Dear Loyal Readers,
I am away this week. However, rather than let this blog lie fallow, I’ve put on my rubber gloves, rummaged around in my archives, and retrieved one moldy post per day for recycling. Maybe you’ve read them before, maybe you haven’t, but each is a reminder of a simpler time when road bikes had rim brakes, fixies were still cool, and gravel was just a piece of road grit in Jobst Brandt’s eye. Anyway, I’ll be back on Monday, February 27th, but in the meantime just think of this as the “Best Of Old Bike Snob,” or “BOOBS” for short.
Also, a sincere thank you to all of you who have donated to the continued mediocrity of this blog. If you haven’t and you’d still like to do so, details are here. If you haven’t and you don’t that’s fine too. Thanks as always for reading, and I’ll see you back here on Monday the 27th.
The Indignity of Commuting by Bicycle: Competition
[Originally published May 12th, 2009]
As you probably know, May is “Bike Month”–both here in New York City and across the whole US or A. Never one to shirk my responsibilities as a cyclist, I’ve decided to help out by creating a PSA. However, I’m not going to promote the same old tired causes. Helmets? Whatever. Until they come out with a helmet that makes you smarter helmets can only do so much. Hand signals? Meh. I recently witnessed someone nearly crash while attempting to make a hand signal, so until you’re able to control your bicycle without both hands on the bar you should probably let your destination remain a mystery. No, I’ve decided to flog my pet cause (flogging your pet cause should not be confused with “foffing off”) by creating a NYC-themed PSA for fenders:
See, it’s not that getting wet is a big deal. Really, it’s what you’re getting wet with. Even on the sunniest days New York City is awash with fluids, and these can range from benign substances like water from opened fire hydrants and spilled Snapple to more distasteful ones such as hot dog water and coffee spilled out by taxi drivers to the really horrific ones such as urine, garbage water, and vomit. The latter in particular are things with which you do not want to make contact, and a LRFP (Low-Riding Filth Prophylactic) such as the one below will only offer you minimal protection:
Next time you’re cleaning crust off the bottom of your downtube, try not to think about what that crust is.
But while Bike Month is billed as “a month of cycling celebration,” nothing could be further from the truth. If you commute by bicycle here in New York City, bike month is actually an intense competition. Now that the weather’s warm and dry, the streets are full of commuters who are united by one goal: to ride faster than other commuters. Even if you’re not competitive yourself, you can probably appreciate the beauty of competition now and again. Whether it’s cycling, or running, or boxing, or even sailing, there’s something about watching evenly-matched and similarly-equipped rivals striving to triumph over one-another that speaks directly to the human spirit. Conversely, there’s something pathetic and absurd about watching completely mismatched rivals with totally different equipment trying to race one-another, which is what commuting in New York City is like, and I was unfortunate enough to witness a particularly egregious example of this yesterday evening:
Yes, that is indeed a guy on Rollerblades attempting to get on the wheel of a guy riding a three speed and wearing a beret. You’ll notice the guy in the beret is also out of the saddle and doing his best to drop the Rollerblader and get on terms with a second group of commuters further up the road:
Witnessing a struggle like this is slightly less awe-inspiring than watching a bunny rabbit and a chinchilla racing to be first to the water bottle. It actually made the race between the guy on the Trek road bike (complete with filth prophylactic) and the guy with the step-through Schwinn fixed-gear conversion and the Promenade bars I had observed moments before seem “epic” in comparison. Actually, I think they comprised the breakaway group that beret guy was trying to catch.
Generally speaking, I don’t engage in competition when I commute. (I don’t really engage in competition when I race, either–there’s nothing particularly competitive about clinging tenuously to the back of the pack.) However, that does not stop other commuters from competing with me. For example, there’s an unwritten rule among New York City bike commuters, and it applies to all riders, regardless of age, fitness, or style of bicycle. This rule is as follows:
If you stop at a red light and there is already another cyclist waiting at it, you must stop your bicycle in front of the rider who is already there.
As far as I know, I am the only cyclist in New York who does not observe this rule, because while I’m quite happy to queue up behind somebody at an intersection, I have never, ever had somebody stop behind me. If you’re waiting, someone will pull up ahead of you. If a third person comes, they’ll roll ahead and stop in front of the second person. On a busy day, this accumulation results in sort of a shoal of cyclists which juts out into the middle of the street like a sandbar of idiocy. I observed this shoaling effect once again just this morning, as you can see here:
Mind you, I was the first rider at this light. Note that the guy on the hybrid, the guy on the Raleigh, and the messenger have passed me, rolled through the crosswalk, and lined up in front of one-another in eager anticipation of the light change. As I snapped the photo, they were joined by some schlub on a skateboard carrying an envelope, and shortly after he arrived came a woman with a flowery scarf:
You’ll see the schlub on the skateboard went immediately to the front of the group. (Perhaps he had a bunch of points in the New York City stoplight race series and got a call-up, but if he did I didn’t hear it.) Unfortunately for scarf woman, before she was able to get in front of him, the light changed. And they’re off!
I haven’t seen a start this explosive since the Cyclocross World Championships in Hoogerheide. I think the messenger got the holeshot, though the schlub on the skateboard with the envelope may have been skitching off him. As for me, I couldn’t stay with scarf woman, so a gap opened immediately. I may have lost the race, but I like to think I preserved some dignity.
But when it comes to absurd competitions completely bereft of dignity, New York City bicycle commuting can’t come close to fixed-gear freestyling. I was visiting Trackosaurusrex recently when I saw this video of a fixed-gear freestyle competition, which makes yesterday evening’s Rollerblade-vs-beret race look like Andy Hampsten on the Gavia Pass in 1988:
Most people have heard the expression “familiarity breeds contempt.” Well, until now I never thought it applied to fixed-gear freestyling. Sure, the “sport” has been around for at least a few years now, but instead of growing contemptuous of it you sort of just get used to the absurdity. So really, familiarity with fixed-gear freestyling doesn’t breed contempt–it breeds indifference. However, this display of riding was nearly enough to change that. While I can’t say I experienced full-blown contempt, it definitely ratcheted my “meh” up to “vehemehnce:”
Basically, these guys just ride around in circles, lifting their front wheels occasionally. Amazingly, there are actually people who have gathered to watch this, and they golf-clap appreciatively whenever someone fails to land yet another “trick.” Since I can’t possibly imagine anybody would go out of their way to watch this, my guess is that this group of people assembles regularly at this parking lot regardless of what’s going on–they probably stand there during the week too and golf-clap when someone manages to get out of his Ford Focus without spilling his Starbucks. For me though, by far the most exciting moment was when some guy in a tie-dye shirt ran through the shot:
Yes, while fixed-gear freestyling continues to grow in popularity, it’s hard to say whether the “sport” is actually evolving or just getting long in the chainring tooth. Not only is the wardrobe, pacing, and crowd reaction growing increasingly golf-like, but the participants are beginning to experience repetitive motion injuries as well. After watching the above video, I headed over to fixed-gear freestyle impresario Prolly’s blog to see if I could find anything better, and I was concerned to read this:
The turning point in any subculture is when people’s bodies start rebelling against their wardrobes. It’s like having to add a few more rounds to your bullet belt to accommodate your swelling midsection, or needing bifocals to read your own knuckle tattoos. And nothing is less cutting-edge than sensible footwear. Just wait until people start experiencing messenger bag-related lower back problems. The Fixed-Gear Apocalypse may not come with a bang or a wimper; it may just come with a lot of complaining.