Like most cyclists, I have several bikes hanging in my garage. Which is my favorite? That’s easy—the Mariposa porteur bike that my father built for me eight years ago. I cherish it, because he built the frame and the carriers, with their simple beauty, and he then carefully selected the parts. But I also cherish it for the memorable rides it has provided. Trips to friends’ houses, back and forth to my dad’s shop, around town with my family discovering parks and back alleys, or out on the town for a night with my wife, Dede. On a bike, the city seems to growl, blossom, spew, chatter, and come alive. In a car, it is a passing scene.
Beside the Mariposa, hangs an old Bianchi. It is steel, has a single freewheel, mudguards, and moustache handlebars. It’s my second favorite. Although, just another city bike, like the thousands locked up to poles downtown, it has carried me around town since I was 15. The race bikes I’ve ridden over the years were tools to get a job done, while the city bikes are a part of me, or, perhaps, I am a part of them.
The bicycle is said to be the most efficient form of transport yet, in North America, they are often mistaken as toys. This feeds the cyclist’s sense of insecurity; the roads are jammed with irritable drivers who are annoyed that we are out playing during their commute. The current cliché that cycling is the new golf is equally unsettling. Golf is perceived as an elitist game, while cycling has always been an egalitarian sport and a mode of transport. Even to those who have exchanged their golf clubs for a fancy bike, cycling is likely much more than a chance to network, workout, and compete. The push to turn cycling into something elitist, takes away the beauty of what it truly is, and only serves to alienate.
Some of the loveliest bikes I’ve seen in the last few months are not the fancy carbon bikes ridden on the local group rides, but the well-used city bikes that are elegantly worn. Like anything well designed, they become more beautiful with use.
A few weeks ago, an old friend asked if I had any use for an Eighties bike, as it was collecting dust in his garage. By a coincidence, a day earlier, another friend, who is a thriving young racing cyclist, emailed me to say that he needed a bike to get around town. He found public transit life draining and tedious. He lives in the suburbs of Toronto, a sprawling city that is now the fourth largest in North America. To heal his broken shoulder, he had to travel into the center of the city to see a therapist. During the rush hours, the commute into town using mass transit can take him over two hours. He reads to pass the time, but the stop-start of the city bus, the crowds, the overheard cellphone conversations, and the fumes, leave him tense and frustrated by the end of the trip. The old bike changed his life. On it, he was home in 40 minutes, saving himself nearly an hour-and-a-half. In that time, he saw neighborhoods he didn’t know existed. With the city bike he can now scoot around town, discovering areas that were too hard to access by public transit or too lengthy a trip by foot. Instead of being stuck on the set route of a polluting bus, he’s moving freely.
There is something inspiring and comforting knowing an old bike that hasn’t been touched in decades can be pulled out of a basement and resurrected with a wipe of a rag, air in the tires, and a few dots of oil on the chain. This is great design. A bicycle is so simple, little can go wrong, and there’s little to fiddle with or repair, even after it’s been idle for decades.
The antiquated infrastructure in Toronto has made it difficult and frustrating to move anywhere by transit or car. As a result, citizens are embracing the bike for its efficiency. Twenty and thirty year old bikes are now locked to nearly every pole in the downtown core. On others, there are glistening fixies and modern city bikes. At most intersections, pelotons of commuters pool at the stoplights, some in cycling gear, and others in suits. It is a remarkable shift since my childhood, where most cyclists in town knew one another by name, look, or bike.
Crummy 30 year-old discount store bikes are chained to many of those sign poles and bike racks. And in a culture where very little is now made to last, with its enduring qualities, a beat-up old bike somehow looks beautiful. As the architect, Peter Zumthor wrote, “The beauty of a utilitarian object is the highest form of beauty.”