Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Cycling and Hartford Part III


More from Dario:

For the love of the bicycle

But before I explain what I mean by "And it gets worse", let's double back to an important love of our life: cycling? Cycling was born in England as an athletic, agonistic, class conscious, and elitist activity, not as an everyman, humble means of transportation. Only the wealthy, once upon a time, recreated. So, it makes sense that mastering an Ordinary (a high wheeler, a "Penny-farthing") would require the extensive leisure to do so. This was initially the case in the U.S., too. Mark Twain famously tried, unsuccessfully, to tame the tall beast, but he could afford the time and expense to learn how to ride (if he had only really tried). Cycling up until about the mid-1880's was the stuff of mainly well-to-do men and a few iconoclastic women. When eventually prices dropped for these expensive contraptions, people of lower social classes could afford them. A middle or even working class man on a high wheeled Ordinary riding alongside an aristocrat on a horse would literally see eye to eye. Metaphorically, the playing field had been leveled (and never underestimate the power of metaphors). When Pope began producing his version of the "Safety" bicycle, that is, the classic diamond shape design with two wheels of equal diameter, everything changed. Although expensive at first, prices dropped as competition from other producers, a more efficient production process, and the sheer volume of bicycles made and sold in the U.S. increased. Pope's genius was also in having promoted the production of the step-through version of the Safety bicycle for women (in the background of the image of the male Safety), thereby, opening up a huge market and also contributing, as Susan B. Anthony proclaimed, an important instrument to the promotion of women's liberation. Histories of the bicycle are filled with references to the democratizing effect of the bicycle.
Cycling in the 1890's was all the rage in the U.S. and elsewhere, especially competitive cycling. Major Taylor was perhaps the first, truly international American superstar athlete. And he was black. The League of American Wheelmen had been created in 1880, the mother of all affiliate clubs throughout the country. There were velodromes in many cities and major competitive races, track and road, including a velodrome in East Hartford. Pope promoted good roads and cycling parks to enhance the market for bicycles. Seemingly inhuman speed and endurance races captivated the American and European imagination from about the 1890's into the beginning of the 20th C. Then the bottom fell out, as they say. Cycling declined in popularity with respect to the initial craze. Certainly a less costly automobile (Ford's car for everyman as opposed to Pope's car for the wealthy) began to dominate the landscape. But this doesn't explain why we jumped into cars spending a lot more money and not using bicycles, for example, for commuting short distances, as happens everyday in many cities around the world. Marketing, irrationalism, desire to be better, faster than your neighbor, or even inertia are all logical and possibly good reasons. Time is money.

To answer this, perhaps we need to look at our own era. First, Greg Lemond, and then Lance Armstrong (however steep his fall from grace has been) helped make road racing enormously popular in the U.S. While they certainly contributed to the production and sales of higher end racing machines, did they actually contribute to cycling, meaning, recreational and commuter cycling? Did the people who went out and bought an expensive racing machine, ride outside of this specific conspicuous consumer activity (racing, fast club riding)? There is an uncanny parallel between the cycling paradigm in Major Taylor's era and in our own. Has this predilection for agonistic cycling been an impediment to the development of the bicycle as a means of transportation in the U.S.? And if this is true for us, why isn't it true for some countries in Europe, where there are many commuting cyclists?

At the end of the last post, the reflective interlude, I intimated that "And it gets worse", which I reprise in the introduction of this entry. If sustainability is about making conscious choices and mainstream American society and culture actively avoids sustainability, then this impulse to avoid is not only because of economic opportunism, but avoidance has also become an ingrained habit and even a cultural norm with ideological underpinnings. Indeed, things get worse.

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