About ten years ago, I was looking for a new bike equipped with something you would think would not be that difficult to find: a chain guard. That is, that sheath of metal that wraps at least partially around the greasy links that help power the bike.
“American bicycle manufacturers are overly influenced by the sports market,” said the bicycle shop worker in the Cambridge bike shop I was in, in one of the most succinct analysis of the bike market I had ever heard. We surveyed the rows of lean and mean machines. It seemed I would have to wait.
I was seeking a chain guard because I was tired of tucking the hem of my right pants leg into my sock, and then forgetting about it and finding myself looking ridiculous, hours later. Or using a metal clip to do the same thing, and forgetting to take it off. Or just saying the heck with it, and then getting my pants leg blackened with grease.
Today, although I haven’t bought a new bike yet, I’ve no shortage of possibilities. Many manufacturers, from big companies to small start-ups, make specifically urban bicycles, meant for city riding, not laps around the track or careening down a mountain. I see them in every city I visit, chained to lampposts or bike racks, all with that most coveted of things, a chain guard. Some even have the Dutch-style ones, that wrap completely around the chain, making it virtually impossible to get grease on clothes.
That’s important if you’re dressing up, which people are. Ruth La Ferla of The New York Times, its fashion reporter, wrote a story in September about women looking good riding around town on bikes. “These daring young women, in their stylish attire, are turning heads as they roll by,” La Ferla wrote. “They are clad not in spandex but in fluttery skirts, capes, and kitten heels.”
It’s clear in the article that the bicycle, which might have a wicker basket upfront and usually was constructed so as to give the rider an upright posture, was seen as part of the women’s fashionable attire, not a detraction from it. Such women could even choose tony accessories made by French couture companies.
The Times article is a kind of official announcement that times have changed. But this trend is not confined to New York City.
The retail clothing company Banana Republic, found in countless malls, has run full-page ads in national magazines showing a relaxed young man in a dark gray suit, scarf, red shirt, and tie, straddling a bike. He’s not behind the wheel of an Italian sports car. He’s on a bike.
There are countless blogs — “Urbanely, or Cyclelicious, Velo Chic, Velo Vixens, Chic Cyclists, Girl on a Bicycle, The Town Bicycle, Bikes and the City” — dedicated to celebrating cycling in the town and city. One is called appropriately enough, “Riding Pretty,” which shows women and a few men on bikes, including the author, often in heels and a dress and a dashing helmet cover, in and around San Francisco. The site says it is “is dedicated to all the girls in the world who want to ride pretty on a bicycle. Here’s to living a bicycle lifestyle!”
The mixing of cycling and fashion shows that bikes are becoming once again a means of transportation, and not just devices to use for exercise or sport. And like that other mode of transportation, the car, they are becoming a means of expressing ourselves, for displaying who we are. Not since the 1880s, when the first bicycle craze hit the nation and helped produce some of its first paved roads, have this two-wheeled, self-propelled machine been such a symbol of urbanity and style.
And while the bike is getting cooler, the car is getting less so.
Donna St. George, a writer for The Washington Post, wrote a story earlier this year that highlighted how in 2008, just 30 percent of 16 year-olds got their driver licenses, compared to 45 percent in 1988. That’s a big drop. My brother’s 18-year-old son, who lives in North Carolina, doesn’t have a license nor do many of his friends. A car is “helpful,” but not really “cool,” says my brother, interpreting his teenager’s habits.
Here in New York City, there’s no question that public policy, while not creating this trend, has helped facilitate it. Transportation Commissioner Janette Sadik-Khan, herself a biker, is creating new bike lanes all over town by the judicious use of the paintbrush. She is leaving in her wake more riders and controversy, as drivers unaccustomed to seeing lanes taken away from them start reacting.
Other cities and towns are following the lead of New York, San Francisco, and other cosmopolitan cities. Even automobile-centric cities like Charlotte are building bike paths and exploring ways to make cycling more convenient and most important, safer.
Although bike lanes are nice, what would really make cycling safer is to change the legal lines so that drivers are automatically at fault if they hit a cyclist. This is how things are in cycle-friendly countries like the Netherlands, where not coincidentally, it’s quite common to see well-dressed women and men on bicycles.
With full chain guards of course.
This article is distributed by Citiwire.