So, that’s over. The year, the decade, whatever it was. And it didn’t entirely suck. In fact, if anything, it was pretty good times for the pedal powered. Not one, but two, economic debacles with a heaping helping of gas price spikes, global warming awareness and endemic obesity all helped to make the bicycle a hot transportation and fashion accessory here in the United States of Automobilia.
Some highlights of ten years in cycling culture, as a bulleted list with no particular order, that spring to mind:
- George W. Bush: Say what you will about Shrub (no, really, go ahead — I’ll wait), but the man did ride a bike a lot (while rocking out to that pedophiliac ode to jailbait “My Sherona” no less). Sure, he was busy doing Dick “Dark Lord” Cheney’s bidding and getting us involved in deadly, expensive wars for oil and all, and so whatever gains he made in convincing fat, aging baby boomers to get their asses out of SUVs and on to bikes was probably for naught in the balance, at least he wasn’t preaching the gospel of human-powered fitness and freedom to the converted.
- Fixies: If the nineties were all about the mountain bike, then the naughties were all about the fixie. Which, while trendy and therefore kind of annoying, was at least a move away from the habit of driving to the middle of nowhere so that you can shred trails for a few hours and then drive back.
It was, importantly, focused on urban cycling, and by preying on the fashion sensibilities of the young, probably got more people started on a lifetime of intracity cycling than the mountain biking and “performance” road biking enjoyed by the suburban set with their Yakima racks atop Toyota 4Runners. Say what you will about the douche with the deep-Vs (both rims and American Apparel tee), but that douche would have probably been rocking a Trans-Am thirty years ago, so: Progress.
- The “Backlash:” If you didn’t know, bicyclists are, along with vegans, atheists, gays, ACORN, the French and, let’s just admit it publicly, the international Jewish banking cabal, a threat to the very way of life every American is entitled to by an angry, vengeful baby Jesus.
Haven’t you read the chapter of Das Kapital where Karl Marx demands painted bike lanes, ample bike parking, and the freedom — erm, sorry, tyranny — of bicyclists to treat stop signs as yield signs? No, you probably didn’t, because as a real American you don’t actually read, and because you’ve never, ever committed any traffic violations while driving. So, continue to fight for God and country and never give an inch to those damn pinkos demanding that you “share” the road!
- Gear Devolution: If there’s anything I’m more thankful for about the last ten years than anything, it’s probably the deprecation of gear-centrism among the cycling set. Increased ridership played a role, as did “indie” and DIY culture, all meaning that the market for bikes is no longer simply the domain of wealthy hobbyists who all want the latest in carbon-fiber this, aerodynamic that and imported Italian such-and-such.
While of course fixie aficionados can get just as brand- and gear-snobby as any Lance Armstrong wannabe, there were also plenty of folks dragging retro bikes out of old garages to spruce up with bells and baskets for maximal twee posturing, and bike hackers welding up everything from snazzy low-riders and high-riders to functional solutions to transportation problems like heavy hauling that used to have people reaching for car keys by default.
- Lance Armstrong: Yes, he’s probably a big old doper (but one with the awesome medical excuse of, you know, not having any testicles), but he was the most, if not the only, recognizable American cyclist of the decade, and he was the kind of athlete Americans love — a world-beating front-runner.
While all those “Livestrong” yellow bracelets were supposed to be about cancer or something, they also sent the signal that it was okay to think a cyclist, and by extension cycling, was not only cool but could earn you millions in endorsement deals and the affection of hot celebrities. That Armstrong came from Texas, land of oil business billionaires and endless highways, was another blow against the perception of cycling as something for granola-crunching hippies.
- Portland: I know, I know, I fucking hate Portland. But! It has provided a great urban planning example to the rest of the country when it comes to giving a place of pride to cycling as a practical, enjoyable mode of urban transport. When one of the main concerns of people who don’t ride regularly, or at all, in cities is the fear of automobiles, taking steps to carve safe spaces for cyclists on city streets will undoubtedly increase ridership.
Maybe more importantly, turning a regular motorist into an even occasional cyclist tends to make them more aware of and accommodating to bikes when they are driving — or, you know, filing lawsuits to keep such important changes from happening in San Francisco.
- Obesity: America is fat, but in the balance between “less food” and “more exercise,” I have a lot more faith that the latter is a far more realistic goal to pursue — especially since the nation’s food scientists spent the last ten years figuring out new and amazing ways to force even more calories down our bloated gullets while engineering said calories to be that much more appealing to our easily addicted lizard brain.
Fact is, exercise can actually be fun, cycling is something easily worked into a daily routine, and one need point no further than the shockingly well-sculpted asses of Amsterdam for Exhibit A in why more people should ride bikes.
- Death of Print: The sea-change in the news business may have been terrible for the job market for journalists, but it has generally been great for cyclists. Publications that hyped the aforementioned “backlash” story in the last few years are, like the Chronicle, on the decline, while cyclists, urbanists and environmentalists all rushed to start blogging.
Millennials seem to generally prefer cities, bikes and blogs over suburbs, cars and pulped trees, so the kinds in the demographic that everyone is chasing online are alright. And, of course, as journalism jobs become fewer and farther between while paying less and less (and the tools of the trade become smaller and smaller), the working press won’t be able to afford McMansions in the suburbs and two cars for the garage, so expect to see more bike-friendly perspectives in the media.
- Global Warming: While not personally a big fan of the individual consumer approach to averting man-made climate catastrophe — the problems are far larger than switching your light bulbs and buying stuff with some “green” seal of approval sticker — cycling is certainly not the worst personal decision you can make to lower your use of fossil fuels and reduce the amount of greenhouse gas emissions that you are personally responsible for.
Sadly, all the politicians who seemed to get the most attention for their stances on climate change and sustainable energy aren’t exactly setting the best examples with their intercontinental flights and chauffeured limousines (I’m looking at you, Al Gore and Gavin Newsom). The bright spot, of course, was President Barack Obama’s appointment of Cal Berkeley physicist Steven Chu as Energy Secretary — a regular bike commuter, Chu is actually leading by example.
- Mobile Computing: For all sorts of reasons — from route planning and mapping to having a Daft Punk soundtrack while riding — cell phones and mobile devices have made cycling a lot more practical and fun.
So I’m going to suggest that the success of the iPod and Blackberry was good news for cyclists, because it brought a lot of a laptop’s functionality along for the ride but without a lot of a laptop’s weight or cost. Granted, it’s also left a lot of motorists that much more distracted, but hey, at least you can call 911 and give them a fix on your exact location a lot faster if you ever do get hooked or doored, not to mention taking a photo of the jerk’s license plate.
What were your cycling highlights from the last ten years? Do share them in the comments. As for the next ten years, I can only hope that we see more cyclists, more cycling amenities, and more public policy aimed at encouraging ridership.
Photo by Flickr user green kozi.
Jackson West has ridden a bike around the San Juan Islands, up and down the Cascades, in Vancouver, Seattle, Brooklyn, Austin and all over the Bay Area. He feels fat and soft after riding entirely too little over the holidays. Have any bike-related questions? Send an email!