not a biker, he’s a cyclist. What gives? —Leo R.
RBR’S STAN PURDUM REPLIES: In the bicycling world, biking and cycling, as well as the related terms, biker and cyclist, are, to a large degree, interchangeable, though participants in various bicycling activities seem to prefer one over the other. Where some confusion is possible is when including motorcyclists in the discussion.
This is not surprising since virtually all the early motorcycles started out as motors attached to bicycles and were sometimes even called motor-bicycles. In his article “The World’s First Motorcycle,” Herbert Wagner, writes, “Before the motorcycle of today could come into existence, the ‘safety’ bicycle had to be invented first. This modern form of bicycle was developed in Great Britain during the late 1880s and became popular in the United States shortly thereafter.”
He continues, “Consisting of a lightweight, diamond-shaped frame fabricated from thin, seamless tubing, with chain-drive pedal gearing, pneumatic tires and light, wire-spoke wheels of equal size spinning on precision ball bearings inside finely honed races, the safety bicycle was the necessary platform that would make the modern motorcycle possible.”
Wagner also credits the American inventor Edward Joel Pennington with first coining the term “The Motor Cycle” in 1893 to describe his gasoline-powered bicycle.
In any case, motorcyclists call themselves “bikers” and talk about their “bikes,” so bicyclists often distinguish their activities with words like cycling, cyclist, bicycling, bicycle, etc. Since I write a lot about bicycling, in print, I almost never use “biker” to refer to a bicyclist, preferring “cyclist,” “rider,” “bicyclist” or some term related to their field of cycling, such as “racer” or “tourist.”
In informal speech, however, especially with other cyclists, I’m not as careful, and my two-wheeled steed is a “bike,” both in speech and in print. In speech, most bicyclists rely on context to clarify that they are talking about their bicycle, not a motorcycle.
Though there are no hard-and-fast rules, within the world of bicycling, “biking” is more likely to be used related to activities best ridden on a mountain bike, generally off-road, on trails and sometimes on singletrack (a path approximately the width of a bike).
Again, within the world of bicycling, most competitive sports are likely to be branded as “cycling” events — road cycling, track cycling, etc.
Both “cycling” and “biking” seem to be used interchangeably for riding a bicycle on gravel, but that activity is developing its own lingo, with gravel riding often called “gravel grinding.”
You aren’t wrong applying either cycling or biking to bicycle activities, but as you begin to favor one type of bicycling over another, you’ll likely naturally employ the vocabulary most commonly used in your chosen field.
On one bicycle ride, I stopped at a scenic overlook to take in the sights. There was a motorcyclist already there, and we soon fell into conversation about what a splendid day it was to ride and what a great route we were on. Later, I wrote about that ride, where I described myself as a cyclist and my conversation partner as a biker. I think my readers understood the difference.
Stan Purdum has ridden several long-distance bike trips, including an across-America ride recounted in his book Roll Around Heaven All Day, and a trek on U.S. 62, from Niagara Falls, New York, to El Paso, Texas, the subject of his book Playing in Traffic. Stan, a freelance writer and editor, lives in Ohio. See more at www.StanPurdum.com.