Coping with a transit strike in 1966.
Photo: Bettmann Archive via Getty Images
If you see a man in his 50s in street clothes on a scuffed hybrid bike, dodging cars and hyper-alert to compensate for everyone’s distraction, it could be me (if he’s wearing a helmet) or (if he’s not does not) perhaps Jody Rosen, the author of Two Wheels Well: The History and Mystery of the Bicycle. Although its subjects remain (mostly) earthly, the book itself soars, moving from the boulevards of Paris to the mountain passes of Bhutan, the Arctic archipelago of Svalbard and the ossified streets of Dhaka, Bangladesh, with the fast recklessness of a James Bond movie. I want to talk to Rosen about how the complex cultural history he documents unfolds on the streets of his hometown and how New York and the bicycle came to be shaped. It turns out to be impossible to remain strictly local because if the essence of this miraculously simple machine has hardly changed since the end of the 19th century, its social meanings have multiplied throughout the world. New York is a place in a global story. “Writing this book made me confront my own provincialism,” Rosen says.
Cities and cycling have a long and strained relationship. Ever since velocipedes first appeared on the London social scene in 1819 (without pedals, brakes or tyres), haters have railed against them. At first they were expensive luxuries for the privileged and the neglected; bakers called them “dandy cars”. The prosecution’s arguments now read as dated but somewhat familiar: silent speedsters posed a threat to horses, ‘scorchers’ intimidated pedestrians by passing too close and too fast, women bewitched by bicycles ditched their skirts and neglected their families.
The elite connotations eventually waned, for a while. “With the arrival of the safety bicycle in the 1880s, it became the ‘people’s nag’, a horse of the common people, which made it anathema to some upper-class people,” says Rosen. The 1890s brought a bicycle boom that made two-wheelers both fashionable enough to tempt the wealthy and affordable enough for everyone. For a few years, New York was a biker’s Eden, and the new cobbled path from Prospect Park to Coney Island was, as Rosen puts it, “the world’s greatest bicycle thoroughfare.”
Then came the automobile, which duplicated the drawbacks of the bicycle to an extreme – it was more expensive and faster, took up more space, made more noise and cracked more skulls – but nevertheless forced the city to adapt. . The sidewalks have been cut. Curbside parking has become normal. Highways ran through neighborhoods. And the bicycle was relegated to the rank of a retro curiosity or a child’s pastime.
Today, of course, a new set of economic and social codes swirl around the pre-electrification contraption. “In present-day New York, the bicycle as a signifier of class is all jumbled up,” Rosen says. For some, the bicycle remains the irritating toy of titled brats (a populist disdain that fuels rhetoric bike lane attacks and congestion pricing), but he also became an icon of solidarity of delivery people. Black Lives Matter supporters protest on bikes; riot police use them for enclosures in crowds. Brownstone Brooklyn parents deliver their toddlers to private preschool on cargo bikes; delivery people use them to carry payloads of groceries. Rosen points out that the range of work bikes that ply the streets of New York are tiny compared to other parts of the world, where they are retrofitted for sharpen knivestransporting customers, carry firewooddistributing bread, even transport household appliances“There are tens of millions of cargo tricycles in china alone, and they play a major role in the flow of last-mile goods through the countries of the South. »
Rosen, a former music critic of New York, does not claim to be a historian; for the complete chronicle, he advises me to read that of Evan Friss By bike: 200 years of cycling history in New York. The strength of two wheels good is the journalist’s eye he brings to a core technology that has had radically disparate identities at different times and in different parts of the world. It tracks down a married couple who met on the Oregon-to-Virginia Bikecentennial ride in 1976, profiles a bicycle-rickshaw driver in Dhaka, and scrutinizes the different stationary bike modes (SoulCycle, Peloton) with the perplexity of an anthropologist who does not quite understand the appeal. He writes about biking on ice and treacherous mountain trails, making a living as a bike messenger, and following mountain bike daredevil Danny MacAskill, who taught the intrepid to bounce on a wheel. from car roof to car roof.
two wheels good is clearly the work of a writer who like to ride a bike but refuses to ennoble it with odes to environmental virtue or social justice. Like any tool, he is available to the innocent and the wicked, and his biography is a complicated tale of both. Yes, it borders on emission-free purity, but its steel comes from smoky factories in Pennsylvania and China, and its tires were made possible by oil wells or brutal rubber plantations in Congo and Brazil. In the 1890s, the bicycle lobby took the form of the proudly racist League of American Wheelmen. The organization pushed the Good Roads Movement, a campaign to blanket the nation in asphalt (which was, at the time, “mined by exploited laborers in the English colonial territory of Trinidad,” Rosen reminds us). Understanding these complexities should give even the most passionate proselyte pause. “People should have a little humility,” Rosen says.
The bike serves as a weapon in the urban space contest, and whether you like or hate that fact depends on which team you’re on. Rosen mentions that his teenage son is joining horseback ridingthese swarms of young motorcyclists who requisition the roads and block the bridges, doing wheelies and turns as they pass: “Some cycling activism is linked to safety, such as [the international flash-mob movement] Critical Mass. Ride-outs are more about freedom in general, using the bike to zip through the streets in a defiant and flamboyant way, like a mix of a circus parade and a very aggressive protest.
This gonzo attitude has a downside on the streets of New York, where space is scarce, tempers are on fire, and application is moot. Moralizing bikers treat drivers and pedestrians as enemies, and they return the favor. The risks deter more cautious New Yorkers, many of whom could dilute the macho element and make the streets less dangerous just by their presence. A much more developed network of protected cycle paths would resolve this knot of rule-breaking and hostility. Make cycling safer for everyone and riders will ride safer. (That’s the theory, anyway.)
Rosen supports these efforts to tame the streets and fill the bike lanes with kids and grandmas, but he’s also already nostalgic for the high-risk savagery of city driving that these measures would eliminate. “I get an adrenaline rush from danger,” he admits. “Your senses have to be heightened if you don’t want to walk into a door, and that makes you feel alive” (until, of course, it’s not). Not that these survival skills will soon be obsolete. Despite new miles of dedicated lanes, the growing fleet of Citi bikes, and all the restless but serious gatherings behind the Vision Zero concept, biking in New York seems to have gotten more treacherous. “I don’t know if it’s really crazier there or if I’m getting older, but I feel like there’s more aggro energy in the city now,” Rosen says. He’s also ambivalent about it: if cycling ever became placid and ubiquitous, “I guess there’s a bit of cowboy spirit that would be lost. But, he quickly adds, “there would be so much more to gain.”