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, 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. The New York Times' fashion reporter — that's significant — 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," said the article's author Ruth 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 high-status accessories made by tony 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 been running 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. That's a sea change.
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!"
So bicycling is a lifestyle! Who knew?
The significance of this trend goes way beyond fashion. It shows that bikes are becoming once again a means of transportation, not just 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 that the rate of young people acquiring driver's licenses had declined precipitously in the last in the last 20 years. In 2008, just 30 percent of 16 year-olds got their driver licenses, compared to 45 percent in 1988. That's a big drop. And those were 2008 statistics, when the economy was still relatively booming. With the recession, that rate has probably declined further. My older brother's 18-year-old son, who lives in North Carolina, doesn't have a license nor do many of his friends, my brother tells me. 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 both more riders and controversy, as drivers unaccustomed to seeing lanes taken away from them start reacting. That's a subject for another day.
It's clear that the city's bike and pedestrian policies are a work in progress. This month Manhattan Borough president Scott Stringer released a report, entitled "Respect The Lane — Clear The Path," that documented flagrant misuse of the new bike lanes by all parties. The success of the lanes in attracting riders — DOT surveys indicate that the creation of Brooklyn's Kent Avenue bike lane helped increase ridership by as much as 400% over the past year — has resulted in growing pains as drivers, deliverymen, and pedestrians adjust.
Is the rest of the region following suit? That's a hard subject to summarize, but there are certainly efforts in other cities around the region to make it easier and more pleasant to bicycle, even fashionably.
Fashion is by definition transitory. But while what we wear may change, perhaps we will continue to wear what we wear on a bike. Which I'm betting will have chain guards.
Want to check out the latest bike fashions. Don't miss our 2nd annual fall party for the Brooklyn Waterfront Greenway at FIND Home Furnishings on Thursday, November 4th, 6:00-9:00PM. Food, drink, raffle prizes and live music from The Hot Johnsons! Buy tickets now at www.brooklyngreenway.org.