I have a friend, a novelist, who lives in Jackson, Wyoming. You probably know Jackson as the home of great skiing and Dick Cheney. It features spaces so wide open they had to order an extra-big sky, and mountains so perfect a couple of French guys named them “the big tits” (i.e. Grand Tetons). This is the kind of place where people buy Chryslers new, and no one has walked anywhere since James A. Garfield was shot. In brief, it is the home of car culture. You might think it strange that my friend the novelist is also a bike enthusiast, and has been since Duran Duran was on heavy rotation at MTV. Don’t believe the hype! Just because Wyoming passed an unfunded, unofficial mandate that all citizens must have a hemi and an operational weapon at all times while driving, does not mean that it doesn’t have a thriving bike culture. It does. It just doesn’t have enough urban hipsters to make a viable blog.
My friend emails me sometimes to ask if I’ve read the latest from bikesnobnyc. And I have. Bike Snob has everything my demographic craves: 99% error-free writing, low-key but sardonic wit, awesome quizzes, and bikes. But the best part, as a recent visitor to my house in Brooklyn pointed out, is when Bikesnobnyc takes the air out of the tires of people who claim to love bikes, but who in fact are just slaves to fashion. That’s why my friend from Wyoming has to get his fix of fixie-hating from afar. The guys sporting beards, pot bellies, flannel shirts, and listening to country music in Wyoming vote Republican and think bikes are for … well, you wouldn’t want to waste a bullet on one.
I was ecstatic to find out that Bikesnobnyc had distilled his wisdom into a book: Bike Snob: Systematically & Mercilessly Realigning the World of Cycling. Books have similar advantages to bikes: they are a simple, elegant, pre-electronic technology that will last for ages with the proper care and maintenance. Bikesnobnyc and I share some important traits, one of which is being thoroughly 20th century. That is to say, I usually like my blogs on paper, between two covers, also known as a book. And Bikesnobnyc’s book has stickers in the back with which an enthusiast may decorate their bike. And that puts his book into the realm of “kick ass.”
Being a 20th century guy trapped in the 21st century, however, I couldn’t help but self-consciously notice that his book is more tame and not as bitingly funny as his blog. In the blog he’s always making fun of hipsters, but in his book they are merely one of several classifications in a “velo-taxonomy” that also includes “roadies,” “mountain bikers,” “cyclocrossers,” “triathletes,” “messengers,” “contraption captains,” “retro-grouches,” and “lone wolves.” Hipsters are broken down into two categories, one male and one female: the “Urban Cyclist” and the “Beautiful Godzilla.” These two are recognizably hipsters because they care more about fashion than physics, which sets them apart from the other categories of cyclist who see a bike as a machine, a tool, and not as an “accessory.”
You don’t have to look deeply into Bike Snob to read some real gems on what makes the “urban” cyclist annoying. For example, check out this piece on David Byrne and the smugness of those who identify with “bike culture.” The key sentence is “and I can’t even relate to him [i.e. David Byrne] –which, I guess, is why I also can’t always relate to the ‘bike culture,’ since they seem so determined to rarefy the normal.” Replace “rarefy” with “aestheticize” and you see what I mean. Real cyclists are not distracted by the superfluous. How you look on a bike — how you think you look in your friends’ eyes — is pretentious and inauthentic, which is ironic, because as he says in the book, “Urban Cyclists endlessly seek ‘authenticity,’ and are often fond of ‘vintage’ bicycle frames.”
Perhaps in the interests of fairness, his retro-paper-blog-with-covers expands this critique of fashion to triathletes and roadies. The difference between a Roadie and an Urban Cyclist boils down to income: a true Roadie will spend $15,000 specializing a bike he may never actually ride, whereas the Urban Cyclist will buy an antique bike that is dangerous and difficult to ride. Both of them are motivated by aesthetics, but one is a bank executive with an Ivy League MBA, and the other tends bar in Bushwick.
Bikesnobnyc puts himself in the “retro-grouch” category. Doesn’t this sound like self-description?: “much of their reasoning is sound, if irritating.” It’s a good place to be. You may have gathered from my references to the 20th century that I myself am a Retro-Grouch. But Bikesnobnyc gives the game away a bit, reveals the hand of the retro-grouch when he says, “Retro-Grouch Urban Cyclists are called ‘adults.’” We Retro-Grouches are pearls of experience with a little grain of romantic hipster at our core. It is that self-loathing that differentiates us from my cycling friend in Wyoming.
In New York City we are pulled between two opposite poles of the experience of living more collectively than the rest of the country. I love Portland (the one time I visited), but it’s not very big or very densely populated. Almost five Portlands worth of people will fit inside Brooklyn. It stands to reason that there are far more people per capita riding bikes out of necessity in Brooklyn than in Portland. Think of all the food delivery guys, alternative transportation advocates, and low-level drug trade functionaries in impoverished neighborhoods who ride their bikes January through December. And Portland never gets a hard freeze. Perhaps these soft conditions are what make cyclists in that famously bike-friendly town so annoying.
Necessity is authenticity. Being on top of one another means not everyone can afford a car — not even rich people, not even everyone in the outer boroughs. On the other hand, a city this big has thousands of micro-cultures from slow food, punk rock porcovores to transvestite, vegetarian stock traders. In New York, if you feel that your culture is suffocating you, take a train to a different neighborhood and reinvent yourself. But beware! Self-reinvention means trying to escape your “essence,” which is inauthentic. Certainly the macho Republicans in Wyoming never doubt who they are or question the truths of their upbringing. Bikesnobnyc is fully aware of this paradox. He says: “the paradoxical truth about purity when it comes to subcultures is that the purity is gone as soon as someone recognizes it and tries to maintain it in the first place. Purity and self-awareness can’t exist side by side.” Amen.
And so we hearty New Yorkers are caught between knowing we have to keep it real, day after day, and trying desperately to carve something new for ourselves out of this hard, hard city. And if that means riding a vintage, fixed-gear track bike with handlebars the width of a ruler while sporting a U lock tucked into our belts, so be it.
I, for one, willingly admit I am not as hard as the Grizzly Adamses that live in the shadow of the Grand Tetons. The most germane part of Bikesnobnyc’s book on this cold January day is his movie rule for riding in the winter. Being a 20th century kind of guy, he takes the year of that century when a great movie came out, and uses it to determine whether or not it’s warm enough to ride: “1903: The Great Train Robbery comes out. It’s one of the first movies, but it doesn’t really hold up today. Three degrees Fahrenheit — stay inside.” Another Amen to that. From where I sit, it looks like D. W. Griffith’s Birth of a Nation outside. Until I see some Frank Capra It’s A Wonderful Life out the window, I’m taking the train.
Will Kenton is a critic, teacher, and the founder of Cultural Capitol. Prior book reviews for FP include Talking to Girls About Duran Duran and The Ninth: Beethoven and the World in 1824. He lives, thinks, and writes in Bed-Stuy, Brooklyn and rides a Trek 1100