Cycling Is More than a Fashion Statement

Cynthia Rowley rides a bike

Cynthia Rowley rides a bike—might want to adjust that seat!

The New York Times has once again acknowledged cyclists—and once again, bikes are newsworthy only as a fashion accessory or style statement. I found this disappointing.

It’s true that bicycles are a thing of beauty and craftsmanship. Just like your choice of car, they have the potential to reflect your personality and make a fashion statement. And of course, bikes made by designers like Cynthia Rowley and Fendi remind people that hey, there are still bikes around, and sometimes people ride them.

But overall, I don’t think that the bicycle as accessory fad will have a long-term effect on cycling culture or make a significant addition to the number of bicycle commuters on the road. And it’s not because I am afraid of “wobbling fashionistas” endangering my safety—I’m happy to encourage anyone who wants to give riding a bike a try.

Here’s my reasoning: By making a bike seem like a luxury item or a fashion accessory, it takes away from the idea of the bicycle as a functional instrument that can be part of anyone’s day-to-day life. Yes, it can and should add beauty to that life as well. Yes, I personally prefer to cycle in everyday clothes, and I try to make those clothes fashionable. But  since a bicycle is meant to be a practical, useful tool for getting around, it’s not something you should buy on looks (or designer name) alone. Are the people who buy these bikes really getting something that fits their needs and lifestyle? If not, they’re not going to be riding longterm.

Perhaps this worry is pointless, since it’s likely that these designer models will only appeal to those who were waiting for a bicycle with enough bling to dazzle them into forgetting that riding it entails getting off the couch and turning off “Gossip Girl.” Those people will likely be perfectly content with a Rowley cruiser. But anyone who thinks these bikes are going to lead to a large increase in bicycle commuters and bike advocates is fooling themselves.

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46 thoughts on “Cycling Is More than a Fashion Statement

  1. dukiebiddle says:

    I will say in defense of the article that it is in the Fashion and Style section of the NY Times. Everything in that section, be it a baby, a real estate purchase or even a retirement home for your parents, is treated as a fashion accessory.

    Although I would agree that I would like to see more bicycle articles in the health, human living, urban infrastructure and transportation sections.

  2. I think about this point often, and I guess I don’t entirely agree with your post. I think that no matter how silly they are, these kinds of articles are more likely to influence the mainstream than articles in the Health section and then any kind of activism. People do not want what’s healthy and what’s responsible; they want what’s cool and what others whom they consider cool have. Maybe the idea that cycling culture conflicts with watching Gossip Girl is precisely what puts them off bicycles, whereas thinking that the two things go together can encourage them. I am not sure whether cycling, as presented through the fashion/lifestyle filter is a fad; it honestly might not be due to economical and environmental factors. I guess all this remains to be seen…

    • Trisha says:

      I have gone back and forth on this too, but overall I think the people who would buy a designer bicycle are not going to be converted to the biking lifestyle. The fashion angle does help to bridge the gap between “Gossip Girl” and a cycling lifestyle, but that can be demonstrated without designer bikes that are overpriced and impractical (as your site and this one prove). Also, I wonder if the many people who just “want what’s cool and what others whom they consider cool have” (I totally agree there are many such people!) would continue cycling once it fades from the fashion spotlight.

  3. dukiebiddle says:

    I partially agree in that if this is the *only* media coverage in one of our newspapers of record, then it is a problem, because as you said, fashion is transitory. But, if viewed as part of a multilateral approach, then I think it is a positive, making it more of a Shermanesque complete war approach to cycling advocacy. You hit them with reason, you hit them with economics, you hit them with environmental concerns, you hit them with health, you hit them with everything else, and if they’re *still* resistant for vanity issues, then you hit them with vanity too.

    One positive of the fashion approach, which really doesn’t speak to me, is that unlike other approaches, it’s never preachy.

    • Trisha says:

      That’s true—it does make cycling seem fun (well, if you like fashion) rather than a serious sporting activity or something that is a civic duty.

  4. Sungsu says:

    Fortunately, some of the most functional bikes you can buy are very fashionable as well — take Pashley Sonnet Bliss, for example. Click on my name to see.

    • Trisha says:

      Exactly. And someone who buys a Pashley will get something worth paying for, and probably learn to love riding it. Not sure the same can be said for some of these other bikes, with the exception of the Abici.

  5. Fashion bikes are a gateway drug! Get em hooked and… And we had better be improving our bike infrastructure, or it will just be a fad, when Suzy gets the idea to take her bike out of her quiet neighborhood. The more bikes you see in the media, the better. It gets the demand up. You’d better supply them with ways to safely get around town though, or it won’t last.

    Full disclosure: I got the “gateway” ref from Adrienne @ velovogue. She’s much more original than me.

    • Melanie says:

      I agree! I visited Copenhagen Cycle Chic for a year before I bought my Dutch bike, and bought the bike in large part because it seemed to represent a particular aesthetic. The bike opened me up to the fitness benefits and pleasures of daily cycling, and bam, one less car on the road. For me, that wouldn’t have happened in the same way with a garage sale mountain bike.

      That is all to say, sure, the article could say more about fashionable cycling as a lifestyle rather than bikes as pretty objects- but I think the picture of the LVMH exec says a thousand words: http://graphics8.nytimes.com/images/2009/09/10/fashion/10bike-600.jpg

      I would much rather people supported bike related industries than cars.

  6. dottie says:

    My biggest issue with this type of press is that it gives others in the bike community fodder to lampoon “stylish” Dutch bikes. These fashionistas are cramping my style ;)

  7. Yvette (Slow Bike Miami wife contingent) says:

    Living in a mecca dedicated to “the next fad,” with nothing lasting more than a couple of months, I largely agree with your sentiments. I can figure that there will be some folks who will jump on a bike because it’s fashionable and then jump back off because it passes, and yet, I’m sure there will be a small contingent of people who jump on because of the fashion and then get hooked. And that’s great, if you ask me. My big issue is just with the “fashion” bikes–with foolishness like fur and whatever, it’s not rational, functional or reasonable. What’s next: fashion toilet paper encrusted with more “bling?” :)

    It’s a double edged sword, as fashions always are, but at least this one can have positive aspects after it fades away–think of all the babies people weren’t prepared to have, or the genetically ruined “teacup” puppies people bought because it was in vogue?–this at least won’t hurt others too much except for the wobbly fashionistas. More dangerous are the folks already on bikes who have no idea of the rules of the road!

  8. Tad Salyards says:

    I find your reaction to be somewhat in conflict with your prior posted entitled “My Favorite Summer Cycling Outfit.”

    • dottie says:

      Ha. This post was written by Trish, the prior post was written by me. With this slightly new format, the name of the author is on the bottom of the post from the main page, but not when you click on the post itself. We’ll come up with a fix for that confusion.

      Regardless, I don’t see how it conflicts at all. My favorite summer cycling outfit happens to be “fashionable,” but I explain why it’s my favorite based on practical factors of my daily cycling life, including a recent 20 mile joyride. Trisha is talking about $9,000 fur-trimmed bicycles being displayed on high fashion runways.

      More simply, Trisha’s post is entitled “Cycling is MORE than a fashion statement,” not that cycling cannot be done by fashionable people. My cycling has much more to do with my lifestyle than any fashion statement.

    • Trisha says:

      That was written by Dottie, not me, but I don’t think there’s a conflict. My issue is with the current emphasis on cycling as fashion to the extent that the practical side is ignored. Our site, and most of the other cycling blogs I read, include both, and both have their place — but while fashion might get people on a bike, it won’t necessarily keep them on one.

  9. Lorenza says:

    My experience and change into a cycle lover started last year when my partner I visited Copenhagen. We decided to forego planes in favour of trains (all the way from England, yes!). We also visited Berlin on our way to Copenhagen and both cities have been instrumental for me to realise that you can cycle for your everyday errands and commute in your normal every day clothes! The fact that the Danish people look so stylish on their bikes I must admit has been very inspiring. Maybe I am weak but the idea of using my legs, raising my heart beats and oxygen levels while still looking half decent and ready to step into a shop, office or cinema without having to change clothes, shoes and so on, sold me completely on ‘I have to start cycling more’ idea ;)

    BUT I have to admit that I have been trying to live my life in a more sustainable way, and this already set me on my way on wanting to cycle more… i.e. I made a conscious decision about it, it was not just spurred by a fashion/style awe, and I think that’s why I stuck to it, it was not just a ‘phase’…

    I got my Pashley thanks to a bit with luck and also because I was ready to find the ride bike and spend a bit of money on something I would throughly enjoy and cherish :) since having Pashley my cycling enjoyment has grown enormously so much so that I cycle every day to go to work, shopping, meeting friends and all! And the seldom times I do drive, it feels strange and rather wrong ;)

    I agree with Trisha that bikes that are portrayed as ‘bling’ aren’t going to last long, but bikes and style as seen on these blogs, on Copenhagen cycle chic and so on does make a difference because they are inspiring that there’s another way (to the car) and encourage people to take their bikes to the roads!

    In England a recent study by Sustrans has shown that 79% of women don’t cycle at all and safety on the roads is the biggest contributing factor. I think media and governments should spend more time and effort endorsing projects to improve cycling infrastructures in our cities, then people, stylish or not (which doesn’t really matter at all!), will feel more inclined to ditch their cars for their bicycle :D

    xxx

    • Trisha says:

      No, I agree: It is important to see an example out there to follow. I just feel that fur-trimmed bicycles are not the kind of example people who are likely to want to keep cycling are going to follow…but perhaps I’m being too judgmental. Nothing would make me happier than the fur-trimmed bike contingent proving me wrong, actually. :)

  10. Tyler says:

    Irony: Your usage of a bicycle as a prop in a post about fashion the day before your critique of the NYT Style section for doing the same thing.

    • dottie says:

      Actually, not at all. If you read the comments above yours, this point is already discussed in detail. Also, the bicycle in the picture in the prior post is not a “prop;” it is the bicycle I rode 9 miles to get to a meeting downtown immediately before taking the picture.

  11. Tyler says:

    Upon a closer look, your point is valid.

    Upon an even closer look, your whole website blends bikes and fashion. “City cycling with Style…” Many of the posts on this site blend fashion and cycling.

    And, truthfully, I don’t see anything wrong with that. Pots calling kettles black though… that’s a different story.

    • Trisha says:

      I have conflicted feelings about this sometimes and maybe it shows in this post. I don’t have a problem with blending cycling and fashion; as you noted we do it. It’s portraying bicycles only as fashion that bothers me. It might be unfair of me to expect more depth from the style section of the NYT.

      • Fashion is not something that exists in dresses only. Fashion is in the sky, in the street, fashion has to do with ideas, the way we live, what is happening.
        Coco Chanel

        Think that covers it : )

  12. chibikegal says:

    having grown up in and around NYC, the fact that anyone other than a bike messenger is riding a bicycle to work in Manhattan is such an amazing development that I am still happy about this article (plus the related articles on the Times site). Friends even called me yesterday to ask if that was my bike in the photo (no, but the Workcycles bike is featured in the April article … http://www.nytimes.com/slideshow/2009/04/15/fashion/20090416-codes-slideshow_index.html)

    so my glass is half full. I think there are some people who don’t ride because of the image they think it will project. If the fashion world gets a few of them out there, all the better. and if some fashionistas or fashionista-watchers stick to their bikes come fall rather than their SUVs, we’ll all be better for it.

    • dottie says:

      A co-worker forwarded me the April article and asked if that was the bike I have. I said, “yes!” and he replied that if he ever did buy a bike, that is the kind of bike he would buy. So any press is good press, I guess.

  13. chibikegal says:

    OK that link did not work, here is the fashionista workcycle photo http://graphics8.nytimes.com/images/2009/04/15/fashion/27751264.JPG

  14. Jeff Schneider says:

    Unless people buy bikes well-suited for transportation cycling, with that use in mind, just increasing bike sales will have no effect on transportation.

    If you are old enough, I would ask you to think back to the introduction of ‘mountain bikes’ in the 1980′s. Many were sold, but as toys for recreational use off-road, not as practical transportation. Few were used for that purpose.

    I guess if someone can make money selling ‘designer’ bikes, good for them. Making money is tough. But I wouldn’t get too optimistic about fashion accessory bikes having any impact at all toward making cycling for transportation a common activity.

    • dukiebiddle says:

      Ah, but Jeff, early to mid 80′s rigid chromoly ‘mountain bike’ frames make the perfect transportation bicycles. They’re basically full-sized lightweight solid touring frames intended for 26″ wheels. Add slicks, tourist bars, a comfortable seat and you have the perfect transport beast. Co-ops around the country are seeking out those old toys to build up affordable and solidly built transportation for the masses.

      • Jeff Schneider says:

        Nothing wrong with the bikes per se, I agree. But their sale did nothing to promote bicycle transportation.

        • dukiebiddle says:

          I would disagree. The MTB fad was the best thing to happen to transportation cycling since the second world war. Every other cycling fad, the road bike craze of the mid seventies, the banana seat fad, the BMX fad, pulled cycling further away from transportation cycling and added to the public perception that bicycles were either toys or an extreme exercise machine. The MTB fad caught on because they were perceived as a more comfortable and practical alternative to the uncomfortable and extreme alternatives, but not as stodgy as grandma’s more practical 3 speed. Most people bought MTBs to serve as comfort bikes, not to jump stumps or hop rocks. At least that’s what Sheldon Brown said.

          • Jeff Schneider says:

            Maybe I’m only remembering half the story (give me a break, I’m old). But I also remember that in the 70′s REAL touring bikes were popular, and people (including me) really rode them for serious transportation. Those disappeared from bike stores when the MTB fad hit. The other fad that hit in the ’80′s was lycra cycling togs. Before then, we just wore t-shirts and khaki shorts…AND WE LIKED IT THAT WAY ;-)

    • Trisha says:

      “Just increasing bike sales will have no effect on transportation” — exactly my point.

  15. Yokota Fritz says:

    I’ve got to agree with those who say the fashion section is a great place to talk about cycling! It’s influence and eyeballs and many people are very influenced by trends, and you all are the trendsetters!

    FYI, I’m told there will be another “cycling and style” story in this Sunday’s NY Times by Bill Cunningham.

  16. Maggie says:

    I love that the NYT is focusing on biking as a fashion statement. When I saw the photo, I saw a bike I would want to ride. I hope others see the bike and think, “Hmm, I want to try that.” I just want people to get on a bike. They might not use it for commuting, but hey, they are on a bike.

    For some reason, this post reminded me of the scene in ‘The Devil Wears Prada’ where the Meryl Streep character gives the Anne Hathaway character a lecture on how high fashion reaches the everyday masses.
    Bottom line, it may reek of high fashion, but this high fashion will eventually trickle down to the everyday person.

    Quote from ‘The Devil Wears Prada’, with thanks to the person who posted this quote on IMDB.

    “This… ‘stuff’? Oh… ok. I see, you think this has nothing to do with you. You go to your closet and you select out, oh I don’t know, that lumpy blue sweater, for instance, because you’re trying to tell the world that you take yourself too seriously to care about what you put on your back. But what you don’t know is that that sweater is not just blue, it’s not turquoise, it’s not lapis, it’s actually cerulean. You’re also blithely unaware of the fact that in 2002, Oscar De La Renta did a collection of cerulean gowns. And then I think it was Yves St Laurent, wasn’t it, who showed cerulean military jackets? I think we need a jacket here. And then cerulean quickly showed up in the collections of 8 different designers. Then it filtered down through the department stores and then trickled on down into some tragic casual corner where you, no doubt, fished it out of some clearance bin. However, that blue represents millions of dollars and countless jobs and so it’s sort of comical how you think that you’ve made a choice that exempts you from the fashion industry when, in fact, you’re wearing the sweater that was selected for you by the people in this room. From a pile of stuff.”

    • Trisha says:

      LOL. Perhaps this post reminded you of it because I was thinking of it when I was writing it — even considered tracking down the clip. In the end I decided the cases weren’t parallel, though. In fact, what’s happening here, in my opinion, is the opposite: designers taking something that’s already beautiful and functional and adding to it to make it less so. In the case of the $9K models, at least.

  17. cyclemaniac says:

    Any article ‘positive’ to bicycling and bicyclists and about bicycles would make be happy. Though I would like to see a lot more of them. ;-)

  18. cyclemaniac says:

    Oooops …sorry for typo error: ‘… make me (not ‘be’) happy’.

  19. lorenza says:

    Trisha what a sparking debate you started with your post :) brilliant! Great reading everyone’s comments… as skeptical as I am maybe in itself a bit of bling on a newspaper page is not harmful and as many have said may even trickle down to the everyday use of bikes… BUT… what I am skeptical is that (I am cynical I know) I worry/wonder that models, fashion designers catwalks etc etc showing bikes off in such articles/ads etc end up jumping onto their car, chauffeurs and all at the end of their day and perhaps not use their bikes at all as their everyday mode of transport, as Trisha and Dottie do (and many of us do or try to do at least!)…

    Now when I browse Copenhagen Cycle Chic I see elegant people full of style riding their bike everyday in their everyday clothes because that’s what they do! And they do it because it makes more sense than use the car to drive 2 miles down the road to buy a pint of milk!

    Now those images/stories/blogs/posts etc etc is what inspired me to use my bike everyday in my everyday clothes :) and yes with sweat and all ;) the glamorous sides with all the non glamorous sides of it, and I feel healthier and stronger as a result, hurray! xxx

  20. cycylemaniac says:

    O, ‘they’ don’t eat the cereals they are photographed with; they have not (actually) shampooed their lovely flowing tresses with the bottled preparations that appear with them on the screen or in pages of magazines; they don’t swallow the health food or vitamin tablets they cajole ‘viewers’ to consume ….. and they – the majority of them , that is – don’t ride bicycles they have been so exqusitely dressed up to ride on …. Same, same all the time, huh? :-D

    Smile, be happy .. for life is short! ;-)

    • lorenza says:

      true very true :D I take my hat off to you… :D

      • cyclemaniac says:

        Ooooops! sorry miss this earlier.

        Thank you lorenza.

        Cheers. ;-)

        ~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~
        Let’s use our bikes to:

        bring our smiles to others so as to induce (more) smiles upon more faces;

        carry us to someone somewhere who needs a kind companion and a sympathetic ear;

        lift up our spirits and enjoy the simple good things that Life and Mother Nature are offering us;

        With all these I’m sure that when we leave to Yonder Ground people who know us may say , “He /She has lived well (by his/her bike?) :-D).

        Let’s hope more may go abiking – but let’s not wait for them .. let’s ride, right now.

        Smile .. be happy ..have clean fun … for Life is too short.

        Regards to all. :-)

  21. The Opoponax says:

    I think there are different levels of “fashion” going on, here.

    Not all that many people are going to A) know that Cynthia Rowley has a specially blinged-out bike available, B) care, C) be influenced to start cycling because of this, or D) buy a Cynthia Rowley bike as opposed to some more practical and accessible bike. Very few people follow high fashion, and those who do treat EVERYTHING as an ephemeral personal accessory, anyway. Even if they were seduced by a Batavus or a Schwinn or a Rivendell, it’s cycling today, a mini cooper tomorrow, rollerblades next week.

    On the other hand, the aesthetics of cycling in general, and the coverage of everyday cycling in the wider media outside a context of sports or health, is a great thing in terms of inspiring people to get on a bike.

    It’s true that, for some people, cycling will only ever be a passing fad. Maybe they buy the wrong bike. Maybe they have the wrong approach. Maybe they just don’t like biking that much or it’s not practical for their lives. But others will stick with it. And hopefully enough do that we can use the trend as a jumping off point to create real change in the way people get around.

  22. [...] for the image of bicycling and it gives me a little thrill, but I also agree with Trisha that bicycling is more than a fashion statement and that making the bicycle a fashionable accessory – without accompanying advocacy – [...]

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