Our bikes may be better now, but what about the world in which we ride them?
About a year ago Bill Gates unleashed an epic tweetstorm about how, for all the mishegas out there, the world is only getting better. His conclusion:
“This is an amazing time to be alive.”
It’s human nature to romanticize the past, but vaccines, smartphones, and being able to rent movies without having to rewind them are all things most of us would never want to live without. On the other hand, it’s not romantic to lament the fact that humanity will never again know the pleasure of eating a mercury-free fish. Also, Bill Gates has roughly eleventy billion dollars, so when it comes to how good the rest of us have it, he may not be the best person to ask.
Still, it is indeed an amazing time to be alive. It’s also an amazing time to be a cyclist. Cresting a climb recently, I shifted into the big ring with the tap of a button, my electronic front derailleur flawlessly hoisting the chain into place. Then I lowered myself into my ergonomic drops and began my descent. My middle and index fingers were more than sufficient to operate my precision braking system, leaving the rest of my digits securely and comfortably wrapped around my tactilely pleasing synthetically engineered bar tape.
“Surely this is the best time in history to be a cyclist,” I caught myself thinking.
Is it though? Are we in fact living in the Golden Age of Cycling? Or am I just a spoiled person on a fancy bicycle, blissfully unaware of all the mercury I’m eating?
Certainly as far as equipment is concerned the answer to the Golden Age question is an emphatic yes. Only the most stubborn retro-grouch would dispute the fact that, overall, cycling is constantly improving in that department. Sure, the going rate for a high-end plastic racing bike is something like $10,000 now and that’s kind of ridiculous. But frothy reviews in glossy lifestyle magazines notwithstanding, nobody’s making you buy any of this stuff, and you can easily get pretty much the same riding experience from a much cheaper bike.
More crucially, no matter what kind of riding you want to do, there’s a bicycle for it—not one you have to painstakingly customize yourself, but an off-the-rack, ready-to-ride bike. City bikes run from fixie to Dutch, and cargo bikes from front-loader to longtail. We get a new bottom bracket standard every week, yet if you’re a retro-grouch you needn’t get your beard all in a tangle over it, as there are various companies dedicated to keeping your bicycle frozen in your time period of choice. There are so many different types of road and mountain bikes now that the distinction hardly matters anymore, and if somehow you still can’t find a stock bike to your satisfaction, it’s easier than ever to find a custom builder who will make one for you. At the same time, walls between cycling disciplines are eroding. It’s like gender fluidity, but with bikes.
On the other hand, you’ve got the cars. Some call them “freedom machines,” others call them destroyers of cities and harbingers of impending environmental apocalypse. But no matter how you feel about the automobile, there’s no getting around the fact that cars and bikes have an intensely symbiotic yet ultimately disastrous relationship. They’re like George and Martha in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, or that couple at the party who are always one more cocktail away from either hurling crockery at each other or having hate sex on the dining room table, and you never know which until it happens.
Apart from a few brief lulls, the number of motor vehicles in the United States has been rising consistently since the 1960s. It’s pretty tough to argue that this is a good thing for cycling. At the end of the 19th century, however, we had it pretty damn good. Cycling was wildly popular. We’d moved on from the pennyfarthing and were now riding safety bicycles, which were a technological leap greater than any that has come since. If you think your dropper post improves your riding, just imagine going from doing a faceplant off a high wheeler to riding a bike with two equal-sized wheels, a chain drive, and pneumatic tires.
We also owned the roads. Cars were thin on the ground, still playthings for the rich and at least a couple of decades away from mass production. Horses feared us. Cycling clubs made for the countryside on runs and centuries so popular that newspapers like the New York Times regularly reported on their exploits and published route suggestions. So formidable a force were we out there that it was our velocipedist forbears who compelled governments and municipalities to pave the roads for our cycling pleasure. We put entire towns on the map, macadamizing the roads that led to them, and bringing them our business with day trips and overnights.
Then there was the social transformation the bicycle helped power. As Susan B. Anthony wrote in 1896:
I think [the bicycle] has done more to emancipate women than any one thing in the world. I rejoice every time I see a woman ride by on a bike. It gives her a feeling of self-reliance and independence the moment she takes her seat; and away she goes, the picture of untrammelled womanhood.
In light of all this, it’s hard to say that we’re living in the Golden Age of Cycling just because we can use a battery to move a derailleur or order a French porteur bike over the Internet. In fact, well over 100 years after Susan B. Anthony, a stubborn gender gap in cycling remains. You could also argue that the bicycle’s evolution is increasingly driven by our need to avoid cars. After all, isn’t driver avoidance the entire basis of the adventure bike trend? It’s anti-predator adaptation, and bicycle-to-vehicle communication and other forms of supplication are the opposite of free, untrammeled anything. Plus, if you try to recreate those century rides chronicled in the newspapers of yore, you’ll find out it’s pretty much impossible to do so now as many of the routes have long been subsumed by car traffic.
So while our bicycles do keep getting better, and while I do maintain that the bicycle still has the power to transform both landscape and cityscape, it could very well be that our Golden Age is behind us.
For now, anyway.
Illustration by Taj Mihelich