Tearing Up the Streets, and Pants

A bicyclist in Amsterdam: "Dignified, civilized, unhurried and even elegant…"

The ragged, angry tear on the woman’s jeans at ankle level was matched by her angry expression on her face as she looked in vain for some sort of consolation or advice from the bike shop attendant, to whom she explained how the front sprocket on her new bicycle had repeatedly caught and tore her pants leg.

No dice. The attendant at the bike store at 5th Avenue and St. Johns looked at her as she were complaining about aliens visiting from the moon.

I approached them and offered my perspective that it was absurd that most bikes lacked chain guards, and that one could not even buy a simple chain guard for most bicycles, and thus one was condemned to spoil one’s clothes.

"Thank you, thank you," the young woman said to me repeatedly, as if I had actually helped her in some way. She was apparently deeply grateful that someone was taking her complaint seriously. "I saved up money to buy this bicycle, and now I find that it tears my clothes. It has caused me to fall when my pants legs gets tangled. He tells me there is nothing I can do" .

I sympathized. A wise bike shop attendant in Cambridge, Mass once succinctly said to me some years ago that bike design and manufacturing in this country is "overly influenced by the sports market." How right that is. First it was the rage for 10-speed style racing bicycles that shaped casual bicycling; then it was mountain biking. Neither has much to do with simple bicycling for transportation, particularly in towns and cities.

I have a love/hate affair with my own bike, a mountain bike with an absurdly large frame and long seat post to fit my 6’7” body. The big tires and springy suspension really help riding in the city, particularly one like ours that has standard-grade American-style infrastructure, which means lots of pot holes and dangerous bumps to jump over or roll across.

But I’ve long loved the ideal of urban cycling being actually urbane, which in my book means dignified, civilized, unhurried and even elegant. One should not appear as if one were either in the Olympics or bouncing down a cliff-face when one is pedaling along Fifth Avenue in Manhattan or Brooklyn. One of my favorite memories of Amsterdam is seeing an older gentleman cycling down the street, wearing not only a suit and hat, but puffing on a pipe as well. He looked like a steamboat gently chugging along the street.

That’s what makes the recent trends of young woman riding in dresses and with long hair flowing, often on bikes where they sit upright and with dainty wicker baskets attached, such a good thing. These intrepid females are actually civilizing the street. What driver could be quite as aggressive after passing one of these delicate denizens of the street?

I myself would like to join this trend and trade in my hybridized mountain bike for a true urban bicycle, something gentle and civilized. But I hesitate. For one thing, I now keep my bicycle on the street, which makes hopping on it very convenient. I wouldn’t risk doing that with a new bicycle. Still, I would like to encourage the growing trend of bicycles being designed for in-town riding, as opposed to racing or off-road riding. My first choice right now is a "Dynamic Bicycle," which don’t even have chains and use a "shaft drive" instead.

But until that day, I rely on my rusty metal pants clip to keep my trousers from being snagged. It doesn’t work very well. Most of my pants now sport tears and stains on the lower right leg. It’s simply too much to remember and do every time you hop on a bicycle to take on and off this little metal clip, which is also quite uncomfortable as well as dorky looking.

I suspect I will eventually move on to a more civilized bicycle, as will many others. We have nothing to lose but our stained, ripped clothes.

Photo: Amsterdam Bicyclists