Cheap and Easy: The Fundamental Problem of Cycling

Here in the United States, today is Columbus Day, which marks the occasion of Christopher Columbus's arrival in the Americas. Many years ago, this was an innocent and simple holiday that meant you got to stay home from work or school, and like a Shimano STI shifter most people just used it without really worrying about the mechanics behind it. However, just as some people refuse to use a bicycle component that is not rebuildable, some people will not accept a day off if the reason behind it is in any way questionable. And Columbus Day was questionable because, not only did Columbus seem to be getting too much credit for something Lief Ericson did like 500 years before him, but also because Columbus appeared to represent the arrival of European imperialism and its payload of disease, slavery, war, and greed. (Politically correct Americans alternately denounce Europeans for their imperialism and ethnocentrism and laud them for their progressiveness and social responsibility, depending on what they're complaining about at that moment.) Eventually, though, Americans managed to rationalize Columbus Day by agreeing that it's OK to celebrate it as long as you do so in the name of Italian-American pride and not in the name of colonization, just as it's OK for the Shimano-hater to use an STI shifter as long as it's on some secondary or tertiary bike and the main bike has either Campagnolo or SRAM.

Given our complicated relationship with holidays and with Europe, it's no surprise that we also have a complicated relationship with cycling. Just as it can be difficult to convince people to simply take the day off, it's also difficult to convince people in this country to get on a bike, even though it's enjoyable, practical, and (at least once you've paid for the bike) free. Furthermore, unlike Columbus Day, there's not even any moral ambiguity involved; here in America, many of our ancestors were slaves, but very few of them were oppressed by cyclists. Still, it seems people are constantly trying to figure out why Americans won't ride bikes for transportation, and according to an article in Scientific American which was forwarded to me by a reader it's because the whole endeavor is too manly:

In fact, if you're a woman reading this, you may be flattered to know that when it comes to cycling in America you're actually an "indicator species," like a harbor seal in the Puget Sound:

Women are considered an “indicator species” for bike-friendly cities for several reasons. First, studies across disciplines as disparate as criminology and child rearing have shown that women are more averse to risk than men. In the cycling arena, that risk aversion translates into increased demand for safe bike infrastructure as a prerequisite for riding. Women also do most of the child care and household shopping, which means these bike routes need to be organized around practical urban destinations to make a difference.

It certainly makes sense to me that more people (and perhaps even harbor seals) would ride if there was a safer "bike infrastructure," and it also makes sense that such an infrastructure should be "organized around practical urban destinations." And who can deny that what little "bike infrastructure" we have is hopelessly masculine? It's virtually impossible to follow a bike lane here in America without winding up at a gun shop, bowling alley, or Home Depot. If only more of them led to nail salons and maternity shops then perhaps we'd be living in the cycling idyll which is, apparently, Holland. (Their invaluable contribution to the slave trade notwithstanding.)

Still, the article does make a good point, which is that to be a cyclist in America it can often seem as though one has to be a daredevil or an outlaw (or at least dress like one), and I suppose that's usually a "guy" thing. However, I can't help feeling that this is less due to gender differences than it is about or fundamental inability as consumers to do anything without building an identity around it or buying a bunch of accessories for it. For example, back in the age of the guilt-free Columbus Day, people bought sneakers in order to participate in athletics. Now, we have "sneaker culture," in which the whole point is to collect the sneaker, and for which the athletics simply serve as a marketing tool.

So when it come to cycling, this means that if you want to get around your city by bike you'll need not only an acceptably fashionable bike but also cycling-themed apparel and accessories that aren't especially cycling-specific apart from the fact they either have pictures of bikes on them or they're sold in or near places that also sell bicycles. Consider for instance the Cadence "Sace," which is a small bag you hang from your larger bag, or a pocket you hang from your pants that already have pockets:

This is absolutely essential if you regularly carry precious jewels and your existing bag and pants aren't already lined with silk, or if you prefer to make your purchases with gilded coins instead of dirty cash or tacky plastic credit cards and require a suitably precious coin purse. Actually, if anything urban cycling in this country has long ago bypassed "outlaw" and is now solidly in the "swashbuckling dandy" phase.

So really, the problem isn't that cycling is too risky and masculine; it's just that the majority of Americans still haven't figured out how to package themselves while they're doing it. As one person quoted in the Scientific American article points out, women need to learn that they can “jump on a bike the way they jump in a car.” This is certainly true of all people, not just women. As long as you're in or near your car you can look as crappy as you want since you're still displaying your status as a consumer. However, even proponents of casual, non-athletic, practical cycling such as the Dutch city bike cabal still have to dress themselves up like Thurston Howell and Lovey from "Gilligan's Island" in order to make sure their bicycle use is taken in the proper context.

So even if cycling becomes safe and drenched in estrogen and all the bike lanes are sheltered and feature spas every quarter of a mile, I can't help but wonder if we will be able to surrender our carefully "curated" consumer identities in order to do it. Unfortunately, it seems instead that we prefer to treat every ride like a narrative which tells the "epic" tale of our savvy fashion choices and athletic accomplishments. Take this video, which has been making the rounds recently, and which tells the inspiring tale of some people who managed to ride their track bikes from London to Paris in order to slaver all over Lance Armstrong:

LONDON TO PARIS from Amazing Grace on Vimeo.

If the simple act of recreational cycling warrants this sort of mythologizing then there's no way the average person is going to feel comfortable simply hopping on a bicycle without sufficient backstory or an adequately expensive wardrobe. Incidentally, fixed-gear riders really should stop congratulating themselves for riding their bicycles more than a few miles at a time, especially since they stop pedaling just as much as riders with freewheels. I see "hipster coasting" all over New York City, and I spotted at least two instances of it in this video. Here's one of them:

Of course, while I think it's less our gender differences and more our obsession with image in general that makes it difficult for Americans to accept cycling, it's certainly true that in this country cycling does seem to involve a lot of studiously "manly" and quasi-risky behavior. One of the most aggressive purveyors of this is MASH. Here they are riding the Tour of California route and proving that, in the absence of an actual adversity, you can create the illusion of adversity by riding an inappropriate bicycle:

PREVIEW: MASH Tour of California 2009 from MASH TRANSIT PRODUCTIONS on Vimeo.

However, even the ostensible masculinity of cycling is often only an illusion created by soundtrack and colorway choice. Just replace punishing guitars and guttural vocals with a song by everybody's favorite band, Ponytail, and the effect is quite different:

(I also buried an Albert Brooks reference in there if you listen carefully.)

Now, your eye is drawn away from the black kits and gear-mashing and towards the pretty scenery and the absurdly comical spinning. Furthermore, you realize they're less an army of fixed-gear avengers than they are some guys in lycra having a good time. It's just that, in order to sell that good time, they've couched it in the aesthetic of pain.

Really, the biggest challenge we face is figuring out how to ride our bikes while maintaining the illusion that we're special. For some of us, the truth that we're not is even scarier than all that motor vehicle traffic.

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