Riding the It Factor
By DAVID COLMAN, nytimes.com, april 17 2009 The Great Downturn may have its first real status symbol. It has plenty in common with recent extravagances. Like the Range Rover or the Sub-Zero fridge, it has a solid frame designed for function. Like a Louis Vuitton trunk, it has a chic design and a patina of history stretching back to the 19th century. And like a bottle of San Pellegrino, it evokes that genteel way of life that Europeans are always going on about. This new It object is the glossy black Dutch bicycle, its design unchanged since World War II. Increasingly imported to the United States and starting to be seen on the streets of New York (and in the windows of at least one clothing store), it appears to have everything a good craze needs. That includes a hefty price tag — usually between $1,000 and $2,000 — and a charming back story about how the bikes have been an indispensable part of the picturesque Dutch cityscape for decades. But can New York revert to New Amsterdam? Can the bicycle, the urban answer to the wild mustang, slow down and put fenders on? Can the urban cyclist, he of the ragtag renegade clothes or shiny spandex, grow up and put on a tie? Serious obstacles stand in the way. Even as bicycle sales and ridership are up, even as the city becomes more bike friendly than ever, the extreme poles of bike culture are still in many ways hostile to biking as it is done in the Netherlands. There, where riding a bicycle to work in a suit and tie is as notable an act as drinking a cup of coffee, there is no bike culture — all culture includes the bike. The civilized pedigree of the Dutch bike is matched by its old-fashioned design: it comes with fenders, chain guard, generator and rack — standard, as they say in Detroit. With a bike kitted out like that, a man can wear almost anything he likes to work and not worry about getting grimy — no kamikaze messenger-wear required. Luckily, the new look of men’s wear, with its slimmed-down, sporty shapes (even in suits), is tailor-made for a bicycle commute. And since Dutch bikes are ridden upright, not hunched over, and you move at a safe, slow gait, sweating is not the issue it is when you’re careening on a road bike. So, with 170 miles of new bike lanes in New York, it makes sense that the Dutch Bike Co. in Seattle should be opening a branch in the city this summer, its third in the United States. Already, traditional bicycles with upright seats, fenders and chain guards — so-called city bikes — are the biggest growth area at stores like Bicycle Habitat in SoHo. Yet even with bicycle commuting up in New York by 35 percent from 2007 to 2008, according to the New York City Department of Transportation, there are still impediments to its being widely embraced by the city. These range from the obvious — like, how do you lock your bike so it won’t be stolen 30 seconds later? — to more slippery issues of style. How should you dress to bike to work? Which bike has an acceptable level of manliness? These are tricky questions. As the parade of 10-speeds, mountain bikes and, more recently, fixed-gear designs knocked the upright, old-school bicycle off the road, accouterments like fenders and chain guards came to be seen — by men, at least — as eccentric. If a guy is going to get on a bike, he wants to imagine he’s Lance Armstrong, not Pee-wee Herman. James Vicente, a court attorney at the Kings County Criminal Court in Brooklyn, knows the quandary. After a trip to Amsterdam five years ago, Mr. Vicente was inspired to ride to work in his suit and tie. (He converted his road bike to a fixed-gear bike, with detachable fenders.) “I liked the perversity of it,” he said. “I liked saying: ‘Anyone can do this. It’s normal.’ I never ride with a helmet either, even when people are telling me I’m an idiot. Riding a bike should be normal, and you shouldn’t have to wear a funny Styrofoam hat.” One day he collided with another rider, tearing a gash in his suit sleeve and another in his pride. Today his suits reside in an office closet, and he cycles to work in jeans and a polo shirt. Would he have gotten in the accident on a Dutch bike? He laughed. “Probably not,” he said. “I was riding with no hands, and the guy came out of the bike lane. If I’d been on one of those, I would probably have been going in more of a straight line.” The city government is addressing bikers’ practical concerns as fast as it can. The Department of Transportation has installed bike shelters, and is reviewing ideas for a bike-share program like the one introduced in Paris two years ago. A 2007 study by the Department of City Planning found that the foremost obstacles people cited for not commuting by bicycle was the fear of theft and lack of secure parking, a problem that is being addressed through two proposals now before the City Council. One, scheduled to come to a vote this month, mandates that all new commercial and residential buildings provide dedicated bike storage. The second aims to open up bicycle access in older buildings, many of which have been historically unfriendly to it. It must be said that the style world has hardly been a friend to the bicycle either. In a century of attempting to appear sportif, fashion has filched ideas from every sport: riding, hunting, sailing, polo, rugby, even motorcycling. Bicycling? Nothing but punch lines. So it’s nice to see bicycling get a nod of sorts, courtesy of Club Monaco. This month, as an unusual accessory to its line of stark urban clothes, Club Monaco is showing and selling bicycles from the century-old Royal Dutch Gazelle brand in seven of its stores (though it can be ordered in any of them). On vacation in England last summer, James Mills, a Club Monaco executive, spotted a cool-looking Londoner riding a Gazelle. Back home, he ordered one from the Netherlands. A few weeks later, he was proudly riding it to work. At a photo shoot, his ride was so popular it ended up in the shoot with models aboard. Enthused by the images, Mr. Mills and his colleagues found the Dutch Bicycle Company in Somerville, Mass., which imports the bicycles, and made a deal to distribute Gazelles at its shops. “We’ve sold a dozen,” Mr. Mills said, “and they’ve only been in the windows a week.” Hard-core cyclists might scoff at seeing a bike in a clothing boutique. But, as Mr. Vicente pointed out, the kiss of fashion may help people embrace the idea of a more practical bike. “Juxtapose that with the most fashionable bikes in New York now, the fixed-gear bikes, which are really impractical,” he said. Still, he concedes that the machismo of bike culture is hard to fight, adding: “The only person I know who has a Dutch bike is a girl.” George Bliss, who teaches at Pratt Institute in Brooklyn, and is the owner of Hub Station, a vintage bike shop in the West Village, believes the best P.R. for everyday biking comes from people outside the biking world, not inside. “I use to think that car culture was the problem, but now I think it’s bike culture,” he said. By that he meant that the discourse about city biking is dominated by cycling zealots who don’t have the desire, or the skill, to attract people who don’t see themselves as cyclists, just as people who ride a bike to work. That’s certainly how the Dutch-bikers think of themselves. Peter Moore, a contractor and developer, has ridden a Dutch WorkCycles bike in the city for years. He even takes his kids to school on it (one on the back, one on the seat, and he stands — so very Dutch). At the same time, he is aware of how important style is to New Yorkers. A onetime model and son of the late Nonnie Moore, a longtime fashion editor, Mr. Moore favors clothes that fit the look of the bicycle: preppy Steven Alan shirts, a necktie, a Ralph Lauren tweed sport coat, vintage army pants and a pair of sturdy lace-ups. “It’s all an ensemble,” he said. “I try and put it together with some style to honor the quality of the bike.” As good as it sounds, a Dutch bike is in some ways not perfect for New York. Large and heavy, it is not ideal for small spaces, tight corners and cramped elevators. Even if it isn’t San Francisco, the city has enough hills to make a lighter bike desirable. And given the price, a folding bicycle you can take inside, or a vintage model that won’t cost as much, may be a better choice, given the still-high incidence of theft. Even so, riding one is an unusual treat, and a fascinating lesson in bicycle geometry. The low seat and curved handlebars force you to sit up straight. The heavy frame and the angle of your legs to the pedals make it hard to get up much speed, and the wide handlebars make it a more stately, less agile ride — like driving a 1967 Lincoln Continental. You feel safer, more composed and, well, more grown-up. The rambunctious 8-year-old inside so many bikers doesn’t get traction. In short, you quickly understand why the Dutch don’t wear helmets — just one more style perk to top it all off.