Life in the Bike Lane
Bergdorf Goodman Voice
The last time I was in Paris, I wandered beguiled as always by its broad avenues and cool cafés and the multi-culti nannies in the Luxembourg Gardens. The constant stream of highly attractive women passing by on bicycles added another cinematic dimension to that seductive ambience. Even more charming, many had accessorized either themselves or their cycles to create a marvelous mobile tableau of flowering fashion and style. I took up position at a sidewalk café on rue Saint-Honoré, the narrow street running through the heart of a chic shopping district, and quietly observed the two-wheeled visions rolling by. A wicker basket holding a bouquet of fleurs and a teacup-sized Yorkie perfectly matched the straw-colored locks of that blonde on her vintage Raleigh, pedaling quite comfortably in Louboutin boots, whose red soles doubled as reflectors. A quick Google informed me that the heel height on Monsieur Louboutin’s footwear corresponds exactly to the clearance afforded by the pedal’s downswing, a mere spike’s length from the pavement.
Next appeared a pale blue Schwinn racer with pin striping detail mirroring its rider’s eyes, embellished with a blue leather sac-a-porter casually draped around her torso and matching ankle boots in a shade of sky the painter Constable would surely have envied. She was followed by another Delilah, elevated to a regal height by her shiny Batavus. She has added a veil to the visor of her helmet, softening the brutish contours of this necessary equipment. The parade continued, beauties on bicycles breathing the sweet Parisian air, rolling over the ancient cobblestones, their carbon footprint a smoky whisper.
Paris will always have its local beauties touring the boulevards, armed with bouquets and baguettes, and recently a public cycle rental system, code-named Vélib, has further enhanced the al fresco pleasures of this singular town by putting visitors on two wheels as well. First launched with ten thousand bicycles in 2007, the fleet now numbers twenty thousand, all in daily use. Maintenance has proved expensive, and despite their heft, the bikes are frequently targeted by thieves, but Vélib is flourishing, and it has revolutionized the way Parisians and their guests move around their city. This simple utopian idea, first tested by Holland’s Provos forty years ago, is finally catching on worldwide. London, Boston, Montreal and many other cities are all running successful programs. Because people rarely treat property that’s not their own with any great respect, these programs are also a kind of civics test, one that New Yorkers will surely pass, if Mayor Bloomberg ever decides to greenlight a similar program here.
Currently the mayor appears to be consulting with soothsayers and sidewalk psychics in his efforts to dissuade traffic from clogging our inner city streets. Arcane parking designations and a web of bike lanes have so far only slowed traffic down rather than thinning the gas-guzzling herd. As a bike rider, I like the mayor’s random plan, insane as it may appear to deliverymen and motorists. Streets equipped with bike lanes are crucial to my daily sorties, because it is a bitter fact that most car and truck drivers simply detest bikers. They will cut you off without mercy, tap your ride with a fender or a wing mirror, and when they trespass illegally into the bike lane, a carelessly disembarking passenger might easily door you, which will floor you, and the street will gore you. I suffered this humiliation recently on West 10th Street, a most undignified and potentially deadly event, especially sans helmet. Mine was at the cobbler’s shop, having a hairline crack repaired. Seventy-five percent of all falling riders land on their heads, apparently, but I landed on my shoulder, which then intruded slightly into my torso. Ouch! My single most valuable possession, a vintage Rolex, flew from my wrist and out into Seventh Avenue, but was luckily retrieved by a sympathetic UPS driver before the light could change and advancing traffic grind it to powder.
As an amateur stick-shifter, I can almost empathize with the extraordinary antagonism of drivers who sit seething, gridlocked by the mayor’s new traffic system, while we free spirits glide noiselessly by on bikes, blithely ignoring red lights and pedestrians, hearts beating melodious, calves toned into solid muscle. Apart from vindictive motorists and inclement weather, when the steel construction plates on so many New York streets mimic sheets of black ice, riding a bike in the city is pure delight.
The helmet, though absolutely necessary, is still far behind in style, however efficient it may be at protecting the delicate cabeza. The M.C. Escher flavor favored by many cyclists, that Alien insectile look, peaked over the eyes and trailing far behind the head, is flattering to none. I prefer the old school motorbike-style helmet, which gives me the slightly alarming appearance of a tank commander who’s lost his tank. Not a great look, but one should always choose safety over vanity. And so the casque stays on as my warrior wheels propel me around New York more cheaply and efficiently than any car, and probably quicker than a famous rapper’s Maybach, which even now spews carbon monoxide into the air as it loiters at the curb right next to my chained-up bike. I wonder if that superstar wouldn’t prefer to pedal to the Village on a hand-crafted bike, rather than lounging on the buttery leather of the limo, relaxed but disconnected from the streets that once provided the primary juice for his brilliant poetry?
Lately many of the wealthier persons of our great and diverse nation have added custom cycles to their stable of luxury conveyances, flaunting a still arcane luxury item while getting a great cardio workout. The bikes they like might induce sticker shock in the average cyclist, but to a hedge funder these exquisite precision instruments, manufactured in space age materials ranging from carbon fiber to titanium, are suddenly hipper than a fully pimped-out Maserati. It may be a status thing but it is nevertheless a welcome move toward the greener world we so urgently need.
Those high end custom models are more likely to have their own garage than to be chained up on the street, especially in New York, where the risks of leaving one’s bike outdoors are uninsurable, (though thanks to artist/musician David Byrne, numerous fetching pieces of street furniture have popped up around town to provide a solid anchor if you are willing to take the risk—there’s a red, shoe-shaped one right outside Bergdorf Goodman, in fact).
I use a shackle strong enough to secure an elephant—in fact I bought it cheap from a retired mahout in Brooklyn—and yet the pilferers still prowl the night, testing locks and rattling chains. Just recently, some fellow with no future in major crime removed a seven-dollar bell from the handlebar of my trusty iron steed as it stood tethered to a No Parking sign outside my front door. In what may have been his first dip into the crime pool, the hapless skell also tried unsuccessfully to remove the well-seasoned Brooks saddle, but the compulsory no-tamper bolt resisted his amateur efforts.
What to wear while biking is a hotly disputed question in the contentious community of two wheelers. Close-fitting garments are obviously preferable, with all those spokes and chains threatening fatal entanglements, but how close is too close? Lycra® has been an indispensable element in modern textile development, but any garment that consists of over 90% Lycra® should probably be worn as underwear, even by those ectomorphs whose bodies conform to less than normal human dimensions. On skinny bikers the results are rarely flattering–stick figures resembling a scarab beetle with decals, or a blood sausage in its casing. And yet a vast number of these Tour de France wannabes embrace the professionals’ gear from shoe to skullcap, and believe themselves empowered by such garments. They course along peaceful bike paths at idiot speeds, disdaining bells and brakes, sneering at any machine that does not conform to their specialized standards. These surly wonks feature a look that only a professional cyclist or a seasoned fashionista can successfully execute. Skintight tops bedecked with badges they didn’t earn, padded shorts causing all manner of arterial constriction, the whole unlikely ensemble crowned by a variation on the ecclesiastical skullcap. On weekends this tightly-wrapped herd thunders in close formation along the West Side bike path, dreaming of France, imagining themselves a speeding tour de force, when in fact, they are more likely forced to tour.
In many cyclo-centric cities, the fashionable bike of choice, in defiance of the racing elite, is a machine along the sturdy lines of the English Pashley, or its Dutch cousins, the solidly crafted Batavus or the Workcycle, sixty-five pounds of steel and rubber and hard leather seating, the kind of bike the Resistance used to ferry bombs about during WW2. Even though the speed riders make fun of these burly bikes and their often delicate riders, they are a fast-growing segment of bicycle society. The hefty contraptions are not nearly as cheap as the 1950s midwife bike they closely resemble—about $1500 for the imported model at bike shops around New York—but they are worth their considerable weight in kudos. Entire blogs have sprung up that lovingly document these Eurocentric machines and their frequently attractive flyers. Bikes have punctured the tough hide of the Zeitgeist, and that trickle of intrepid riders has become a mighty stream of healthy bodies straddling custom frames bedecked with leather handgrips, sonar whistles, Kevlar tires and nuke-proof aluminum wheels. Pedestrian beware when the tinkling bell tolls…the future is pedaling your way.