During the 1980’s and 1990’s city cycling was primarily a kind of rebel subculture, something practiced by bike messengers, Chinese food delivery men, and a few lunatics like myself who rode because it was fast, fun, and dangerous.
This was a phenomenon more pronounced in the USA and the UK. Since roads were (and in many places still are) fairly bicycle unfriendly, cyclists saw themselves as two-wheeled soldiers riding uphill against straight culture and a steady stream of noisy, smelly, and dangerous cars.
From 1989 through 2005 I owned an orange and chrome 1967 Bottechia steel road bike I’d bought for $100 at a flea market in Southern California. This was my primary form of transportation before I started building my own bicycles. In NYC I carried a steel Kryptonite chain that weighed as much as the bicycle and never kept it outside overnight.
Nowadays, one of my favorite things is to watch cycling in the New York City evolve. It seems like every month there’s a new bicycle path, more places to lock my bicycle on the street, and more and more people riding bikes. My favorite new law is the one requiring car garages in NYC to offer 24-hour bicycle parking for a nominal fee.
As cycling becomes more convenient, more people feel safe to ride. These are not rebels, they’re more mainstream, and they demand better riding conditions from city planners, which lead to further improvements that lead to even more new people beginning to bike. It’s a positive feedback loop that is snowballing. The City is filled with more and more bicycles every day.
One of the other things I’ve noticed is that some of the original cyclists, the same pioneers who were riding single speeds to punk shows long before Manhattan had its first bike path, have begun to feel angry and left out. Instead of welcoming the new masses on bikes, these old timers look wistfully to the good ol’ days when bicycling was dangerous, exclusive, and when you couldn’t lock a bike on the street for more than 20 minutes without someone trying to take it.
I noticed a similar phenomena in the art-toy movement that I was heavily involved in when I was still creating Kidrobot (I’ve moved on and am now primarily busy building bicycles). People who got there first felt betrayed when the toys only a handful of people saw value in suddenly became very popular. Prices for “classic” toys on eBay skyrocketed. The very same thing happened in the punk music scene when it morphed into Alternative music in the early 90’s.
Not all changes are positive, obviously. Mass adoption can kill the spark that makes something worthwhile. Mass culture tends to turn wonderful, inspired ideas into grey-brown must.
But at the same time, the effects are not all negative. More bicycles equals less cars equals less noise and pollution.
Unfortunately, when something alternative becomes popular, innovators who are unable to muster the energy to move on instead hold on to the past, and do everything they can to attack those who they perceive are involved in the new wave. This always strikes me as sad and ironic, and a little pathetic.
As David Byrne pointed out in a recent interview, if we want cycling to take hold in the mainstream, cyclists are going to need to take responsibility and become better citizens. That may even mean that we start obeying traffic lights (from time to time, anyway — I still have trouble waiting at lights, especially when nobody is around).
Rebels become conservatives. Open minds close.
If we really care about living with bicycles instead of cars (and aren’t just giving lip service to ideals), it’s time for those of us who were riding when it was still uncool, dangerous, and fun — to let go, jump in, and help the movement grow.
Any bicycle that is loved is worth praising, whether it’s a $150 upright Columbia picked up at flea market, a fixie put together with parts from a dumpster, or a high-end model like the ones made by companies like Beloved, Budnitz, Rivendell, Vanilla, and other independent manufacturers. Like a classic car, bicycles deserve the respect that high-end manufacturing and design brings. Also like cars, this doesn’t diminish the value of the bicycle that you bought at a flea market, and that you deeply love.
We’re the ones who made the resurgence of cycling in America possible. We should be proud. Cycling is growing, and it won’t stop for those of us that remember when things were different.
At the end of the day we all have opinions and different ways to express them, but mine boils down to paraphrasing a quote from Gary Fisher: that anyone that rides a bicycle is a friend of mine.
Time to get out and ride and make something new.
— Paul Budnitz, New York City.