Riding the It Factor
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.”