Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Le bike, c'est chic

The NYT Style magazine is evidently gearing up (sorry) for a bicycle-themed issue, given how many of its recent posts are biking-themed. As is generally the case with style (see also), whatever it is is stylish if those who could afford otherwise opt for it. Head-to-toe denim (think "boyfriend" jeans and a tucked-in chambray button-down) are the height of chic, but not if god forbid worn on an actual worker. (Unless it's an artisan-food-craftsperson in Bushwick.) And riding a bike is so-very-now, but only if you've nobly opted not to be escorted by your car-and-driver, only if you've stylishly rejected the possibility of getting from your apartment in SoHo to your office in Tribeca by cab. If you're a Milanese fashion designer, chic. If this is actually how you get around, because, for example, a car seems like a huge investment, especially when you're not sure where you'll be living in a few years, and when there's alternative transportation to the further-away supermarkets, it's not chic in the least. If you have to wear a helmet because you ride in heavy traffic, on roads where furious New Jersey SUV drivers honk at you simply for having taken a slower-moving vehicle into their road, forget it.

But fantasy Bikeland is another matter entirely. Even if the place is ostensibly Chicago, it's all white-walled minimalism, London or Scandinavia, off-the-beaten-path cafés where you might get a "flat white," men with those quasi-fascistic haircuts where the sides and back are shaved off but the top is kept long. And the bikes themselves had better look straight out of the Netherlands. (A bike like this, $1,255.) Bikeland is a vacation to Northern Europe where exchange rates are no matter, where the fact that a beer in Sweden (or is it Norway?) costs $10, where you are hob-nobbing with creative types, joining them at art openings that begin at 11, when it's still light out, of course, so you don't even need to ruin the clean lines of your bike with unsightly lights. You have family money, so your job is designing the packaging for an eco-friendly brand of nail polish. You are biking from aperitivo hour with beautiful Milanese of your preferred gender, to repurposed industrial spaces in Greenpoint where unknown goth-chic designers are hosting all-night runway shows. Bikeland, in other words, sounds fabulous, but has little in common with bike riding as actually experienced, which is to say, mud-splattered and with a backpack filled to capacity.


Flavia said...

I presume you've seen this?

It made my yesterday.

Phoebe said...

How had I missed this???

If I'm a bit off biking-as-chic, it might be because, when my husband and I returned to the place where he recently got his bike, to ask why his crap bike was turning to rust, while my crap bike from college, which is kept in the same spot, hadn't, the bike-shop dude launched into this don't-make-'em-like-they-used-to monologue about how, although my bike was also inexpensive, it's from soooo long ago, as though it were some kind of antique, and not a last-season model from maybe 2002. Of course, it's not so bad to feel ancient, if it means having a bike that doesn't make ominous creaking sounds in traffic.

Flavia said...

Oh, I don't disagree with you in the least. Even in Portland, biking capital of America (& where I have in fact seen women in high heels leaving bars by bike), it's mostly not a chic thing. My friends who are professors in Portland, and who bike to work, shower and change when they get there--because, um, it's sweaty, and rainy, and they're carrying stuff.

I intend to buy a bike this summer, to facilitate getting to the many restaurants & bars that are more than one but less than four miles from my house--but you'd better believe it'll be a crap one.

Phoebe said...

True enough - there are actual glamorous people on bikes. But what makes them chic is that they're people you wouldn't expect to see on a bike, people not properly dressed for biking, etc. (Although I find that chunky heels - not stiletto, probably - make hanging onto the pedals easier.) They've spent the price of a used car on a bike that actually looks good, like they're in some French New Wave movie, and not, as my bike announces, an aesthetically-challenged tomboy (chic tomboy being another thing entirely) circa 1995. (Why oh why must the frame say "Hard Rock"?)

If you do get a (crap) bike, I guess aim for an early-2000s model? My husband got the cheapest bike at the bike shop, on sale at that, and it was still maybe $300 and is quite the piece of crap. Something to do with the material now used for the chain.

X.Trapnel said...

I'm not sure exactly where you're going with this. If your claim is that this seems glamorous only because it's a fantasy--well, as you doubtless know from time in Europe, it's actually not crazy that normal people, from grandmothers to executives, actually would ride everywhere as their standard mode of travel, and in such a society, "properly dressed for biking" just means "dressed however you would otherwise be dressed." If the effect of this kind of style piece is to increase the desirability of such a world, however marginally, that's probably a good thing--you can't get there from here without policy changes, which means public interest and commitment (bike ridership in the Netherlands plummeted in the mid-20thC until a strong countermovement organized). Having a vision of where you want to go is part of that--a vision that is appealing, and yes, given our elite-dominated society, that means appealing to elites.

If your claim is that a $1250 bike is crazy-luxurious, well, another way to think of that is that it's a year of unlimited NYC MetroCards--and nobody would buy a bike like that intending for it to last only one year. If you live somewhere where it is reasonable to bike as your daily transit mode, it makes a great deal of sense to invest in a good bike rather than a crappy, quite possibly stolen, one off of CL. Moreover, the whole point of the Dutch-style bicycle is precisely to be more suitable for normal people who just want to get from A to B--relative to a "normal" road bike, the ride is smoother, the posture more upright; you mention mud and backpack carrying, but Dutch bikes are more likely than American ones to emphasize both all-weather suitability and cargo capacity. So again, I'm just not sure what the point is--if the goal is to emphasize everyday biking, a Dutch-style bike is precisely the sort one should point to.

Sorry if I'm grumpy about this, but a $1250 piece of durable equipment that's going to be used constntly is just not the same as a $5 chicken egg (if that's the general sort of cultural area you had in mind).

Phoebe said...

X. Trapnel,

Guess I wasn't clear. Here's where I was going with this:

-Re: clothing inappropriate for biking, I was referring to Flavia's comment about bikers in clubbing gear, not normal clothes.

-Re: Europe, the fantasy isn't simply regular people riding bikes to get around. It's this ultraglamorous fantasy amalgam of Amsterdam and Milan, beautiful-people-only. While people do indeed bike as a way of getting around in much of Europe, all Europeans=/=fashion editors.

-Which might be the way to go - maybe if we all imagined that we were a bike away from editing Vogue, more people would switch from cars to bikes. I'm not sure what the point of evangelizing for bikes is in cities with great public transportation, and I have my doubts about how much can be accomplished in cities like Chicago or Montreal, where you'd know you're investing in something you can only use for a small part of the year. But in much of the country, including my own current locale, I'm all for it.

-And sure, why not the Dutch-style bikes? They seem fabulous, and my husband has only great things to say about those - it's what's used in Belgium as well, not surprisingly.

-Spending a ton on a bike might well be necessary these days, if what bike-store dude said was true. My own bike was maybe $250 in maybe 2003, and is not giving me problems. I can see how a more upright style would be more comfortable, but the main advantage of those models over what I ride is aesthetic.

-But as a rule - and I've made this point many times re: clothes - I'm skeptical of cost-per-use arguments. Yes, a $3,000 bike ridden daily is better-value than a $100 bike ridden never. But If there's a $500 bike that would work out just fine, the $3,000 version is still a luxury. I don't know enough about the price point these days at which a bike suddenly becomes good enough for daily commuting, but I suspect it would fall far short of $1,000. (My fantasy internet bike-shopping has shown me similar models for quite a bit less.)

-And I'm not saying that it's wrong to say, look, I bike a ton, this is a luxury that's worth it. My point is that if there are much cheaper, fully-functional, durable-enough versions, it's not qualitatively different from spending $$$ on a handbag. There isn't some kind of "durable equipment" loophole, whereby luxury goods cease to be just that. (Although a popular sense that such a loophole exists is pretty much the defining principle behind marketing aimed at men.)

X.Trapnel said...

I'm still not sure what you're saying. We expect to be shown car- or motorcycle-using to look glamourous in styles magazines; we expect everything to be glamourous in style magazines. Why oughtn't bike-use be portrayed in a similar fashion?

I just don't understand what the criticism is supposed to be.

It's sounding sorta-kinda like what I took to be the "$5 egg"/eat-everything-local critique--this is claiming to be something that everyone can and ought to do, but in fact isn't at all, and couldn't be without drastic changes to the entire food industry--but I don't think it's fair to lump the two articles in with that. Or at least, not entirely fair. Obviously not everyone can afford a bike that looks that good. But the vast majority can afford a bike that rolls quite well--though as you indicate, it may take some insider knowledge to know what's a good deal and what's junk--and often folks don't realize how bikeable their own city is. Chicago, for example: not fun in January, but the climate's not much worse than Berlin, and it's flat. Levy seems to bike a lot in Montreal.

Why evangelize for it in cities with good public transit? Well, bikes are sometimes faster than buses, and sometimes better for particular destinations; it's healthier for you; and they're better for the environment than even "zero emissions" buses (since that electricity comes from somewhere). What's not to like? (And some of the characteristics that make a city promising for public transit--density, for one--also make it promising for biking.) But hey, Russell Arben Fox evangelizes much better than me--and he's talking about biking in Kansas.


As for pricing and durable equipment: I agree that there's a lot of sexism in how luxury is defined, and I also agree that it's easy to get into total-luxury mode with bikes. The Method Bicycles they link to, for example: $2k-10k. But the first link is to Working Bikes Co-Op, where they start at $100. And I mentioned the fact that it's durable equipment to highlight that a bicycle is a machine that has a lot of force and strain put on it, and so it build quality really does matter when it comes to both the efficiency of the ride, but also the frequency and ease of maintenance. That said, I just don't understand what your argument about the luxury character of the pictured bikes is--of course they're lovely and expensive; they're in a style magazine. What else would they be?

CW said...

"I have my doubts about how much can be accomplished in cities like Chicago or Montreal, where you'd know you're investing in something you can only use for a small part of the year."

That makes sense, but Minneapolis is considered one of the most bike-friendly cities in the U.S. in spite of our climate. We don't have as many bike commuters as Portland, but do better than most other cities in the country. I think that shows there is a potential for real growth in other cities. Even Anchorage has seen growth in bike commuting over the last 10 years. I have a few co-workers who commute by bike (some all year round and others only in the warmer months).

Micha said...

Not relevant to this post, but you might find this interesting:


Phoebe said...


I think you're still confused because you're digging for some Grand Denunciation-style Argument from my post/comment, where there is none. I was merely commenting on my own ambivalent reaction, as someone who uses a bike to get around, to some depictions of biking as something you do if you're a Swedish supermodel.

Although I suspect it's not so much that you're confused by what I was saying as that you just disagree - as far as you're concerned, anything that promotes biking should be enthusiastically supported. Not unreasonable, although I'd just add that when I was referring to public transportation, I was thinking mostly of subways, not buses, and I'm not sure how biking can compete with subways. (My sense of NYC and Chicago is that in many parts of the city, if you don't need a subway, you can just walk. Which is also zero-emissions, and you don't end up with a near-unused bike mounted decoratively on a wall until it goes to the landfill. And bus riders in such cities are frequently old/infirm, such that they're not about to switch to biking.) But for cities where there isn't a subway or much of one, and the alternative is to drive, by all means.

My only question for you would be whether it helps or hurts to reinforce the idea that biking makes a person more glamorously Northern European. This will appeal to some, but turn off others. And probably a good number of those who find it appealing are already either biking or walking, while a good number of those who don't are set on driving. The question is really whether there are that many people who are now driving, who'd be persuaded. Perhaps - I wouldn't rule it out - but I'm not sure.

Phoebe said...


It's clearly possible to bike for much, half, the year, even in cold climates. The issue is more that if much of the year, it isn't possible, lots of people will buy bikes with the sincere intent to ride them, and then the bikes will just sit around unused. While unused bikes are hardly the great tragedy of our times, it is a bulky and pricey piece of likely-future-landfill. And buying expensive, bulky items you're not going to use is, as a rule, not a great idea.

Of course, my own bike sat around unused for nearly a decade, and now, most useful.