Not far from where the pancake plains of Flemish Belgium meet the waffled mountains of the French speaking Ardennes, is the small city of Leuven. A charming city injected with the vibrancy of a large university population. A place of harmony where old buildings stand alongside modern sculptures. Where the rundown building of a giant beer corporation becomes a squat house with live music on Sundays. A place where high end shopping is around the corner from a bakery with no name. It was living here that gave me the chance to study local cycling culture up close. Before long patterns emerged and I found that you could generally categorise cyclists into 4 different groups – Cruisers, Chameleons, Billboards, and Salamis.
Cruisers, bolstered by a large university population, make up the highest percentage of the cycling demographic. Cruisers are the everyday folk who use the bike as a means to an end. Their bikes are generally old and of low value. No great loss if it is stolen, just steal someone else’s in return. The functionality is high with child seats, baskets for groceries, and back racks for storage and carrying friends around town. Of the many uni Cruisers, most are casual and funky young women, due to a large unexplained gender imbalance. They are mainly seen on weekdays, deserting the city on weekends to return to their family hometowns. Workers avoid high parking prices and the tangled mess of one way streets by taking their bike instead. It would not be uncommon to see dressed up parents cycling to work and dropping off up to 3 kids at the school gates en route. In Leuven the elderly are not content to sit around knitting granny squares, and also make up a surprising chunk of Cruisers.
Chameleons are a small but growing group, and can easily take on the appearance of Cruisers or Salamis. A closer look however will reveal that the bicycles are battery assisted. They allow the older, unfit, or lazy to get around town without needing a more expensive and noisier motor powered vehicle.
Billboards are the most serious of cyclists. They go to great lengths to distance themselves from all other parts of society by creating their own dress code. Specialist clip-in shoes, sunglasses, tight fitting shorts, and multi-coloured jerseys are mandatory. The more garish colours, the better. Billboards will save up their money to invest in specialist lightweight parts, in their never-ending quest for more speed. They are most prominent on weekends where they can be seen solo or in groups whizzing along a canal, with one eye always on the odometer. In an attempt to mimic their heroes, their jerseys become advertising space for The Discovery Channel, or the latest sponsors of the Tour de France. Their bikes are never used for functional purposes such as carrying things around town, and their narrow, pizza slicing wheels are never taken off road. The bikes are very expensive and are not left out of sight alongside Cruiser’s bikes, even when locked. Billboards can range from the young to the very old, but 99 times out 100, they will be male.
Salamis are the wannabe Billboards. They have the same dress code as the Billboards, and the same fetish for speed. Like salamis ready to explode they squeeze their hefty bodies into tight outfits, and ignoring the laws of physics, ride the same specialist, lightweight bicycles. Never mind that they are carrying an extra 20 kilograms on their belly, they choose to focus on the extra speed gained by buying a 200 gram lighter carbon fibre seat post.
Before long I had become another Leuven Cruiser, spinning around town on Zoa’s old mountain bike. I would feel rather smitten with my wire basket full of fresh fruit and veg. No motor, no plastic required. Go me. One particularly brilliant summer’s day would see me taking a traffic light crossing too hard and fast, the basket’s zip ties snapping clean off, leaving groceries sprawled all across the road. I salvaged what I could and pushed the rest of the way home trying to ignore the long line-up of cars I had created, my ego as bruised as my fruit. As it turned out the now reinforced wire basket was also a handy size for other endeavors. For a small price, a trip to the local brewery allowed me to swap a crate full of empty bottles for a full one. Like a child taking an extra long stride to crunch an autumn leaf, I would twist the handlebars of my bike to make sure the glass bottles filled with beer jingled over every hump and gutter. The sound may not be the cure for depression, but it’s not a bad start. From there, we would test her limits, on one occasion carrying a bed frame to the next village, on others trialing our 15kg dog Paco in the basket on neighborhood trips and off-road adventures. A born again cyclist, ready to bore the world with tales of happiness.