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The Bikefag: Saving Cycling or Ruining It?

April 28, 2009

 

I was riding a borrowed bicycle around Merrit Lake in Oakland, CA recently with my friends from the Bay Area. Brandon rode his yellow Cyclops pursuit bike and Andrew rode a green Peugeot fixed-gear conversion. I was riding a borrowed Giant hybrid bicycle – a little self consciously, as I normally ride a purple track bike. But I was having no trouble keeping up. We rode quickly, but leisurely, enjoying the cool bay air of the late afternoon after a hot day.

The road around Merritt Lake is packed with cyclists of all manner, and when we weren’t paying attention, two roadies in matching kits made a show of attacking us while sitting down and talking to each other. Brandon accelerated and got on one of their wheels and I jumped and got on his wheel. Not keen on the idea of a couple of hipster kids (especially one on a HYBRID) sucking their wheels around the lake, the roadies started cranking hard, pretending not to see us, and we rode in a pack, dropping Andrew. I moved up from Brandon’s wheel to the spot next to him and we both smirked at each other. We got to a slight uphill and the roadies mashed it hard, one of them standing up, and Brandon dropped off. I could have kept on, maybe indefinitely, and I might have eventually tried attacking them on the hybrid. But I didn’t have the gall to vibe them that hard without a teammate, so I dropped off too.

It made me wonder, though: how often does this happen? How often do roadies square off with “bike hipsters” wearing cut-off jeans and flipped-billed cycling caps?  Is there real tension or is it manufactured by aesthetics?  Does one group have a more legitimate claim to cycling?  Are some cyclists “in it for the ‘right’ reasons” and some not?  Or is the phenomenon of “bike hipsterdom”, for all of its posing, enlivening cycling in a way that nothing else could?

“Bike culture,” for lack of a better term (or what the more cynical might call “bike hipsterdom,”) describes a lot of things: bike messenger culture and bike messenger wannabe culture; critical mass and other bicycle activism; community bike shops; blanged-out, multi-colored “hipster bikes” with colored deep V rims and spray painted Aerospoke wheels; single-speeds; tall bikes; mutant bikes. But if there is one bike that “bike culture” rode in on; that defines bike culture; the symbol – it is the fixed gear.

The fixed-gear bicycle is over 100 years old, but around 1900 it was eclipsed by the freewheel bike. Fixed gears are back, though.

According to fixed gear lore, the revival all started in New York City in the 1980s when West Indian bicycle couriers started riding the same fixed gear bikes that they’d been riding on the islands. It might seem impractical to ride an anachronism with no brakes or ability to coast on the streets of Manhattan, but the fixed gear had its benefits: no cables, no brakes, no derailleurs, and no levers means much less maintenance. And the bolt-on wheels were a lot were more difficult to steal on New York’s mean streets.

Other couriers took notice and eventually somebody started riding a track bike in New York. Track bikes have always been fixed gear, meant only for the closed-circuit oval of the velodrome. Now messengers had a bike that combined the low maintenance and bravado of the Caribbeans’ fixed gears with the speed and style that would appeal to an American subculture generation. In the 80s and 90s, “old skool” track riders in New York rode together on 70s-era track bikes, favoring classic, polished Cinelli and Nitto bars and Campagnolo drivetrains and hubs. Then people started throwing improbable parts on their track bikes like Spinergy front wheels and riser bars to create the city track bike. And now the customization, multi-colorization, and recontextualization of track bikes on the streets have exploded to allow for practically anything. Throughout the 1990s and into the 2000s, fixed gears gained in popularity, especially among the bike messenger community, and spread to cities across America, then London, then the rest of the world.

For the same reasons that fixed gears appealed to bike messengers – simplicity, aesthetics, danger – fixed gears started to catch on with the general populous in the 2000s. “Bike fags,” “bike hipsters” and other derogatory neologisms sprang forth to point a finger at this trend. And that brings us to today. The fixed gear is no longer just the chariot of urban-extremists. Everyone else figured out how to ride one.

What “bike culture” doesn’t seem to include is everyone else on a bike. Roadies, racers, mountain bikers, bike commuters, and recreational cyclists were doing it before “bike culture” came around. They continue to ride alongside “bike culture,” sometimes obliviously. And they’ll be pedaling along after “bike culture” stops being cool.

“Bike culture” is undoubtedly a reaction to cars and consumerism and mainstream American life. But it is also, evidently, a reaction to conventional cycling culture. Even though most of the “bike culture” adherents – let’s call them “alternative riders,” – that I know regularly patronize bike shops, spend a lot of their income on their (in some cases several) bikes, regularly ride their bikes, and spend much of their time reading about bikes on the internet – just like bike racers – these “alternative” cyclists seem hell-bent on positioning themselves apart from conventional cyclists. Alternative cyclists will always wear some sort of cutoff jean shorts on a long ride – with or without a chamois underneath – no matter how much more comfortable it would be to just wear cycling shorts with a chamois like everyone else. Alternative cyclists will insist on riding single speed bikes even though it limits what they can reasonably ride. Alternative cyclists usually refuse to wear helmets. Alternative cyclists refuse to ride fixed gear bikes with brakes. Alternative cyclists generally prefer a frame that “looks vintage” to one that weighs less. Alternative cyclists may or may not be motivated entirely by aesthetics, but it is safe to say that they are motivated by an impulse to distance themselves from the look of a “bike jock.” The only problem is that most of their knowledge of racers and enthusiasts is based on misinformation or ignorance. The demon “bike jock” is probably just someone who rides enough to realize that spandex is infinitely more practical.

Speaking of bike jocks: among the bike racers I know, there’s a similar backlash against “bike hipsters.” I don’t get to hear it very often from them, presumably because they probably consider me the alpha bike hipster of our town. But once in awhile, I get a taste.

An email war on the Colorado State University cycling team list serve the other day revealed these tensions. Caley, an elite mountain and road racer on our team, sent out an email reminding the team about a group ride – the kind where a bunch of roadies on expensive bikes ride like they’re racing each other. My roommate Dan, an elite racer who also gets along well with the “bike hipsters,” sent out an email later, encouraging everyone to go on the Pennock Pass ride instead, a “much more epic” ride with us and a group of what one might consider “alternative cyclists.” Caley responded:

“Forgive me for not wanting to spend all day at 6mph waiting for the slowest hipster of them all. Far too much girl-pants ‘manel toe’ for me to handle,” he wrote – alluding to the snugness of the stereotypical bike hipsters’ pants.

Caley’s half-joking critique of the ride Dan and I rode, although funny, painted an inaccurate picture. There are plenty of tight-pantsed, cigarette-smoking, track bike riding “bike hipsters” in Fort Collins, but none of them were on the Pennock Pass ride. It was 95 miles, over a 9,150-foot-high, dirt-road pass and not for posers. Most people were riding single speed bikes. It was actually one of the most diverse group of cyclists I have ever seen ride together: a pro road racer, a former junior world champion track cyclist, the head of the local non-profit community bike shop, the manager of a local race team, the owner of a high-end bike shop, punk rockers, anarchists, hippies, yuppies. Ironically, I was probably the only man on the ride who regularly wears girls’ pants. But that day I was wearing the exact same thing that Caley was in all likelihood wearing on his ride: the CSU cycling team kit.

The more I ride, the more I’ve seen the lines blur between “bike jocks” and “bike hipsters.” If one took a look at my roommate Dan riding around town in tight pants and obnoxious shoes on his fixed gear bike with garish yellow wheels, one might cynically remark that he was just another poser. But Dan has actually been racing track bikes – actual track bikes – on a velodrome for years. This year he went to the U.S. national track championships and rode to sixth place in the omnium, which combines the points from all events – that’s sixth place in the United States. Before that, he competed in the Collegiate National Track Championships and won the omnium. Dan is the fastest collegiate racer in the only event type of racing on fixed-gear bicycles in the country. Yet around town he just looks like another jackass on a fixed gear.

I regularly suit up in my spandex, hop on my road bike, and head for the hills to train, but I have to ride through town first. And even though I associate myself with “bike culture” and consider myself an “alternative cyclist,” when I ride across town in spandex (especially during race season when my legs are shaved), cool kids on track bikes who don’t already know me take a look at me and smirk. Look at that yuppie in his spandex, I imagine them saying. And in a way, they’re right.

Self-consciousness on a bike apparently runs in my family.

My dad ended up moving to Boulder after he retired, but not without complaining about it first.

“There are all these assholes on their five thousand dollar bikes,” he’d say. “They’re just such fucking elitists.”

As if Colorado Springs didn’t have enough “assholes” on “fancy-ass bikes,” Boulder is sort of the national capital of them. My dad thought that the cyclists in Boulder wouldn’t give him the time of day. But he moved there anyway and pedaled his meager touring bike up Boulder’s canyons, wearing his usual cycling outfit: jeans with reflective, Velcro pant leg cuffs; a heavy company polo shirt – one of an endless supply of “service award” freebies from Compaq or Hewlett-Packard or whoever had taken over; heavy glasses with a clip-on mirror attached; and generic tennis shoes, usually untied.

My dad had been riding in the same clothes, more or less, for decades. He used to be an absurdly dedicated cyclist. When I was really young, he used to wake up at 5am to ride 2,500 feet up highway 24 to Woodland Park before traffic started for the day. On days when he couldn’t ride that, he rode his standard 1,000-foot climb op Gold Camp Road to “the turnaround spot.” At age 49 he rode a 200-mile day that included Independence Pass from Colorado Springs to Glenwood Springs.

“I used to love riding up in my jeans and normal shoes and stuff and catching somebody in spandex and just kicking their ass,” my Dad is fond of saying. “One time I passed this guy on Gold Camp Road who had this fancy-ass bike and everything; and he got all pissed off, right, to be getting passed by an old guy in jeans. So then he passed me. Then I passed him again and he chased me so hard that he ended up falling over. He just kind of went off the road.”

My dad is 63 years old now and his cycling has slowed down since he turned 50. His days of passing shave-legged 20-somethings are behind him, but he still rides regularly.

My dad moved to Boulder anyway, riding the canyons wearing jeans, a beard, and thick glasses as always. He’s seen assholes that don’t return a nod, but most do. And even though the cyclists ride expensive bikes, he’s found that most are just as eager as him to converse at the top of a big climb about how steep it was or what a beautiful view this is.

“It turns out that it’s not really a war,” my dad said. “And people are actually pretty nice.”

And I think that the more I ride, that’s what I find myself. It wasn’t long ago that I built up my first fixed-gear and I used to ride around cutting through traffic and skidding conspicuously. My friend Stuart and I would ride from spot to spot, then hang out and smoke cigarettes while attempting no-handed track stands and backward circles. And it was good.

But somewhere along the line, my instincts to train and get fast and ride bigger and bigger mileage came back from when I was a teenage mountain bike racer. I started riding my purple track bike on longer and longer rides, up hills that I previously thought impossible on a fixed-gear. I started racing “alleycat” bike messenger races and won practically every one in my small town. Then I moved in with my roommate, a dedicated racer, and started riding a road bike I borrowed from his friend and was hooked by the speed. I got a road bike and started training for the collegiate racing season. Finally, one month before the season started, I quit smoking – my vice (among other things) for the last decade and the reason I quit mountain biking as a teenager. And it turns out that I fare pretty well among the bike racers. Granted, the level of fitness does make the competition at an alleycat race look pretty pathetic. But is I trained reasonably hard, I could do reasonably well in the lower categories.

Since I moved to Fort Collins two-and-a-half years ago and became a “bike hipster” I have bought four bikes: a track bike, a road bike, and two mountain bikes. I have raced road and mountain races. I’ve ridden a century. I’ve ridden across the state of Colorado. I’ve ridden 130 miles in a day. I’ve quit smoking. I’ve moved up from the collegiate C category to the B category. I’ve gotten thinner, healthier, and better looking. I read bike magazines. I live, breathe, eat, and sleep bikes.

So when I hear that the “fixed gear trend” or the “bike trend” is a sham and a pretension and won’t last, I can’t help but laugh. If it weren’t for the fact that riding a fixed gear was cool, a pretentious cool kid like me would have never gotten back into mountain bike racing. If it weren’t for “bike hipsters,” all of the geeky roadies that I know would never have been exposed to the multi-colored bikes that I bring to the races. If it weren’t for “bike culture,” my roommate Dan wouldn’t have his lifestyle of a track racer look so glamorous to the many ladies who are attracted to him. If it weren’t for “bike culture,” America would probably be farther behind on its general shift toward demanding alternative transportation and fuel sources.

I’ve learned not to criticize in the last couple years: because that lame yuppie in the spandex might end up being me some day. That punk little showoff skidding around like a jackass on his fixed gear bike was me. And that old man wearing jeans riding up Left hand Canyon might just ride me into the ground one day. And because these trends – be it spandex and carbon, or steel and cutoffs – get people into cycling.

No matter how affected or pretentious “bike culture” might appear, it got me and millions of others like me into cycling. And no matter how phony we might come off, a lot of us are going to stay being into cycling for the rest of our lives. And that’s worth almost any amount of posturing.

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17 Comments leave one →
  1. Caley permalink
    April 29, 2009 2:18 pm

    TRUF!

    Looking forward to more from this blog. No pressure though.

  2. 10thousandfeet permalink
    June 5, 2009 7:29 pm

    – – What “bike culture” doesn’t seem to include is everyone else on a bike. Roadies, racers, mountain bikers, bike commuters, and recreational cyclists were doing it before “bike culture” came around. They continue to ride alongside “bike culture,” sometimes obliviously. And they’ll be pedaling along after “bike culture” stops being cool. – –

    True that. The whole post was well said. Glad I found your blog (via BikeSnobNYC, who just recently gave you a bump). As a road cyclist/Cat 4 crit racer who enjoys spinning around the local parks on a single speed just as much, I say thanks for your fresh perspective.

    ___the Mellow Velo

  3. NatMc permalink
    June 6, 2009 8:00 pm

    Man, I want to be your dad.

    What kind of bike does/did he ride?

    • bikefag permalink*
      June 7, 2009 2:27 am

      He rode a too-big Peugeot 10-speed forever, now he rides a Novara (REI house brand) touring bike with Sora or Tiagra or something. I’m probably just rebelling against him..
      Look up “Flagstaff Road” in Boulder. It’s about 2500 ft up. He rides it practically every day.

  4. June 8, 2009 7:40 am

    great post.

  5. June 12, 2009 1:35 am

    Seriously, well said.

  6. June 19, 2009 10:36 am

    Found your blog like most other new readers, through the snobb. Like it alot. keep it up!

  7. October 24, 2009 4:09 pm

    Nice.

  8. November 5, 2009 4:56 am

    I just spent two hours reading through to the beginning of this blog. Respeckt.

    Now I just wish there were hills where I live.

    • bikefag permalink*
      November 5, 2009 5:18 am

      Thanks, Jeff. The “lack of hills” issue is almost paramount to my “lack of alt girls” issue in my considerations of creative writing graduate programs. Looks like Pittsburgh is my top choice.
      I think I ought to learn to be a photographer too, btw.

  9. David L. permalink
    November 24, 2009 4:54 am

    I got a chance to ride around Boulder this year, doing the climb to the NCAR, about an 800-foot climb. As for cycling, Boulder is like too good to be true. Elevation makes riding noticeably easier. I have been into riding for about 30 years now, but have never fit into any bike culture at all. I like to ride harder than the average rider, but have no desire to race. And I am going to keep wearing spandex because it is more practical. When you get the chance, come and race the Snake Alley Criterium.

  10. Sam permalink
    December 25, 2009 7:06 pm

    Awesome post.

  11. Ray permalink
    February 23, 2010 3:47 am

    You got the right idea. There’s more cyclists share than they don’t.
    The narcissism of small differences is damaging.

    I’m pleased as punch that more people are into riding their bikes far, fast, and to get places and carry stuff. Even while I want to laugh at the new “bike culture’s” chosen methods.

    You at least seem aware that “bike culture” did not develop in a vacuum.

    Health, athletics, enjoyment of other’s company, good sportsmanship, independence, self-reliance, thrift, fellowship among and helpfulness to other cyclists are aspects of bike culture that need to be encouraged.

    Whether or not these aspects are part of Bike Culture 2.0 remains to be seen.

    I personally think getting a lot of young people riding bikes, especially to get places, is great. There’s been too much emphasis on racing as a defining idea of what a “real” cyclist should be. Not that racing is bad, it’s just not the only and best representation of cycling.

    Obsession with fashion, music, and style seems more like consumer culture than bike culture. Nothing new about that in the U.S. either. And it can blend with bike culture.

    Assholes ride all sorts of bikes in all sorts of social groups, and you can’t judge ’em until you actually meet them in person. Even then you might need confirmation.

    Good luck and keep writing!

    • bikefag permalink*
      February 23, 2010 4:36 am

      Thanks, Ray. You remind me that I need to “check myself.” I’ve found out over and over again that every “asshole” I talk shit about turns out to be a human being just like me. It’s easy to forget, and I’d say that I’m guilty of generalizing in subsequent blog posts. (but making fun of people is so fun!). I don’t know where I want to go with this blog from here, but this post and this comment reminds me why I started a bike blog to begin with.

Trackbacks

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