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Le Freak & Cycle Chic

January 31, 2011

I received an email notification this morning that @nyccyclechic was now following me on Twitter.  Lo and behold, I checked it out and there is now an official New York Cycle Chic blog, just up and running.  If you’re hungry for a daily dose of stylish people on bikes, I’m sure it the site will find itself bookmarked in your browser soon.

Cycle Chic was coined by Mikael Colville-Andersen, founder of the popular website Copenhagenize, one of my regular reads.  When Mikael isn’t stirring up a hornet’s nest by talking about bike helmets, he’s a fierce advocate for the normalization of cycling.  His perspective on cycling has informed my own, at least on days when I’m not writing polemical take-downs of bike lane foes.

On the one hand, it’s surprising that it took this long for New York to get the Cycle Chic treatment.  (Although there are other great blogs in the city that document fashionable cyclists and bike culture, Cycle Chic is a trademarked term owned by Colville-Andersen.)  There are thirty-three other official Cycle Chic blogs, and it might seem strange to center-of-the-universe New Yorkers that Sacramento and Atlanta–LA without the beach, as I call it–got the official CC stamp of approval before the Big Apple.

On the other hand, it’s not at all surprising that New York has been low on the Cycle Chic totem pole.  While we are a city known for our style-wise pedestrians, our biking culture has, historically, tended to be more Mad Max than Max Mara.  Outside of delivery people, messengers, and the Lycra crowd, biking in New York has long had a reputation of something undertaken only by the militant, politically active, or suicidal.

This began to change a bit with Janette Sadik-Khan’s appointment and a renewed focus on adding bike lanes and cycling infrastructure to the city.  Stores such as Adeline Adeline, which opened in Tribeca last year, heralded a small shift from the Lycra set to a more stylish, yet utilitarian type of rider, and similar stores have opened elsewhere.  Even at my local bike shop I noticed that upright steel bike brands such as Linus and Electra were crowding out the Colnagos and Canondales this summer.  Stories such as this one in the New York Times Styles section in September seemed like the icing on the cake.  (Although it depends on how you regard the Styles section; it’s almost an unspoken rule that by the time a trend is covered there, it’s either already been established for months or is totally made up.)

But then the snow started.  Despite massive gains in new bike lanes, growing ridership, booming business for bike shops, and a general shift in public space away from cars and towards people, transit, and bicycles, it seemed as if cycling in New York ground to a halt.

If it isn’t the weather–the grey skies and soot-covered snow that makes even the most die-hard New Yorker raise the white flag of surrender to Los Angeles–it’s the draconian bike crackdown that has seen the NYPD issuing tickets to cyclists in Central Park while drunk car drivers run over bicycle deliverymen in Midtown.  Even without these news-worthy events, there’s the simple fact that it’s cold outside, leaving only the most die-hard cyclists on the road.  The fact that ridership is down right now is about as surprising as the fact that fewer people are going for strolls on the beach at Coney Island.

Into this void stepped the editors and reporters of the New York Post such as John Doyle and Sally Goldenberg as well as TV reporters such as Tony Aiello and Marcia Kramer.  Using empty bike lanes as a backdrop, they have been on a months-long campaign to portray the DOT as bending over backwards to “brazen” cyclists at the expense of senior citizens and local businesses.  Even the New York Times got into the act, with a thoroughly unscientific study of the Columbus Avenue bike lane on a 33-degree day during a time when most people were at work.

Note the temperature.

CBS2 is one of the prime offenders in this regard.  Marcia Kramer may be biased, but she’s not stupid, and she had a very good reason for reporting from Prospect Park West when it was 26 degrees outside and the bike lane had not been plowed. (Picture, left)

It’s not merely that she was covering a recent DOT presentation or Community Board 6 meeting.  If that had been the sole reason, she might have interviewed someone from the community board or sent a camera to the meeting itself.  Kramer, it seems, has a narrative to push: bike lanes are bad.

One way to push that narrative is to prove that no one is using bike lanes, and if you’re going to do that you better act fast.  If Marcia Kramer comes back to Prospect Park West in April she can’t very well air a claim from a woman who “rarely [sees] people in the bike lane. Maybe one or two now and then.”  Not with dozens and dozens of bike commuters whizzing by her at 5:35 PM.  And if Tony Aiello drives Mobile 2 down Columbus Avenue on a summer night, he’ll have a hard time reconciling his narrative that bike lanes are bad for business while the camera picks up shots of people locking up their bikes before running into a store.

This reporting also speaks to a general laziness in local media these days.  If 60 Minutes took on the subject of bike lanes–you know, because that’s so much more important than Egypt or health care right now–I’m sure Steve Kroft would ask business owners if he could review their books before allowing them to complain that the bike lane and not, say, seasonal fluctuations or the recession hurt their profits.  Unfortunately, all CBS2 shares with 60 Minutes is a set of call letters.

There’s also a reason why the NY Post seems to publish an article a week on cycling.  If they can push the cyclist-as-other narrative now, when the only bike riders out there are the ones who fit the stereotypes then it’s going to be much easier to control the narrative in the spring when women worthy of a two-page spread in the Styles section get on bikes, when men in suits ride to work, or when parents start biking their kids to soccer practice.  Right now cyclists aren’t fathers, mothers, businesspeople, students, or style-mavens.  They’re this menacing guy.

To mix metaphors, in this winter of the New York cycling community’s discontent, I’ve been searching for signs of light on the horizon.  With snow from the last three storms not yet melted and another storm on the way, it may seem hard to believe that spring will be here soon.  Negative voices have gained steam in recent weeks, whether they come from within Brooklyn’s Borough Hall or the editorial offices of our tabloid media, and it may seem as if they are winning.  But they’re playing on an icy, snowy playing field as the referees call a lot more fouls on the underdogs, to mangle yet another metaphor.  They’re doing the reverse of running out the clock.  They’re trying to front-load the “biking is bad” narrative so early into the winter season that they’ll have an advantage come spring.

It’s into this mix that I welcomed the email notification about New York Cycle Chic this morning.  Just two-posts old, it’s hard to claim that this little blog signifies anything big in the march towards making New York more friendly to cyclists, but it is a welcome sign.  Come spring, when the bike lanes go back to only being blocked by double-parked cars and people feel more comfortable getting out on the road for work, for school, for errands, and for pleasure, you’ll see the city streets fill with an unprecedented amount of bikes.  If Cycle Chic blogs and sites like it are any barometer, it’s going to be a lot harder for the Marcia Kramers of the world to push their anti-cycling narrative very soon.

Hang in there.

  1. January 31, 2011 3:15 pm

    Being a devoted follower of Mikael Colville-Andersen’s Copenhagen Cycle Chic, I had always wondered why New York Cycle Chic was nowhere to be seen and it’s something that had been distressing me for some time. As a native New Yorker from Brooklyn, I ride my bicycle to get around most of the time and our “developing” cycling infrastructure has never discouraged me from going about my daily life…(its what I’m accustomed to), but thing are looking bright and I believe that” if you build it, they will come”. I truly believe in cycling as a sustainable form of transportation and hope that having a Cycle Chic in New York will encourage people to cycle and feel good.


  2. January 31, 2011 3:23 pm

    Agreed! So happy to have you covering the scene in New York. Welcome!


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