As I draw Bicycle Week to a close, it occurs to me what a prominent role bikes have played in my own life, something I’d never really thought about until now.
When I was five years old I learned to ride in a day — no training wheels for this boy. The bike became an immediate means to independence, tearing apart mother’s apron strings like the tape at a finish line. But soon after I learned to ride I got my first taste of the price of independence: Things can go wrong. I crashed and knocked out a permanent tooth. The rest of my childhood was a series of dental retainers and bridges (in part because I knocked out another tooth playing soccer).
Growing up in the California suburbs, the bicycle was my primary means of transportation as well as recreation. By age 12 I had a BMX bike and was flying off jumps at the local tracks. I switched to a 10-speed for junior high, but in high school ditched bicycles for a skateboard and my great-aunt’s cucumber-colored Dodge Dart.
I didn’t own a bicycle again until one of my hometown layovers: six months spent between San Francisco and Los Angeles at age 31. I bought a Huffy mountain bike on sale for $59 at a big-box megastore (to this day I swear the cashier rang me up incorrectly). I took it to a beautiful state park called Annadel and was instantly hooked on the mixture of forest and meadow, the wildlife — you have to brake for deer and turkey and constantly avoid scurrying lizards — and the silence.
I liked going up at noon, shirtless (or “Tarzan-style” as I liked to call it), in the middle of summer and sweating out all the toxins. The reward for the hour-long uphill climb is a lake. Swimming in a natural body of water, especially au naturel, is one of life’s great pleasures.
For the following eight years, whenever I’d visit my hometown I’d take the Huffy into the mountains. It remains the best $60 I’ve ever spent in my life.
But on my next layover, in between LA and New York, the beat-up bike needed a repair. I took it to a shop, and the spandex-clad snobs who worked there refused to fix it. They cited some bullshit safety concern, that I was going to be impaled on my seat post or something, and they didn’t want to be responsible. But it was pretty clear they simply didn’t want to condescend to soil their hands with it. I left the bike in their dumpster.
I bought a new Trek and continued to pound the trails until it was stolen six weeks before my departure for New York. I looked for a quick replacement on Craigslist, and ended up with a used Univega hybrid that changed everything.
The bike was so smooth and comfortable (it was also extra large, providing a more upright posture) that it was suddenly a pleasure just to ride it. I stopped thinking of biking as something to do only in the woods and more as a means of getting around town — just like I did before getting my driver’s license. I quickly realized that the only time I needed my car was when leaving the city limits.
Now Santa Rosa is a big-time biking city. You’ve got the California environmentalist influence, but you’ve also got the pro sport side of things, as one of the top professionals, Levi Leipheimer, hails from there. Cruising around town with a backpack for library books or groceries, it was clear I was one of the few on the road using a bike for transportation. Nine out of 10 people on two wheels were riding expensive racing bikes and wearing spandex suits and alien helmets to signal to others that they’re serious cyclists.
Then a few months ago, while researching the cycle chic story for Ralph Lauren, I started to see bikes differently yet again. Two things now stand out to me that are in stark contrast to what I’ve learned about how bicycles are viewed in Europe.
First is the “professionalization” of the hobby among the spandex-clad bike geeks doing laps in Central Park, and second is how the mountain bike has become the default beater bike acquired cheaply for delivery guys, even though the forward posture and off-road tires are entirely unnecessary for bikes that never leave the pavement.
I started to see America’s attitude towards bicycles as symptomatic of everything that’s wrong with us.
When it comes to pastimes and hobbies, a sense of professionalization cuts deeply through the American character. We tend to look with bewilderment at people who possess talents and skills not backed by professional ambition. When it comes to bicycles, there’s a sense that you’re not cool unless you take it seriously as a sport and wear the requisite clothing and adopt the requisite attitude. At my local shop in New York, nearly all the bikes for sale were built for performance and competition. Hardly any are comfortable upright bikes for simply getting around on.
In addition to Americans’ tendency to professionalize their hobbies is the sense that everything today, from running shoes to pornography, has to be “extreme.” So SUVs are designed to cross the Rocky Mountains, even though they’re only used to shuttle kids to soccer practice across the freshly paved streets of the sprawling suburbs. A century ago baby carriages looked like covered wagons; now they look like the Mars Rover. And bicycles are made for performance, not comfort and style.
The most interesting quote in the cycle chic story came from the spokesman for the nation’s largest bicycle trade show, who said the bike industry can barely understand this new lifestyle trend for stylish, comfortable cruisers. It’s a fascinating tale of how far astray evolution can lead us: Bicycle makers today can hardly comprehend the public’s growing desire for bicycles made for their original intention: transportation and fun.
But as of last year I still hadn’t realized this. Newly arrived in New York, I needed a bike to get across Astoria to the tennis courts. It’s too far to walk and I didn’t want to deal with a bus. So I went to the neighborhood bike shop and asked for the cheapest hybrid they had. Ironically, it was a Lamborghini. Ferruco’s son Tonino heads up the licensing division of the brand, and if I were a marketing consultant, I’d politely suggest he not dilute the brand’s cachet with $300 bicycles.
Newly enlightened by the “regal, upright posture” and stately elegance of the bikes I researched, I suppose I could’ve sold the Lambo at a loss and bought a proper city bike. But by then I’d already bonded with it, so I decided to make a few simple but transformative changes.
First off, there was no need for a forward riding posture, so I changed the handlebars to turnback style and added brown leather grips. This completely changed the feeling of riding the bike. Then I added a classic brown leather sprung saddle and, for style as well as functionality, fenders. I also didn’t need 21 gears as I only use seven, so I removed a cable in the interest of simplification.
The bike now has a completely different look and garners daily compliments — especially by the neighborhood’s elderly European gents who’ve remained immune to America’s propensity for vulgarization through extreme-sports aesthetics.
But ultimately it gets me where I need to go, even when I have no particular place to go. Which is why there’s something about riding a bicycle that will always retain the fun and freedom of being a kid. — CHRISTIAN CHENSVOLD