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Two Wheels Are Becoming As Chic As Four

Alex Marshall / Nov 25 2010

For Release Sunday, November 28, 2010

Alex MarshallAbout 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.

No luck.

“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, as 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. “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: an 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, 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 show that bikes are becoming once again a means of transportation, and not just devises 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 help produced 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.

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  1. Posted November 25, 2010 at 11:39 am | Permalink

    A meme has developed suggesting that two wheels are even MORE chic than four. But the questions for bike/ped advocates are these: Is this “moment of the bicycle” a passing fancy that will change with next year’s fashions? Or does it represent something sufficiently strong and lasting that it will help us withstand next year’s assault on bike-friendly policy that will be led by AAA and their allies?

  2. Posted November 26, 2010 at 4:36 pm | Permalink

    There’s one other legal change that I would say is more important than driver fault: stop signs. It is slightly less of an issue in urban areas, where many more intersections have traffic lights, but it is still a major issue in almost all of the US that bicycles are legally required to make full stops at every stop sign. (This is rarely enforced, of course, but asking bicycles to break the law to maintain basic efficiency is ridiculous.)

    The exception is Idaho, which has a terrifically sensible law: a stop sign is a yield sign for bikes. If there is cross-traffic, the bike must stop. If not, it may continue.

    There’s an excellent video on the Idaho stop here:

  3. Wesley Stephen
    Posted November 30, 2010 at 8:36 am | Permalink

    The State of Missouri recently passed a law similar to that of Idaho’s – except that it applies to signals. Cyclists must first stop on red; but may continue through an intersection if there is no cross-traffic.

  4. James R. Lamm
    Posted November 30, 2010 at 5:12 pm | Permalink

    During the 1980’s, in Madison,Wis., not only were motorists at fault if they hit a biker, but pedestrians were also at fault if they caused a biker to crash by stepping out on the street in front of the biker not at a pedestrian crossing. This is what University of Wisconsin officials advised us who were there for some special courses. I don’t know if this policy still applies, but I think it is a good one. I hope North Carolina will make bike riding safer by revising its laws and then enforcing them.

  5. Posted December 2, 2010 at 7:55 am | Permalink

    Minnesota passed the same sort of law last year. But it’s not a law I’m particularly fond of, since it was developed only because very few signals can detect bicycles, and it does not require the DOT to install future signals to detect bikes. It is a good start, but the stop sign law would make a far bigger difference for cyclists in suburban and rural areas. Even the difference it makes for urban cyclists is questionable, since many city streetlights are timed, rather than based on car detection — that is, they don’t need to be detected.

    Again, it’s a good start — but only that.

    Cykler undtaget

    One other rule exception that I’ve seen in Copenhagen that seems to work well for urban cycling: bicycles being able to go the wrong way down a one-way street. Doesn’t work at high speeds, but as it works here, it’s great traffic calming, and since the bicyclists are going against traffic, they’re highly visible.

  6. Steve Durspek
    Posted December 14, 2010 at 2:41 pm | Permalink

    Bicycling against traffic (salmoning) is THE MOST DANGEROUS thing you can do on a bike. Motorists making right turns fail to look to their right for any traffic, be it ped, peddle, or auto. More bike car accidents are due to riding the wrong direction than almost any other cause. I’d be very careful about promoting such a ridiculous idea, at least until motorists in this country risk punishment for failure to yield to cyclists. And why does riding the wrong direction make one more visible than riding with traffic? Motorists are more visible to the cyclist before he is hit.

    I also have a problem with allowing cyclists privileges that motorists don’t have, i.e. running stop signs and stop lights. You’re asking motorists to take cyclists seriously, then asking them to give up special privileges to boot. Its hard enough to get a few feet of lane from motorists, don’t make it worse by asking for such special privileges. We all need to obey the same traffic laws and be on the same page or we risk a backlash. Some small towns are already considering banning bikes completely because of the way some cyclists behave, and because motorists feel entitled to all of the roadway. Let’s work on getting them to release their grip on our roadway first and make room for us before we ask for special consideration and privileges over motorists.