If you were asked what kind of cyclist you are, what would you say? You might describe yourself as a racer, a road cyclist, a leisure cyclist, or even a serious cyclist. But I would bet your entire collection of bikes – and mine – that you would never say out loud to a total stranger: “I am a performance cyclist.”
I am nearing the end of writing and editing text for the new London Dynamo website, a long process which has involved expunging the “p” word from all our public-facing wording. Internally, Dynamo likes to describe itself as a performance-oriented club, which I suppose is a reasonable expression of how it cultivates a narrow band of high-performing riders which can inspire the rest of the membership and give aspirational or more talented members something to aim for. Externally, though, it can give the impression that we are all data-driven wattage nerds, which most of us are not. Sport-oriented is a simpler and clearer definition of Dynamo.
How did the ‘p’ word become ubiquitous? It’s origin can be traced to a familiar source. “Performance Roadwear” became Rapha’s slogan, even though its co-founder originally thought the term was “a slightly pompous piece of marketing copy” which he bunged underneath the brand’s logo simply to complete its design. Despite this, performance quickly became a way of denoting special features such as ventilated panels or an aerodynamic cut, which meant that the word functioned as a polite way of saying expensive. But the popularity of cycling and the consequent falling prices are now eroding that definition: for less than £45, you can buy a performance jersey and bib shorts from Aldi, and even Rapha’s performance sunnies are a relatively inexpensive £140.
When Halfords, Evans and other Johnny-come-latelys moved into the high-end bike market, smaller retailers branded themselves as performance businesses, targeting riders who were prepared to pay for a tailored, personalised service. Today, physios, chiros, personal trainers and all kinds of small, secondary businesses use “performance cyclist” or a similar term. And in this context, performance provides a useful differentiation: it tells customers they can provide them with an evidence-based explanation of how their body can perform better on a bicycle.
But what works as a branding tool fails to translate on an interpersonal level. Performance is bit like hipster: a word used to define others rather than a term a person would use to describe themselves. And coming from a newspaper background, I choose words a bit like a directeur sportif picks riders. A sentence or a phrase is a team of words working together. Performance doesn’t perform, so it has to be dropped.