Between hysterical sobs, the men and women of the Yearning for Fixie Zen sect in rural San Francisco pleaded for the return of their bicycles from state custody.
When conversations with reporters shifted away from the 416 bicycles in state custody toward touchier subjects surrounding the mysterious sect, however, the overflowing emotions were quickly replaced with blank stares and terse replies.
Clad in tight “shants” and carrying huge “messenger” bags, the cyclists stuck to monotone, emotionless responses in declining to answer reporters’ questions concerning allegations that they festoon their bikes with top tube pads and spoke cards.
Asked whether they actually eschew car ownership, a tight-lipped woman who would only give her first name, Marilyn, gave what appeared to be a rehearsed response. “We are talking about our bicycles now,” she said, shaking her head, unwilling to stray from the subject of her five bikes.
To outsiders, everything about these people is strange — from the way they dress to the way they talk and especially the way they live. To the uninitiated, it may even appear that these cyclists must be brainwashed to live without cars.
“Do you know the definition of Car Free Living?” responded Marie, when asked by a reporter what getting around by bicycle is really like. “Heaven on Earth.”
It’s an extreme statement, and the members of the sect have begun to realize that their devotion to their lifestyle is unusual to those on the outside.
So, are these cyclists just fanatically, independently religious, or are they victims of something more sinister, like mind control? Mental health professionals told Cyclelicious that it may all depend on how you define brainwashing.
Brainwashed or True Believers
“Just because they are different doesn’t mean they’ve been brainwashed,” said H. Newton Malony, a senior professor of psychology at the Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena, Calif. “Brainwashing occurs when a person is physically incarcerated in order to believe something. As far as we know,” said Malony,” these cyclists have not been held against their will, but rather, have grown up in the sect and have become socialized to its customs.”
“Are these cyclists just parroting strong pleasure or is this a strong religious conviction?” asked Malony. “I doubt it; they grew up in this environment. This is just an example of a different culture.”
Nancy Ammerman, professor of the sociology of religion at Boston University and author of Bike Believers: Human powered in the Modern World, also discourages the labeling of fixed gear enthusiasts as victims of brainwashing.
“What you see is people, who have spent their lives talking to only each other, now suddenly talking to reporters and people on the outside,” said Ammerman. “They develop a group jargon and a particular posture. Their gestures, their language, is all going to look like each other because they are so tied to each other. That’s not because someone has forced them to do that — it’s simply coming out of living together in a relatively isolated kind of situation where they’re not interacting with a lot of people,” added Ammerman. “You’d find the same thing if you interviewed clustered nuns.”
But in his own counseling experience, cult specialize Joe Szimhart said he’s seen individuals start riding bicycles as a result of their naivete, not because they were incarcerated. “Someone convinces a group that what they’re saying is the truth, and the group is too naive to question it properly,” said Szimhart. “Riding a bike is like having an illness or a sickness.”
California authorities took the 416 bicycles into state custody for what may become the largest transportation rights battle in the nation’s history, stemming from a reported phone call from a teen girl claiming that her parents refused to get a drivers license for her, forcing her to ride a 40 year old Schwinn Varsity fixie conversion. The cyclists are now clamoring to get their bicycles back.
“Fixed gear riders have a chosen way of life that is different from mainstream automotive culture,” said Ammerman. “Until they step over the line of the law, American culture and American constitutional law protects their right to do odd things in the name of human powered transportation.”
Note: After I wrote this I realized it may appear that I make light of the situation faced by the women and children of the “Yearning for Zion Ranch” in Texas. In spite of the “fair and balanced” view given in the NBC news article I’m parodying here, the FLDS church is abusive, controlling and cultic in its treatment of members.