Bicycle Week Finale: Cruising Through Life On Two Wheels

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

27 Comments on "Bicycle Week Finale: Cruising Through Life On Two Wheels"

  1. I’m only a little more than a year removed from the weekends spent biking around our suburban town with friends. This was what we looked forward to every week for about three years. We have licenses and cars now. I miss it already.

    I look forward to the day when my kids leave home by way of bike for the first time to meet up with their companions.

  2. A very interesting take, but I think you miss the mark. It seems to me that the American attitude toward bikes is not driven by the inherent hyper-professionalization of everything we do, but rather by the way our cities are designed.

    The United States, due social and economic forces beyond anyone’s control, has organized itself around the automobile. The vast majority of developed space in this country is laid out in such a way that it makes it almost impossible to walk or bicycle to most of the places we frequent in our day-to-day existence. Anyone who needs to go to the grocery store or who takes the freeway to work needs to do it in a car – there’s no other option. So those who do most of the bicycling in America are “the spandex-clad serious types” who pursue it as an amateur sport on the weekends. Because these are the people buying bicycles, it only makes sense that the bicycle industry would cater to their demand for “professionalized” racing/mountain bikes. And since these comprise most of the bikes available on the market, these are the bike that people buy.

    Most European cities, on the other hand, were laid out hundreds of years ago, exclusively for pedestrian traffic. Their cities are very dense, walkable, and conducive to bicycling to all the places a person would need to go in their day-to-day life. This gave rise to a bicycle culture unlike anything we have in America because the demand for bicycles in Europe is driven by those who need them for transportation rather than sport.

  3. Pretty interesting post and I tend to agree with Tony’s comment.

  4. Christian | May 1, 2011 at 3:58 pm |

    OK, but I don’t think I “missed the mark” simply because I took an interpretation other than the bureaucratic-city-planners-have-brainwashed-us one. Probably because as I outlined in the essay I myself am a perfect example of not having looked at bikes as a means of fun and transport since I was 15, and it never once crossed my mind that this was because the way the cities I’ve lived in are laid out.

    Was casual bicycling more prevalent 50 years ago? If so, is it because our cities were different then? Or was the design of our cities pretty much in place by then (save for postwar suburban sprawl), and it’s we who have changed?

    I suspect people don’t bike for a hundred reasons other than feeling that the place they live is not conducive to biking.

    Remember the scene in “LA Story” when Steve Martin moves his car one house down rather than walk? What that scene satirizes has nothing to do with the way that particular block was laid out, but the way Angelenos view driving. He drove instead of walk because it would never occur to him to walk. Likewise, it had never occurred to me, until I got on a comfortable bike, that I could run most of my errands on it.

    The fault lies not in our city planning, but ourselves.

  5. You are quite to the point about a general surfeit of “sport” and “extreme” aesthetics.

    Look at today’s automobiles; they are nearly all designed to resemble snarling beasts in the name of “aggression” and “sport.” And wristwatches: who today yearns for a luxurious Patek Philippe Calatrava or Breguet Classique? Instead they seek out the most clunky, gadget-laden “sport” watches on the off-chance that they might have a sudden yen for deep-sea diving or inter-galactic space travel.

    Elegance, panache and discretion unfortunately have largely gone by the wayside.

  6. Pssst Christian, you are a pretty tall guy. Seems like the frame on the Lambo is a bit small for you. However, if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it :)

  7. No, you missed the mark because you suggest that there’s a “right” European approach and a “wrong” American approach, and that the “wrong” American approach is somehow indicative of a flaw in the American psyche. I think you’re too eager to point out some kind of existential fault that simply doesn’t exist.

    The fact that we don’t all ride our bikes to work like the Dutch doesn’t mean there’s something wrong with us. It only means that the socio-economic and infrastructural realities in the United States are not, and never were, conducive to the flowering of a European-style bicycling culture. I can’t think of ANYONE who would rather sit in gridlock on an 8-lane highway rather than pedal their way to the office on the back of an omafiets. But not many of us have that choice.

  8. HRH The Duke of Windsor | May 1, 2011 at 6:03 pm |

    Definitely one of the more thought provoking posts and subsequent comment threads on IS. Well done everyone.

  9. Old World | May 1, 2011 at 11:14 pm |

    Carrying everything to extremes is an indisputable characteristic of American culture.

  10. hugoservatius | May 2, 2011 at 6:04 am |

    I think that the American approch towards bicycles is not so different to the European approch.
    I live in Berlin, either use a Jaguar Limousine, a Beetle Convertible or a beautiful, black “Raleigh”-Bicycle with a fine saddle by Brooks, a very small, chromium-platet light and – I think – six gears, which is standing in my office in the center of the town and is used for trips around town, as long as it doesn’t rain or ist too cold.
    When I ride this bicycle, I wear my usual outfit, normally jacket, tie and brogues, and you can be sure, that I am one of the very, very few persons not beeing dressed in sportsgear, not riding a strangely-coloured high-end-machine and not understanding normal traffic as a kind of street-war. (Most embarrassing persons in Berlin-Traffic are the messengers on bicycles, if the Americans would have sent these guys to Iraque, the war would have been over long ago, a Berlin-Bicycle-Messenger knows no fear or the word mercy, they hate any other person taking part in city-traffic…)
    So, here in Europe the bicycle is not the common way of transport, too, and mostly seen as a sports-machine.

    Best regards from Berlin, Hugo.

  11. Christian | May 2, 2011 at 8:08 am |


    I thought I caught a whiff of Marxism in your first comment, and sure enough “socio-economic” comes up in your second comment. I can’t remember the last time I spoke or typed those words. College, maybe. But perhaps I’m callous and self-involved…

    I’m definitely saying that the European way is better, as do many others when it comes to this topic. One source I spoke to said Europeans view bikes like vacuum cleaners: No one would say they’re a “vacuumist” just because they use one, but most bike riders identify themselves as a cyclist.

    Identifying themselves as a cyclist is precisely what those spandex-clad weekenders are announcing to the world: I’m wearing spandex and therefore take biking seriously as a hobby, which means it’s part of my personality.

    I forgot to mention another encounter I had with bicycles: a summer spent in Japan where I and a girlfriend used it to get around town. The bikes were old upright cruisers, not mountain bikes. We used them as a tool to get to the train station. We did not need special clothes or a particular environmental or political stance.

    I don’t recall the city planning of Matsuyama.

  12. taliesin | May 2, 2011 at 8:56 am |

    Bike as lifestyle and ideology is offputting and snobby. Here’s an example of where it can lead:

  13. Christian:
    Great post.

    Reading over what has been written thus far I feel some of the negative comments missed the mark. I agree with your opinion of extremism in this country. Even the smallest gadgets morph into mechanical animals, think corkscrews and car stereos.

    What it comes down to, and correct me if I’m wrong, is that this blog, and others of similar nature, celebrate a lifestyle of refinement. An era, you might say, when things were categorized, simpler. Whether it is a bike or a button-down, there were great things that were ruined by mainstream hubris and here we are, a minority, trying to keep it alive. By no means should this be interpreted otherwise. Again, please tell me if I missed my mark?


  14. Some interesting counterpoint here, from an old post by Scott Schuman:

  15. Christian –

    I think we’re talking about two different things here, so it’s probably best to just leave it right where it is.

    Also, sorry if I came off as abrasive in my earlier posts; on re-reading them, it sort of seems that way. I’m a fan of your work so I hope I didn’t offend because that certainly wasn’t my intent. But damn you to hell for calling me a Marxist.

  16. Christian | May 2, 2011 at 2:22 pm |

    Great, now I may end up cavemates with Osama….

  17. Woofboxer | May 2, 2011 at 5:32 pm |

    ‘Nothing beats the simple pleasure of a bicycle ride’
    John F Kennedy

  18. Manor House | May 2, 2011 at 9:05 pm |

    They really don’t understand how childishly absurd they look in their spandex underwear on those high-tech monstrosities.

  19. Wriggles | May 3, 2011 at 7:36 am |

    In the early 1980’s, my wife and I both bought new Schwinn Le Tour 18 speed bikes. Very nice bikes, but not overly comfortable. I used mine almost exclusively for exercise, only racking up 1,000 miles in the 20 years I owned it. My usual riding attire was rolled up khakis and whatever shirt I had on. No fancy bicycle attire for me. I sold it for $ 50 to a guy that lived about two blocks away and had worn one like mine out. I had no idea anyone could possibly wear one out, or how many miles it would take.

    The wife’s bike is still in the garage, next to new. I’ll bet there isn’t 50 miles on that bike. (No odometer.) She has forbidden me to sell it. Less than a mile away, I have an antique car in storage. It’s about a 15 minute walk to get it for a Sunday spin or occasional use. I have thought about using her bike as a shuttle, but the heavy traffic at all hours of the day makes the trek extremely dangerous. In fact, the traffic in my little suburban community (has increased dramatically in the last 20 years) makes any bicycle use dangerous and unpleasant. The guy that bought my bike certainly has more guts than I have.

    My neighbor recently bought a retro cruiser used, but like new for $ 40. It has been sitting in his enclosed porch. I doubt he will use it much, due to the heavy traffic. A pity.

  20. Very good line, this: “vulgarization through extreme-sports aesthetics.” It explains why I can’t find a pair of tasteful running shoes – they all look like the equivalent of a polychromatic, pimped-out, low rider with flashing lights on the underside………

  21. Tony’s got a good point about American cities being laid out with cars in mind, but this in no way invalidates Christian’s astute observations about the American psyche.

    I didn’t see anything about the “right” European way and the “wrong” American one; I saw a comparison of attitudes.

    Perhaps my reading comprehension is impaired.

    Back to bikes. I still want a cruiser, so I can ride for fun (with exercise as a nice side benefit), so I can ride with my children, who are getting old enough for riding excursions out of the yard and on the nearby rec trail.

    Thanks for the inspiration.

  22. First let me point out what everyone else has failed to mention: Christian, you look GREAT – in an anti-spandex way – on that bike!

    I live in an area where scads of spandex-clad 40-something through boomers bike on pairs, packs and solo on relatively sparsely trafficked roads. And, yes, they are a cult of sorts and would never be seen peddling in a less than serious – and seriously attired – manner. And woe to the naïve Seattle auto commuter who gets in the middle of the hundreds of aggressive bicyclers who congregate in packs on at least one Friday rush hour each month to “take back the streets.”

    Maybe fifteen years back I visited the incredibly interesting, highly recommended privately owned Pedaling History Bicycle Museum in Orchard Park (adjacent to Buffalo), NY. Among other things I learned that the 1880-1890s bicycle craze in cities like Buffalo and Cleveland created the demand for lightweight metal, chain driven gearing, paved roads and other accoutrements that supported the automotive and aviation industries.

    At the museum’s web site ( ) they point out: “The bicycle’s popularity and use further prompted the building all of our nation’s roads long before the automobile was thought of. This also created the need for road signs, road maps, and rules of the road. Those rules were the foundation for all of the rules established later for the first automobiles. Two of the thousands of bicycle builders, by the names of Wilbur and Orville Wright, made their first airplane, from mostly bicycle parts, in the backyard of their Dayton, Ohio, bicycle shop, thus starting our aircraft industry. Glenn Curtis, also a bicycle builder, also went into the air using many bicycle parts to make his first airplane. The majority of the other bicycle makers went into and pioneered the automobile industry.”

  23. An interesting complement to your piece (I suggest you ignore the multiple typos and general lack of editing):

  24. Christian | May 24, 2011 at 11:11 am |

    My God, first-ever comment from my sister.

  25. Where can I buy that bicycele ?

  26. Look online for “bicycle tonino lamborghini.”

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