Cycle Chic: Form Over Function

Cycle Chic Cyclist

 

The term “Cycle Chic” conjures up visions of emaciated, diaphanously-clad fashion models posing with expensive bikes to illustrate their allure. With designer sunglasses and windswept hair, these ‘in’ people descend upon the activity of cycling, as if on a mission.

Some of us, who have been cycling since before bicycles became a fashion statement, were unaware of this phenomenon. But, now, we can’t deny its popularity within a certain segment of society — so it must be considered.

Cycle Chic is an idea with multiple meanings, depending upon whom you ask. These divergent meanings are our first clue that it is a movement which defies definition and has no clear direction.

When did it start?

According to the originator’s blog:

“Cycle Chic began its bloglife back in June 2007 when journalist, film director and photographer Mikael Colville-Andersen decided to put a growing number of his photos about Copenhagen’s bicycle culture into one place on the internet.

A series of social documentary photos about Copenhagen started to include a number of shots of life in the World’s Cycling Capital, including fashionable Copenhageners on their bicycles. The feedback about these photos was positive and there was clearly a growing interest abroad in seeing how the bicycle was an integral part of life in the Danish capital. Specifically about how Copenhageners have demystified the bicycle and use it without any form of bicycle ‘gear’. Just as the bicycle was meant to be ridden when invented.”

 

Well, it sounds good so far. Who could object to ordinary people wearing street clothes to ride their bikes? Despite this auspicious beginning, after the idea caught on, it took a turn for the worse. The originators wanted to lay the groundwork for a new movement, so they decided to write a manifesto.

 

“The Cycle Chic Manifesto

– I choose to cycle chic and, at every opportunity, I will choose Style over Speed.

– I embrace my responsibility to contribute visually to a more aesthetically pleasing urban landscape.

– I am aware that my mere prescence in said urban landscape will inspire others without me being labelled as a ‘bicycle activist’.

– I will ride with grace, elegance and dignity.

– I will choose a bicycle that reflects my personality and style.

– I will, however, regard my bicycle as transport and as a mere supplement to my own personal style. Allowing my bike to upstage me is unacceptable.

– I will endeavour to ensure that the total value of my clothes always exceeds that of my bicycle.

– I will accessorize in accordance with the standards of a bicycle culture and acquire, where possible, a chain guard, kickstand, skirt guard, fenders, bell and basket.

– I will respect the traffic laws.

– I will refrain from wearing and owning any form of ‘cycle wear’.”

 

What? While these people are free to act in accordance with their beliefs, for avid cyclists, this manifesto should be quite alarming.

 

“I will choose Style over Speed.”

 

Speed is not a requirement for anyone. But, why make slow riding about style and not leisureliness or utility?

 

“I am aware that my mere prescence in said urban landscape will inspire others without me being labelled as a ‘bicycle activist’.”

 

Why would anyone who is promoting the use of bicycles disparage the title of “bicycle activist?” If it weren’t for bicycle activists, there would be no bike lanes, or other bicycling infrastructure, which the slow riders depend upon for their safety, when riding in urban environments. Cycle Chic-ers only inspire others as part of a larger group known as cyclists. They are no more inspirational than cyclists who commute to work, or run errands, wearing street clothes. What makes them think that their high fashion clothes are an inspiration to ordinary people, many of whom don’t see a need to wear high fashion clothes?

 

“I will, however, regard my bicycle as transport and as a mere supplement to my own personal style. Allowing my bike to upstage me is unacceptable.”

 

This is beyond belief. Would anyone who values riding a bicycle worry about their bike upstaging them? A bicycle and a cyclist are separate entities. Having a high quality bike, worthy of admiration, is nothing to be ashamed of.  A bike stands on its own, having its own style and worth, as does its rider. The two shouldn’t be in competition with one another.

 

“I will endeavour to ensure that the total value of my clothes always exceeds that of my bicycle.”

 

Reading past this line is a test of true will. Either these people intend to ride only junkers or they intend to buy obscenely expensive clothes. The latter is more probable since their entire purpose is the promotion of fashion and style. So, even though they purport to be cyclists, they’re really fashion horses posing on bicycles.

 

“I will respect the traffic laws.”

 

Most cyclists can agree with this view. All road cyclists should aspire to obey the traffic laws. However, this assertion doesn’t fit into the group’s form over function doctrine.

 

“I will refrain from wearing and owning any form of ‘cycle wear’.”

 

Renouncing “cycle wear” might work in Copenhagen, but it can get a cyclist killed in many parts of the world. In major U.S. cities, for example, high visibility cycling clothing gives a cyclist a better chance of being seen by reckless drivers. Saving one’s own life is a matter of safety, not style. If nothing else, the Cycle Chic-ers will die looking good – which is one way to cut down on funeral costs.

Another disturbing aspect of this movement is that it’s aimed at women. Equating bicycles with fashion is supposed to draw more women into cycling. Is this necessary? Must women always worry about how they look — even when they’re riding a bicycle? Can’t we give them some downtime from incessant cultural beauty messages? And, is this really what we want to teach girls: riding a bike should be about your physical appearance and fashion sense because society doesn’t see you as having any other value? A better message might be to wear whatever you’re comfortable in and just enjoy riding your bike.

Encouraging people to take up cycling as a means of transportation is a noble goal. While there’s nothing wrong with dressing fashionably, in a world full of virtually insurmountable problems such as poverty, energy dependence, and environmental issues, fashion shouldn’t be held up as the primary reason for choosing to ride a bicycle.

Bicycles reduce our impact on the environment, they improve our health, they make our cities and towns more livable, and they lower our cost of living.

Putting something as shallow as fashion ahead of these weighty goals makes a mockery of the solutions bicycles present to society. Maybe the Cycle Chic-ers should stick to shooting photos of stylish bike-riding Copenhageners and leave philosophy to greater minds.

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4 Responses to Cycle Chic: Form Over Function

  1. Eoin says:

    As long as it includes a commitment to following traffic laws, I have no problem with this philosophy, although it’s not one that I choose to I subscribe to myself.

    After all, we’ll know that we’ve won when cyclists start having nothing in common with each other, just like drivers and pedestrians.

    • Eoin,

      I’m also in favor of views which encourage cyclists to follow the traffic laws. However, cyclists haven’t won anything if one cycling group disparages another for being “bike activists” and, to a lesser extent, disparages those who wear cycle gear.

      I also see this philosophy as sending the wrong message to women. As it is, far fewer women than men ride bikes. And, if we tell women that cycling is another arena where they will be judged by their looks and wardrobe, do you think that the average woman (who probably doesn’t want to dress up to ride a bike) will be more (or less) interested in participating?

      If we are going to end divisiveness among cyclists — which is a problem today — then we need to stop creating subgroups who disseminate exclusionary and condescending manifestos in the name of bicycling.

  2. Mark says:

    In the US at least, I think much of this is a backlash to what bicycling magazines have long promoted: namely that you can only ride a bike, much less be a cyclist if you wear lycra, preferably in neon and adorned with logos of obscure European companies. I have relatives who can’t go on a five mile ride without putting on “the uniform”. Personally, I tend to ride in whatever I’m wearing that day; and if it’s a work day, I’m riding in dress pants and a dress shirt; maybe even a suit – although I usually do put the jacket in a pannier.

    • “In the US at least, I think much of this is a backlash to what bicycling magazines have long promoted: namely that you can only ride a bike, much less be a cyclist if you wear lycra, preferably in neon and adorned with logos of obscure European companies.”

      That’s a good point. I just wish that groups like Cycle Chic wouldn’t say things like “I will endeavor to ensure that the total value of my clothes always exceeds that of my bicycle” or “I will refrain from wearing and owning any form of ‘cycle wear.’” You can promote wearing street clothes without making style and materialism (less affluent people may not have the means to buy clothes whose value is greater than their bike) the core of your mission.

      I wear both street clothes and lycra, depending on which bike I ride and why I’m riding. For long rides on my road bike, padded lycra shorts are far more comfortable than street clothes. But, when I ride my hybrid bike for transportation, I wear whatever I have on at the time. This is what should be promoted – cycling in whatever clothes you want to wear.

      As for the bicycling magazines, they’re profit driven, so they cater to the cycling enthusiast who spends obscene amounts of money on clothing and equipment. To keep their advertisers happy, they have to tell cyclists that those astronomically expensive lycra clothes — with the logos on them — are mandatory attire. Otherwise, no one would profit from selling them.

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