06 January 2014

This Bike Boom, This Time Around

It's been said that if you wore something the first time it was in fashion, you can't wear it when it comes back.

I am of two minds about that.  On one hand, growing up as a boy and living as a young man, I wished I could wear (in public) the print skirts, peasant tops and lace leggings that were en vogue.  At least, during the '80's, I could wear neon pink--Did you hear me?:  Pink!--even if only on my Italian cycle jerseys and jackets.  Still, I longed to rock the leather-and-lace look the way Madonna did (and her daughter would a quarter-century later) and to wear one of those female executive suits with a pencil skirt and a fitted jacket the way Sigourney Weaver did in Working Girl. 

On the other, I don't want to revive some of my more painful memories of those times, when I could speak to no one about my gender identity struggles and thus lived in a kind of social isolation that hindered my development in so many ways and still sometimes affects me.

So why am I talking about such things on a bike blog?, you ask.  Well, I sometimes see references to the "70's bike boom".  I just happened to have lived through it.  Actually, it started at roughly the same time I was entering puberty--my first puberty, to be exact.  (Make what you will of that.)  That was when I, like many other people, first rode the machines that, for many, are still synonymous with sport cycling: ten-speed bikes.  Whether on a department-store Murray or Huffy, a Schwinn Varsity or Continental from the shop passed down through three or four generations of family members who sold and fixed bikes kids got for Christmas, birthdays and other occasions-- or one of those newfangled Peugeots or Fujis or Raleigh Grand Prixes from new bike emporia that were cropping up---many of us discovered that bicycles could be faster, flashier and more temperamental than the so-called "English racer" three-speed, not to mention the baloon-tired Columbias some of our parents rode.

I remember how some actual and wannabe pundits were predicting a cultural shift:  The "energy crisis" sent gasoline prices to a then-unheard-of dollar a gallon (which was still a third to a quarter of what Europeans and Japanese were paying) and some people discovered that not only was cycling to work or school cheaper than driving, it also was, for some, faster when one took into account the amount of time spent hunting for a parking space and doing the other things associated with driving or even taking mass transit.

For every one who saw bikes as "the way of the future," another saw the "boom" as a fad.  For nearly three decades, it seemed (to some people, anyway) that they were right.  Those U0-8s and S-10s'es and Competitions and Internationals gathered dusts in basements and attics--or, worse, ended up in landfills.  Some discovered they didn't like cycling as much as they expected; others were flustered the first time they got a flat or gears went out of adjustment.  And others simply moved on to other things.

Also, the price of gas held steady while other prices didn't.  The result was that during the presidencies of Reagan and Bush the Elder, driving was just about as cheap (at least in the US) as it was two decades earlier.

During the past decade or so, we've entered another bike boom, if you will.  Along stretches of the waterfront, the warrenlike streets of central Brooklyn, the steel-bound cobblestones of Bronx industrial areas and the rows of brick houses in Queens, I see steams and throngs of cyclists where, on any given day in years past, I might have been the only rider to have pedaled through in several weeks or even months.  There are lanes and bike shares; drivers talk about us as a group, if sometimes scornfully.  And it's easier than ever to find just about any kind of bike or equipment one likes or needs.

But it seems to me that no one has "re-discovered" cycling.  In other words, I get the impression that almost no one who bought a ten-speed back in the day is getting back into riding now.  There are a few of us who continued to ride though the intervening decades.  However, it seems that those who bought their Motobecane Mirages back in 1974 and stopped riding them by the time Meat Loaf got his fifteen weeks of fame are adhering, however unconsciously, to the "you can't do it when it comes back" dictum regarding fashion.

From lissa.net

Also, the current "boom", if you want to call it that, is definitely less cohesive than the one of my youth.  One great development, in my opinion, about the current interest in cycling is that more transportation-oriented bikes and equipment are being offered.  I sometimes think that those who just wanted to ride their bikes from home to work or school back in the '70's weren't too crazy about the downturned handlebars or narrow seats and tires of the "racing" ten-speeds they bought.  Also, most of those bikes didn't have fenders, racks or other things that make it more feasible to ride in whatever one might wear on the job or to carry the things needed to perform that job.  I'm guessing that more than a few people were discouraged by what they perceived as the inconveniences of cycling to work or the store.

On the other hand, this current boom has also made high-end racing bikes--some of which cost more than I earned in any of the first ten or twelve years I worked--into status symbols, or at least markers of "real" cyclists.  In my time, not many cyclists raced, or even pretended to.  Somehow, though, those of us who did (however briefly) weren't a separate class from the others.  Interestingly, I saw more diversity--in social, economic, cultural,racial and generational (though not gender) terms among high-mileage cyclists than I do now.  I rode with people who were old enough to be my grandparents or young enough for me to baby-sit; I pushed my pedals up hills alongside bankers and their children as well as people who borrowed a dollar or two from me (as poor as I was!) to get through the week.

Because we were not as fractured--we couldn't be--not only were our bikes not status symbols (though we admired, and aspired to own, frames built with Reynolds or Columbus tubing and outfitted with Campagnolo or the best Sun Tour components), we did not fetishize them.  Those of us who rode knew why we chose the gear we used:  Although we may not have known the intricacies, we knew that the way our bikes were built evolved out of practical experience, not a fantasy of something "vintage."  Sure, there were fads, but mainly in ephemerata like lug cut-out designs or paint schemes.  The main operating systems, if you will, were refined over time but weren't rendered obsolete by marketers.

I'm thinking now about something a famous pianist said about Mozart:  His music is scorned, or at least heard condescendingly, in some circles because conservatory students and young musicians don't understand the reasons for all of those movements they believe to be quaint and romantic.  I'm also thinking about the way architects in the middle of the 20th Century eschewed the pitched roofs and cornices of Victorian houses without understanding the practical purposes of them.  In a similar vein, a subset of cyclists wants "randonneur" bikes, parts and other accoutrements for exactly the same reason another group of riders simply would not be caught dead on anything that isn't made from carbon fiber:  They don't understand the reasons why "classic" bikes were, and are, made as they are any more than they understand the purposes of more modern designs.

If you are merely following a trend without understanding why the trend exists, you can't return to it when it returns:  You will have moved on to something else.  That, I think, is the reason why we're told not to wear a fashion "the second time around".  But if we understand what moves us to it--in other words, if we understand what attracted us to it then, and why it attracts us now--then we don't have to look or feel foolish; we can re-interpret it for ourselves.  I believe the same is true for cycling:  If you knew why you were doing it--and you loved it--back in the first "boom", you feel as "at home" (if slower) on your bike as you did back in the day.  And you're probably riding now--perhaps even with all of those young people in "retro" jerseys.



  1. I don't mean to put words into your mouth, but I believe your argument is that some trends have a logical basis and some don't. And those founded on logic are just as sound the second time around as they were the first. I would definitely agree with that.

    Some how I missed the bike trend the first time around. Perhaps it was due to "growing up in the sticks" as my grandparents called it, or perhaps due to the culture out in the country. For whatever reason, no one out there seemed to have it. No one even rode bikes during elementary and high school. However, I'm please to say I didn't miss it the second time around. Better late than never!

  2. Cycling today in Seattle is very unlike cycling in Seattle in the 70's. Maybe it's all the Californians moving up the coast, but it is definitely an older crowd nowadays.

  3. Your post brings back a lot of memories about the bike boom. My 1973 Motobecane Mirage was my sole source of transportation when I went off to college. One of my roommates was into racing and had a mid 70s Masi. What a great bike. I upgraded to a Raleigh Super Course in the early 80s after I graduated and was gainfully employed. I remember the look of shock on my dad's face when I told him that I had spent nearly $400 for a bike. I had lusted after a Competition or even a Professional, but decided a fancier bike wasn't within my budget. A few years later, I bought my first mountain bike and the road bike didn't get ridden for long stretches. But now, most of my riding is on pavement.
    The current bike boom is different. I read recently that more bikes than cars were sold in Europe last year. Fortunately there has been more investment in infrastructure, there's more advocacy for commuting, and "bike culture" is more eclectic. In the 70s, we all wanted to be racers. Thanks for the great post.

  4. Lucky Chow--You make a great point. The "boom" was regional and geographical. In the small New Jersey town to which my family moved from Brooklyn, adults still weren't riding bikes. But it seemed that all of my classmates got the ten-speed bikes that were de rigeur in those days. Unfortunately, most of those bikes were discarded or mothballed as soon the kids got their drivers' licenses.

    Steve--I can imagine how different it must be. Of course, it makes sense: Seattle was a very different city 40 years ago.

    MT--I can relate to your experience. When I bought my Schwinn Continental, my parents were nearly apoplectic over my spending the princely sum of $96. Of course, I didn't tell them I was really lusting after the $250 Peugeot PX-10!

    What I find interesting, in retrospect, is that the 70's Bike Boom centered on racing or racing-styled bikes. I knew a couple of racers and would later become one myself. And I think racers were considered the "real" cyclists. That perception still persists in some places (Just go to your local "pro" shop!) and was the mainstream notion about cycling until a decade or so ago.