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A Tale of Two Cycling Cities
WORDS: Matt Seaton
Every city has its indigenous bike culture, the result of a subtle interaction of people with transport infrastructure, built environment, traffic regulations and bylaws, social custom and practice. To make a transition from cycling in one city to another is both to encounter novelty and difference and to see your origins anew.
I've just moved from living, and cycling, in London for a quarter of a century - a period during which so much has changed for cyclists that I might almost say Britain's capital has evolved from having virtually no cycling culture to boasting an extraordinarily rich and various ecosystem of symbiotic and co-existent cycling subcultures. London cyclists have gone from being a fringe minority of hardened campaigners and slightly embittered cranks squeezed into the gutter by careless cab-drivers and barrelling buses, to becoming, in parts of the central congestion zone, The Traffic: a self-sustaining rush-hour of bicyclists of every stripe - from single-speed hipsters, to sleek-chic sportivistes, to basket-proud and be-panneried tweed or heeled types.
Bike shops long since evolved to survive and thrive. The old school rule of taciturn churlishness, by which bikeshop staff conducted a kind of rearguard, teeth-sucking class war that involved belittling customers as much as possible by rubbing their noses in their lack of technical knowledge and velo-savvy, is almost extinct. These days, I will go out of my way to go back to a shop with a sullen staffer who is reluctant to accept me as reasonably expert in the mysteries of bike mechanics - out of sheer nostalgia for the ancient regime of retail masochism. It can seem preferable, sometimes, to having someone press a skinny chai latte on me as I try to purchase a pair of tyre levers, as bike shops have more and more gone the way it may of book shops and sports cafes, with coffee bars and HD TV screens. It may be only a matter of time before someone Abercrombie'n'Fitch’s the bike trade: then there'll be a guy with great legs - shaved, of course - and wearing only a pair of cycling shorts opening the door to you, and then some superfit Amazonian type on walkabout to take your credit card payment with one of those queue-eliminating Apple Store devices.
Having moved to New York recently, I feel I've seen some of that future -though also, paradoxically, some of our recent past. Bike chic is so in right now that you feel that just turning up at a venue on a bike will, by itself, get you into openings, launches and parties. People will tell you they just saw David Byrne (ex-Talking Heads bicycle diarist) riding down the street. Bicycles make props in the window displays of half the ultra-trendy new mega-boutiques in the former meat market district around West 14th and Gansevoort Street downtown. Mannequins in high heels are posed one legakimbo over the new Manhattanite hipster bikes that owe their style to one part Hoxton-style fixie, three parts trad Schwinn cruiser.
And yet, and yet… cycling culture in New York still feels a little marginal and underdeveloped. Mayor Bloomberg's efforts at implementing a more bikeable cityscape have proved patchy at best. While Broadway now has a sequestered bike lane, it's not much used - except by properly blue-collar Latino guys riding the wrong way. So you take your chances on the wide avenues where the yellow cabs have only two speeds - 5mph or 50mph - and nothing in between. Or you take the Riverside Park bikeway that runs all the way along the Hudson River from Battery Park City, west of Wall Street, up to Harlem and Washington Heights. But then you take your chances dodging the joggers and runners and skaters, the hotdog-eaters and pretzel-munchers, the Chelsea piers golf-range goers and USS Intrepid tourists, and the occasional echt New York derelict happily returning from the Giulianian purges of the homeless.
And this glorious, maddening anarchy is the striking, salient feature of NewYork bike culture. It makes London, even with its rogues' gallery of red-light runners and pavement riders, seem like a city of almost Soviet conformity and order and rule-boundedness. In New York bike culture, you have a microcosm of the dynamic, creative chaos that is American capitalist enterprise. Sure, there are traffic regulations, but the cops seem deeply uninterested in applying them insofar as they apply to cyclists. So, your Chinese and Hispanic takeout delivery guys whirr around on their electric bikes completely without regard to the designation of traffic direction.Therefore, a cyclist who stops at red is seen not even as a self-righteous stickler (which might be thought in London), but as an inexplicable fool, practically a nuisance. As long as a cyclist doesn't recklessly endanger a pedestrian on a crossing, no one bats an eyelid about a cyclist ignoring the signal and going through: there's absolutely no expectation that a cyclist would stop. To stop at red would be French, or socialist. Possibly both. So, you do as you choose and if you don't wear a helmet or have health insurance, well, that's your lookout.
A similar liberty with dress codes applies, also. In London, we are tribal and class-conscious: what we wear when we ride around town is a statement, either deliberate or by default, about who we are and where we're pegged in the social hierarchy. I get dressed to ride in London, my appearance on the bike as important as my appearance when I get off it as my destination. I eschew lycra and obvious bike gear, especially anything that smacks of dayglo functionality. Equally, I avoid baggy, flapping clothing; I aim for a trim, tailored look. Even though I ride a fixed, I am careful to avoid the solecism of seeming to pass myself off as a messenger. At the same time, I dress "up" a little, wearing a tie, say, in order to distinguish myself fogeyishly from the self-fashion-consciousness of the Old Street stylists.(Riding a bike in low-slung jeans - how is that even possible?) But I look forward to when it gets cold enough to start wearing my prototype Classic Softshell Jacket, with its now slightly dicky zip and worn-through thumbloops. It's a look that, I hope, says I'm a serious cyclist, but not so serious that I'm trying too hard. And there's always a message about class encapsulated in all that: I'm identifying as metropolitan middle-class, but of the knowing, dissenting, ironic subset thereof, and - god forbid - nothing like a not-know-any-better bourgeois.
Here in New York, such carefully calibrated sartorial semiotics would be completely wasted. Maybe Park Slope and Williamsburg in Brooklyn have their subtly differentiated cycling subcultures, where people read your type from the bike you ride and what you wear to ride in. But in Manhattan, I haven't seen it. Bikes and cycling seem still very functional, so people dress for how they want to look at A and at B, without worrying about how they look in between - virtually the reverse of my London-indoctrinated sensibility.
The bicycles themselves are symptomatic. From the hordes of team and club cyclists who do laps of Central Park in the early morning, or who ride over George Washington Bridge to get out of the city at the weekend, there's no shortage of people with seriously high-end road bikes. But the bikes people use to get around town? The parking stands on street corners are like improv museums: I have never seen so many really historic Peugeots and Schwinns, bikes with wheels with steel rims, five-speed derailleurs, gear levers mounted on downtubes and headtubes, lugged steel frames when lugged steel frames were still the basis of domestic mass manufacture. These are the bikes that time forgot; it's hard to believe they're still running - it's akin to seeing the streamlined, tailfinned American automobile classics which famously still cruise Havana. The strange contradiction here is that, the market for $10,000 carbon roadbikes aside, New Yorkers seem as yet to have little concept of the bicycle as a consumer object in its own right.The bikes they use to get about on are remarkably, weirdly utilitarian.
It may just be changing. A new shop just opened in Chelsea, I noticed, almost as I arrived. In the window, single-speed cranksets anodised in a colour palette that would not be amiss in a designer soap shop; hubs and rims to match. So, perhaps that urban cycling chic savoir-faire, which I feel I've been watching and learning in London these past few years, is on the cusp of arriving here. In three months, those bikes in the windows on West 14th Street may be three parts Hoxton, one part Schwinn. Designers and their customers will discover the joys of Sportwool and merino, in place of polyester and stretch cotton. Perhaps people will even dress to be seen on their bike, as much as off it. It’ll soon be cool enough for my beat-up old Classic Softshell Jacket. I can't wait to wear it again – even if I'm the only person who’ll notice.
Matt Seaton has written extensively for Rapha and Rouleur and is author of The Escape Artist.