The end of the 19th century gave us one of the great advances in transportation history, the modern bicycle.
Alas, the early years of the twentieth century gave us the speedometer.
And while the speedometer was far from the worst technological development of the 1900s, a fixation on speed was an unfortunate detour for several decades of bicycling history, especially in North America.
Over the past 25 years, fortunately, the trend has changed, bringing important new players to bicycle-and-accessory businesses and into municipal planning.
Yet a lingering tension has remained between those who are willing and able to ride fast through the traffic on busy streets, and those campaigning to make safe cycling routes available to everyone from ages 8 to 80. As one who used to love darting from lane to lane while pedaling past cars and trucks, it took me decades to embrace the idea of separated bike lanes on city streets.
The joy of speed
Those of us who were introduced to bicycling in the 1960s to 1980s can remember seeing two types of bikes in the stores: kids’ bikes, and “speed bikes”. If you were an adult wanting a bike, the thinking went, then you were a fitness buff. And the key measure of that fitness was the number on the speedometer.
Thus the bikes had very skinny tires, and no encumbrances like racks or baskets. Serious cyclists were expected to wear tight-fitting clothes, and to ride with their noses just an inch from the low-mounted handlebars in order to reduce wind resistance.
Going fast on a bike has always been a thrill, of course. For nineteenth-century women getting on the earliest bikes and moving at velocities hitherto unknown, for seven-year-olds whizzing down a modest hill, or for septuagenarian cyclists catching a stiff tail wind and suddenly feeling 30 years younger, a burst of speed has always been part of the appeal of pedaling.
The key phrase here is “part of the appeal”. Rolling slowly and quietly along a wooded lane so you can hear every bird song; riding side by side with a friend on a safe path while conversing; getting to work in half the time it would take to walk, without breaking a sweat; or carrying a heavy load of groceries home on your bike without straining arms or back – these are no less important aspects of the appeal of biking.
Furthermore, the thrill of going fast is not actually increased by having that speed measured. Flying down a previously unexplored hill is great fun even if you have no idea whether you’re moving at 45 kilometers, 55 kilometers or 65 kilometers per hour.
On the other hand, once you’ve acquired a speedometer and you’ve started to pay close attention to your average speed, a ride might indeed seem less fun if your speed drops, and you feel like you’ve let yourself down. In fact, you may develop a strange compulsion to buy a bike that weighs a few less grams, or to wear a sleeker lycra jersey, or to pump your tires a little harder, to ensure your speed keeps increasing.
In continental climates it’s impossible to maintain summer biking speeds through the winter. The lubrication around ball bearings gets stiff, tires are hard to keep adequately inflated, and boots, overpants and winter jackets all add wind resistance.
Riding in Toronto through the 1980s, I developed a theory that by November one could see which cyclists would carry on through the winter, and which cyclists would soon hang up their bikes until spring.
On the first frosty mornings, when some cyclists had switched to long pants or wool tights, others would still be clad in lycra shorts. For the latter group, obviously, comfort was secondary to speed and “fast fashion” – and just as obviously, the winter would soon get the better of them.
Unfortunately the bike shops catered mostly to those with a focus on speed. And thus for many years it was hard to find a bike with a good sturdy basket or rack that could carry your groceries, or fenders that would stand up to winter slush. Nearly all the high-quality bikes were made for racers and wannabe-racers, and that meant they were mostly useless for carting groceries, transporting small children to day care, or even riding short distances to work on days when the roads were sloppy.
Change in this dominant biking culture took hold in the late 1980s, as early mountain bikes begat hybrid or “city” bikes. A wide variety of useful accessories also became easier to find.
A flowering of utilitarian bike culture has certainly occurred in the past 15 years, with many types of cargo bikes introduced to the market in North America, along with fat bikes, folding bikes, and electric-assist bikes. And with a noticeable uptick in the commuting cyclist population, some cities started to pay more than lip service to the idea of protected bike lanes.
Bike lanes vs. Effective Cycling
While the creation of bike lanes on urban streets was cheered by a new generation of urban cyclists, some long-time cycling advocates see this development as a regrettable step backwards. Opponents of separated cycling lanes often cite the work of John Forester, author of the Effective Cycling book and training course in the 1970s.
Forester’s work guided me from my first years of urban cycling in the early 1980s. The strategies outlined in Effective Cycling made it possible for me to quickly come to terms with riding on city streets, during years when separated bike lanes were not scarce, they were non-existent. Biking has been the most healthy, liberating form of physical activity in my life for decades, so I owe Forester a huge debt of gratitude.
Yet over the past 20 years I’ve come to believe that what is loosely termed the Slow Bicycle Movement offers wider promise than Forester’s approach, and I’ll turn to that comparison in part two of this essay.
Photos taken on Dundas Street, Toronto, January 13, 2018