In Defense Of: The Fred
One of the defining online content types Online in 2018 was the Hot Take. In an obvious and selfish attempt to capitalize on this trend, and in order to drive clicks and shares to this bike website, I am happy to introduce a new segment I’m calling: ‘In Defense Of’. Please share this on all your social media with your own take about my take, especially if you are mad about my take. Thank you. —Cullen MacDonald
PS: friend of the squad, Danielle, also wrote a similarly titled but more eloquent piece on the same topic this week. You should definitely read it on Medium.
A few weeks ago, while going crosseyed through some threshold work on my trainer, I started thinking about all the decisions in life that lead me to that moment. The reality is that I can draw a clear line from “riding 10 miles for the first time” to “riding a bike inside while looking at a digital representation of myself riding outside all so I could maybe get some kind of result in an extremely amateur bike race in March.”
Along that line, at some point the struggle and the fuss of Taking Bikes Seriously became part of the fun of the sport. Now I have some goals around specific races, and around specific things I want to buy to put onto my body or my bike to make me go faster. But if I am honest, I also want to buy some of those things because they make me look more like a bike racer. Why do I care whether I look like a bike racer? At one point in my cycling ‘career’ I would have said it was because I didn’t want to look like a ‘Fred’. So what is a ‘Fred’? A website I had never been to before until I searched the internet for a definition of ‘Fred’ describes it like this:
"Fred" is a derisive term used by "serious" road cyclists to describe other cyclists who do not conform to serious road cyclists' norms with regard to dress and equipment, and appear amateurish to them. The term is generally reserved for men, while the rare female Fred is sometimes called a "Doris."
I think the main thing in this definition is the notion that looking like an amateur is “bad.” I’ve never heard anyone explain why exactly that is, but I have some ideas. Here’s one, at least somewhat reasonable take: in a bike race, especially in a Category 4 or Category 5 bike race, I know to avoid being around the racer with the floppy number-pin job, or with the too low socks, or with the baggy jersey. Obviously I’m not concerned about being near them because of how they look. I have learned to avoid them because the way they look sends a signal: “Hey watch out for me I’m new at this admittedly dangerous sport and there’s a chance I’m going to fuck up and crash.” This isn’t always the case, of course – more and more “serious” ‘non-Fred’ racer types (pros, even!) are adopting the look and feel traditionally associated with the Fred (hello street clothes while riding road bikes). But at times avoiding someone in a race that looks ‘new’ involves legitimate self-preservation concerns.
But more often than not, ‘Fred’ has to do more with aesthetics (and elitism) than safety. Which contributes to ‘Freds’ thinking that they need to do the ‘right’ things to overcome their perceived ‘Fredness’: some of them will read The Rules; they will say “Gilet” instead of “vest” and “bidon” instead of “water bottle”; they might try to go without a saddle bag and they may avoid frame-pumps. With the benefit of hindsight, by and large these are not the things to worry about when you are new at bikes. But they are front and center thanks to The Rules and the like. And when you’re new at a thing, it’s hard to notice the things that actually matter. Rather you do the things that you happen to notice – all in the name of fitting in, because you don’t want someone to call you a ‘Fred’.
Getting better at bikes - and getting better at looking like you are good at bikes - can take some time. But for better (or arguably for worse) new racers often eventually start to meld into the aesthetic the sport has established for what looking good at bikes looks like (that or they burn out on the sport, and it’s culture, and find a different hobby). Eventually you figure out what parts of The Rules actually matter (not many!) and maybe you start noticing newer cyclists doing things you used to do, and you cringe a little. And maybe you’ll whisper to yourself, “Hey I did it!”, congratulating yourself for being wiser and more experienced. But then in a year you will look back at right now and you’ll cringe a little at how you thought you figured it out when in reality you definitely hadn’t.
Which brings me to the main point: if you think about it, we’re all ‘Freds’. “No I’m not!” you’ll probably say to me in the comments. But you know that you are because your bar tape isn’t that great right now, or maybe because you’re afraid to put a saddle bag on your bike for long rides with your friends because you read The Rules too many times when you first started riding. But, what if being a ‘Fred’ is actually the right way to do it?
What if being declared a ‘Fred’ simply means you really like this weird sport that you picked up too recently to have adapted all of its niche social and aesthetic norms? What if ‘Freds’ are the embodiment of the best elements of the sport that we fell in love with when we first started doing it. Of course by some arbitrary definition of ‘pro-ness’ (whatever that means) someone could argue that ‘Freds’ look dumb as hell. But come on, they’re having fun – completely blind love for a fun, niche thing that they just discovered. Contrast that with my situation during that indoor threshold workout a few weeks ago - thrashing myself in a virtual world in the hope of getting a good result in a local amateur bike race that approximately 0.0001% of the NYC population cares about - and ask yourself who is ‘doing it right’?
So the next time you see someone with their bike computer tilted straight up, a 2 sizes too large jacket, or with no leg warmers on a 45 degree day, remember: Hey, at least they aren’t a masters racer complaining about the lack of prize money in their local bike race. Or a Cat 3 arguing online that women don’t deserve equal prize money because their fields are smaller. Remember that the person that gets dismissed as a ‘Fred’ is doing bikes because purely they are having fun, without concern for the aesthetics of looking ‘pro.’ And as good as you think you look, they’re probably going to keep doing it for longer than you.
PS - Can we please retire the term ‘Fred’
To support our embrace of our inner Fred, when we ‘knew’ so little but loved so many moments on the bike, here is a gallery of some of the images I captured my first year riding bikes: