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To Copenhagen and Back—By Bicycle

I know—quotations are so analog, so un-Web 2.0. But please permit me to begin this post with a quote, and I promise to lard up the remainder of it with links:

H. G. Wells once wrote, “When I see an adult on a bicycle, I do not despair for the future of the human race.”

Wow. Who knew so much was riding on the bicycle?

In Wells’s calculus, Copenhagen—this week the location of the world climate summit—is already Hopenhagen: over 36% of its residents cycle to work everyday. (Yes, even in the Nordic winter.) That figure for New York, for example, is .47%. Oh cycle-less, hopeless Manhattan!

Many logical and valid reasons could be advanced for the dire lack of bicycle commuters in U.S. cities—the infrastructure, the cheap fuel, the hills, sprawl. I want to suggest an unlikely, a surprising, and a counterintuitive reason: It’s the clothes.

For some time now, at least in America, an adult on a bicycle meant only one thing: being Lance. I have nothing against Mr. Armstrong, who, after all, has done a lot for cycling and for ideals of American athleticism, but I don’t think H. G. Wells would have conjured his messianic vision if the cyclists he witnessed all looked like they’d been squeezed into a tube of logo-covered Lycra, shot out of a cannon, and then urged to go nowhere in particular as fast as they possibly could.

I know it sounds odd, and it may be the most unlikely of all the Slow Movements, but against this manic commitment to speed and carbon, spinning quietly and with urbane grace, and usually on an old style steel frame, rolls the Slow Bicycle Movement. Like movements of any kind, this one has its manifesto, its political agenda and leadership, and its thoroughly fetishized symbolic object: in this case, the Dutch bike.

But what’s really interesting, and what I think holds the key to why this just may be a transformative movement, one that fundamentally changes life in U.S. cities is the movement’s uniform. Slow Bike standard wear is wool, or tweed, or really, whatever you have on. These riders aren’t into the high-tech wicking machine as clothing. The sheep is their materials lab. And if you want to see evidence of this, you could attend one of the many Tweed Rides cropping up in cities such as D.C., Boston, and San Francisco.

A few months back The New York Times ran an article ostensibly about the rise in popularity of the Dutch bike, but the article was really about clothes, about the style afforded by riding a sensible bike at a sensible speed on a sensible pursuit—getting to work without recourse to one’s GPS enabled, all wheel drive urban assault vehicle. This link between style and bikes is so advanced at this point that, we learn from The New York Times piece, Club Monaco, an urban and hip clothier, has struck an exclusive deal with a Dutch bike company to sell their heavy, sluggish, absolutely gorgeous bikes right out of Club Monaco’s boutiques!

There’s a lot more reading on this topic, and I barely got started on how all this is going to change life in the city—that will have to come in the next post. But, should you want a visual primer on this entire subject, and want to trace the origins of inspiration for the new world’s sudden interest in the old world’s version of this machine for urban transport, there’s no better place to go to than Copenhagen—just as the world leaders have gathered there to consider, in one formulation, the benefits of the pedal over petroleum. Here’s your ticket: Cycle Chic.

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