Tuesday, April 01, 2008

Bicycles: Toys, Tools, or...?

Alan Bernard over at the Recumbent Blog has taken a stab at the age-old question of bicycles as toys vs. tools. Now, I ride a bike every day for transportation. I have ridden to work, to school, to visit friends, to go shopping -- everywhere -- my whole life. I do so in all kinds of weather -- sun, rain, wind, or snow -- and in the day or at night. My bikes are outfitted to let me do so as comfortably as possible. I have bags and racks to let me carry loads, I have fenders to keep the rain and snow off of my back and legs, I have good lights to let me ride safely after the sun goes down. So it may surprise you to hear that I don't come down entirely on Alan's side in this one.

The thing is, I do all of the riding I described above, and yet "utility" cycling still only constitutes maybe 1/4 of the miles I do in a year. When I think about the place cycling occupies in my life, it is the rides out to the coast, or up the Columbia River, or around Mt. Hood that figure most prominently. And while racks, lights, and fenders give a bike an air of Sam the Eagle seriousness, racks carry camping equipment as well as groceries, lights are just as necessary for riding a fleche as they are for commuting in winter, and fenders are just a good idea for whatever kind of riding you do here in the northwest, be it serious or frivolous. I use my bikes that are equipped thusly for both purposes. And here's the dirty secret: I have fun whenever I ride my bike, even if I'm ostensibly doing it for some practical purpose. So, if a reasonable definition of a toy is an object that facilitates fun, in what meaningful way are my bikes distinguishable from toys? If most of my riding is done for recreation, if even my supposedly "practical" riding puts a smile on my face, where is the distinction?

Sure, it's useful to be able to respond to the occasional curmudgeonly motorist who accuses cyclists of clogging up the roadways frivolously. But these people are singling us out because we're easily identified as "others", not because they have a leg to stand on. At any given time, lots of motorists are on the road for recreational purposes, and the congestion they cause is far worse than that caused by cyclists' miniscule presence in public rights-of-way. However, while I will deny to my dying day the part of the charge that says that I am clogging the roadways, I must throw myself on their mercy for the part that says that I am out there frivolously. Am I having fun? You bet. You might be, too, if you were pedaling.

In his post, Alan goes through the most common phyla of bikes you'll find in a bike store, and dismisses them all: "I’d volunteer that all of these bikes are only marginally useful as anything other than toys." Well, I'd like to take a different view. There isn't a bike in any store that can't accept any light made, from budget-priced Planet Bike LED's to top-line Night Rider HID lights to generator powered Busch & Mueller halogens. Fenders are often standard equipment on the cruisers that Mr. Bernard mentions, and the commonly available "Race Blade" design can be fitted to even the most race-oriented road frame. Cargo presents a bit more of a challenge, but seat- and handlebar-bags have been available for years, messenger bags are commonly available, and for many, the humble backpack serves just fine.

Most importantly, all bicycles provide movement -- it's the whole point -- and mobility is inherently practical. I've ridden both my skinny-tired, unfendered race bike and my knobby-tired full-suspension mountain bike to work. Conversely, I don't think anyone who was otherwise predisposed to ride a bike for practical purposes was dissuaded from doing so because their equipment limited them, at least not long term. If you are the type of person who might actually ride in the rain, you will get fenders eventually. The bicycle is such an awesome, flexible design that I believe that the way it is used pretty accurately reflects the desires of the people who use it. If manufacturers make more commuter bikes, it doesn't follow that they will make more commuters.

The point is, bicycles are fun. I want people to enjoy their bicycles. That is the best way to get people to ride them more. Then the market will provide them with the tools to do the type of riding they want to do.

6 Comments:

Blogger Alan said...

Michael!

There you are - it's been ages since we've heard from you. I'm pleased that my little rant was stirring enough to elicit a response.

Your point about movement and mobility is spot on. Obviously, any bike is better than no bike, and I've ridden and enjoyed all the bikes I dissed in my article.

Honestly, I have no problem with bikes as toys - that's precisely how I've used them for a majority of my riding over the past 40 years. But right now we have a unique opportunity, with a broader group of people starting to look at alternatives to the car due to rising fuel costs, global warming, etc.

For example, I have people I hardly know at work coming up to ask me about how to get started bike commuting - this has never happened before and is quite amazing to me. These are not young athletes like yourself, but middle-aged (and older) Moms and Dads: sedentary tech people.

I just hope that the industry steps up and speaks to this new, potentially quite large, audience. So far, I don't see that happening in any meaningful way.

I hope all is well, and take care.

Regards,
Alan

8:56 PM  
Blogger Alan said...

Michael!

There you are - it's been ages since we've heard from you. I'm pleased that my little rant was stirring enough to elicit a response.

Your point about movement and mobility is spot on. Obviously, any bike is better than no bike, and I've ridden and enjoyed all the bikes I dissed in my article.

Honestly, I have no problem with bikes as toys - that's precisely how I've used them for a majority of my riding over the past 40 years. But right now we have a unique opportunity, with a broader group of people starting to look at alternatives to the car due to rising fuel costs, global warming, etc.

For example, I have people I hardly know at work coming up to ask me about how to get started bike commuting - this has never happened before and is quite amazing to me. These are not young athletes like yourself, but middle-aged (and older) Moms and Dads: sedentary tech people.

I just hope that the industry steps up and speaks to this new, potentially quite large, audience. So far, I don't see that happening in any meaningful way.

I hope all is well, and take care.

Regards,
Alan

8:58 PM  
Blogger lynnef said...

Is there some rule that tools cannot be fun? Like you, my commute/utility miles are less than half of my annual miles. But, quite frankly, I don't see how that is different from the use of a car. I'm pretty darn sure every car trip is not required.

8:52 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Nice Post Michael,

If you are an experienced cyclist, then ALL bicycles are fun. They all have a different flavor. But if you are a newbie, then getting the right tool for the job is paramount. As you know I work for the Hawaii Bicycling League now (www.hbl.org), and I get calls and emails about this very subject. People that are new to cycling that are looking for the right bike to get them to work or to school, and how to get bicycle education so they can feel safe riding in traffic. When one good bike is the only chance you get to make a lasting impression on a new cyclist, it has to be the right tool for the job. That's why I am so glad to be able to recommend the Raleigh Detour, Specialized Globe, and similar models. They are complete with lights, fenders, and racks. They are a joy to ride, and perfect for our island life. You are correct that you can make any of them work, but if you are new to cycling first impressions lead to successful lifetime cyclist, and lots of smiles.

See you at PIR.

John Climaldi

12:59 AM  
Blogger Michael said...

Thanks for your comments, everyone. Your points are all well taken. I certainly agree that there is a gap in modern bicycle design that ought to be filled; in the interests of provocation, I probably came across as more contrary than I really am. Whatever people are interested in doing on their bikes, I would like to see that made easier for them.

The points that I wanted to make are, one, there is nothing wrong with a bike for fun, and two, the bicycle as a design is so flexible that it's hard to imagine one that can't be applied to a huge number of tasks. My M5 is one. Most time trial bikes wouldn't be good for anything else. But these are extremely esoteric examples, and hardly indicative of the vast majority of bikes on the market.

It just feels sometimes like we (or maybe just I) take ourselves so seriously as bicyclists. Or at least try to project that image. No, I'm not goofing around, I'm employing a tool. I'm doing serious business. It's kind of a natural defensive reaction to motorists and other people who don't take us seriously. But let's not throw the baby out with the bathwater here -- we're having fun, and I think it can't possibly hurt our cause to let people know it. I think that calling bikes toys sells them short, because they are so incredibly useful. But I also think calling them tools sells them short, because they're so incredibly fun.

We need some other word. I kind of like the word "instruments," because both of the first two dictionary meanings apply.

11:52 AM  
Anonymous beth h said...

Hark -- is that Michael?

I agree with you. Cheap bikes are a way into bicycle-riding for many, many people -- I'd bet most of us regular riders got our start on something from Sears or Penneys (my Penneys quasi-BMX bike still holds a place in my heart nearly 35 years later). All hail the entry-level bicycle!

10:27 PM  

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