I like my limbs. I also like my heartbeat. As a consequence, I used to think that life was too short to get on a bicycle in New York City. In fairness, I also witnessed New York in the 1990s, when the idea of riding was associated with vigilante bike messengers who made city drivers (and myself) want to lean out of car windows and scream, “Get off the road before I (‘accidentally’) kill you!” If you’re unaware, watch Pedal, a documentary on these daredevils that I stumbled upon (and watched in its entirety) when researching this article.
However, all of the attention drawn toward the new Citi Bike share program has me thinking just the opposite. The city is clearly making a space for bikers, even though the infrastructure of its streets long screamed otherwise. Despite the challenges of integrating bicycles into a city dominated by pedestrians and automobiles (Mayor Ed Koch even proposed a bike ban in 1987), historically, this is neither our first bike craze nor our first battle for safe riding paths.
It turns out that the first appearance of a well-established bike culture in New York City occurred over one hundred years ago. While safety was also a concern then, style and social status were the chief factors that brought bicycles into the forefront of culture. The invention of the “safety bicycle” sporting two same-sized wheels in the late 1880s made bike riding more accessible to people, as opposed to the much more dangerous “high wheel” or Penny Farthing bicycle.
Even so, in, Cycles of Fashion, Daniel London writes about the critical connection between the rise of bike culture and fashion. In the 19th century, owning a bike was a fashion statement and “must have status symbol” reserved for the affluent. The self-presentation of riders via sartorial ensembles was just as -- if not more important -- than the bike itself. Who would’ve thought that New York City streets were runways for the bikes of yesteryear? During that era, New York’s barrage of Sunday cyclists were seen as “a ‘procession,’ a ‘parade,’ a ‘pageant.’”
Some astonishing facts:
From decorated chain-guards to novelty cycling bells to handle-bar revolvers, consumers spent more than $200 million on bicycle sundries in 1896 alone, as opposed to only $300 million on the bicycles themselves that same year. Nowhere did the consumer culture surrounding the bicycle manifest itself more than in the area of attire. By sporting the latest styles, wheelmen and women sought to project a public image of taste and wealth for their peers to appreciate. -- Daniel London
All of this comes full circle: as The New York Times once wrote about sweaters as the next best bike fashion trend, the same publication is once again dedicating content to bike fashion in its style section (e.g. 2009’s piece entitled, "Whose bike are you wearing?"). Brands that vary between Fendi, Cynthia Rowley, and Urban Outfitters have all marketed luxury bikes and bike gear to today’s prevalent bicycle riding consumers.
The rise and fall of the popularity of cycling was also attributed to fashion. When the craze spiked, the reduced price of bikes and their accessibility to the working class increased, and bikes literally went ‘out of fashion.’ If the wealthy weren’t behind it, the city wasn’t behind it. And so the push for bike paths ended. Hence, I can blame the superficial middle class as to why I’ve forever been too chicken to get on a bike in New York.
Seeing how far bikes have come to once again find their place in both Manhattan and the fashion world, I’ve come around to think maybe life is too short not to get on a bicycle to get around the city. While we embrace the convenience and eco-friendliness of riding around on the uniform blue Citi bikes (because we can’t all afford to own a $5,900 handmade Fendi bicycle with a front-mounted beauty case and saddlebags in Selleria leather -- $9,500 with optional fur saddlebags), we can still pick out gear that serves both style and function:
Po-Campo’s Pilsen Biker Bag: the bungee cords also function to perfectly hold on to yoga mats during your commute!
BLK Denim’s Leather Biker Skirt: it unzips to reveal a second layer that gives women the freedom and flexibility to ride in a skirt.
Please, please, wear a helmet while you ride and avoid feeling less than cool with YAKKAY bike helmets. You can even customize your own or check Ebay to find them for a reduced price.