Wednesday, 26 August 2009

Rectilinear or Obtuse? Cycling in the Media

In yesterday's post I mentioned a Salon article about bicycle parking and how more of it might increase the number of bicycle commuters. While I'm certainly in favor of more and better bike parking, I also can't help suspecting that the people who claim they don't ride their bikes to work because there's nowhere to park them are the same kinds of people who say they'll quit smoking when cigarettes reach $[insert number here] a pack: in other words, they're not looking for reasons to do it; they're looking for excuses not to do it. Once they've got bike parking, then they'll probably require an on-site shower. Then, when they've got that, they'll need special loofahs and moisturizers and so forth. Chances are that in 20 years we'll still be reading articles about what it will take to get people to commute by bike (though we'll be reading those articles in hologram form, since everybody knows the future is always full of holograms), except instead of the lack of bike parking the issue will be the lack of lilac-scented cruelty-free hypoallergenic body scrubs in the workplace.

So why is bike parking so important, anyway? Well, one of the main reasons people want it is because they're afraid of bike theft. Bicycles are great machines because they're reasonably light and reasonably portable. Unfortunately, these are the same reasons they're also stolen so frequently. Of course, this isn't unique to bicycles. If you leave your laptop or your flat-screen TV or even your small dog outside unattended and inadequately secured that will probably get stolen, too. Yes, I admit that you should be able to take your bicycle to work, while your TV or your small dog might better be left at home. Still I feel people tend to react with an inordinate amount of surprise and indignation when their bikes get stolen, so much so that it's often the subject of news stories, such as this one in the Wall Street Journal which was forwarded to me by a reader:

Sure, this article is as much about "social-media sites such as Twitter" as it is about bike theft, but it still illustrates how some people seem to feel that some of the darker aspects of life, such as theft, are somehow even darker when they touch their bicycles. Take Senan Gorman, the creator of "Karma Army," which appears to be sort of a support group for people who can't get over the theft of their valuable lifestyle sporting equipment:

Senan Gorman, of Farmington, Conn., had his bike stolen a decade ago, but the pain is fresh. "It's still like it was yesterday," he says.

Like most human beings living in a large society, I've had things stolen from me. Some of these things were bicycles, and others weren't. Yes, it's extremely unpleasant. But if you've had something taken from you over 10 years ago, it still hurts "like it was yesterday," and that thing was not an actual life, then you may have issues that an increase in secure bicycle parking alone is insufficient to address. This is not to say you shouldn't send out an alert if your property was stolen, or that "Karma Army" isn't useful in that regard. However, to a certain extent I can't help feeling that the indignation people feel when they leave their really expensive triathlon bikes in their cars overnight and they get stolen is almost as large a problem as crime itself.

Also, according to the article, police in some cities are taking bike theft more seriously. However, like so much else, this may cause more harm then good. For instance, it seems that police are now aware of the phenomenon of the "Frankenbike." Moreover, they're considering "Frankenbikedom" a sign that some or all of that bike may have been stolen:

This is potentially extremely dangerous. Many cyclists ride so-called "Frankenbikes." These may be beaters which they cobbled together from various spare parts, or else bicycles they "curated" simply because they enjoy a good kludge. What if the police begin to apprehend and question everybody who rides a "Frankenbike?" "Kludgie" winners would become criminals. Eccentricity like this could land you in handcuffs. The World's Greatest Madone would become America's Most Wanted. Indeed, our fundamental right to bizarre and pointless self-expression would be threatened.

Ultimately, though, we cyclists face a problem far greater than a lack of parking, or theft, or failing to lock your bike and then confusing "karma" with "vengeance," or even jackbooted "Frankenbike" crackdowns. This problem is misinformation. Take this Slate Dutch city bike review, forwarded by a reader. Like any article about cycling in a "mainstream" publication, I began reading it with apprehension since I knew it was only a matter of time before the writer would reveal his ignorance:

Yes, it certainly didn't take too long. First, he reveals the depth of his cycling experience and knowledge by explaining how he once saw a Dutch bike while he was stoned. Next, he drops some cycling jargon by using the term "primly rectilinear." (Actually, I thought "primly rectilinear" referred to a Dutch prostitute who will agree to let you perform "the pinky test," only she will do so reluctantly and demurely.) Then, he says that an upright position helps you "see over car roofs in traffic." As I've said before, there is no seating position that will allow you to see over car roofs in traffic in the United States, where thanks to the phenomenon of vehicular bloat the typical motor vehicle can barely clear a traffic light. Furthermore, you don't need to see over cars; you need to be looking at the cars directly in front of you and at the road surface. If seeing over car roofs was a necessary feature of a city bike then we'd all be riding tall bikes, or just skipping bikes altogether in favor of hang gliders. (By the way, if you've had a hang glider stolen recently, you might want to post about your pain over at "Karma Army.")

To the writer's credit though he does manage to properly explain the purpose of a fender:
That said, I think pretty much everybody in the world knows what a fender does, so the explanation is completely unnecessary. If he's going to assume this level of ignorance he should also explain that "pedals are primly rectilinear attachments which provide a surface for your feet and allow you to propel the bicycle forward." Granted, it is worth pointing out that Dutch bikes come with fenders, since bicycles are one of the few vehicles that are actually sold without them. But can you buy fenders separately in a bikes shop? Well, the writer wouldn't know, because he's apparently never set foot in one:
Absurd descriptions aside (yes, road bikes are designed for suburban riding, which is why the Tour de France takes place entirely in the residential neighborhoods of the Paris metropolitan area), to claim that American bike shops only carry mountain bikes or road bikes is absurd. This is like saying American car dealerships only carry dune buggies and race cars, or that American supermarkets only carry Cheetos and pâté. If anything, in an American bike shop you've got to wade across a floor full of hybrids with suspension seatposts before you can even get near a road or mountain bike. Sure, there may not be any Dutch bikes, but there will be plenty of bikes that do the same thing at half the tonnage. Then again, what do you expect from someone who begins the video that accompanies the article by salmoning?

Or who, a little while later, actually explains that the Abici Grantourismo is a "fixed-gear" because it has a coaster brake?

Or who lost one of the test bikes because he left it outside overnight secured only by a cable lock?
I'd also love to tell you how an Electra Amsterdam rides. Actually, I did tell you how an Electra Amsterdam rides. This is because I did not leave it outside overnight with a crappy lock and thus was able to keep the bicycle in my possession for the duration of the test period, which should really be your first priority as a bicycle reviewer. Maybe he should blame the lack of adequate bicycle parking in his city and then post something on "Karma Army." Incidentally, he says that Electra were "cool" about the theft of the bike, which is probably because they were happy to be spared from this guy's ignorance. If he'd actually gotten to ride it he'd probably have called it a fixed-gear like he did with the Abici and totally confused any potential buyers.

Really, though, none of this is surprising. While mainstream publications will generally require that people who write about movies, or cuisine, or cars, or finance, or politics have at least a basic understanding of them, when it comes to cycling they like to pick writers who are completely clueless. This is because they assume their readers also know nothing about cycling and will be more likely to accept information from and relate to somebody like them. This is not true. People actually read things to gain information, and they actually like it when writers know more than they do. Even a hacky movie critic knows the difference between a film and a sitcom, even the lamest automotive journalist can tell a manual transmission from an automatic, and even the worst political analyst knows the difference between the Senate and the House of Representatives. Bicycles should be treated like computers by the media, in that both were once the domain of nerds and children but are now totally commonplace and thus can be written about with more sophistication. The media does this with computers, but when it comes to bikes they still write about them like they're reciting the alphabet over and over again to a bunch of children--only they keep getting the letter order wrong.

So what's the result? The ignorant stay ignorant. Take the latest local bike lane debate, forwarded to me by another reader:

As soon as you've invoked Lance Armstrong in a discussion about bicycle commuting you've revealed you're a moron. This is like saying only Dale Earnhardt, Jr. would drive a car to work, and as such we don't need paved roads. He might as well have added that the Sun revolves around the Earth on which he lives. Meanwhile, the Chinese Consolidated Benevolent Association has a different objection:
This I can understand. Anybody who has spent any time in Chinatown knows that the street space currently wasted on bike lanes is sorely needed by pedestrians for expectorating. In fact it's nearly impossible to travel in a Chinatown bike lane without getting hit by either a "loogie" or a "snot rocket," and the sheer volume of the mucus that accumulates is yet another reason why we need fenders (which, in case you don't know, are semi-circular arcs that protect from up-splash of phlegm and various bodily humors).

So who's going to correct all these misunderstandings? Certainly not the bike industry--they're too busy curating "colorways" and "touch points," coming up with clever names for handlebars, and figuring out how to hide shifter mounts:

The Felt Gridloc has an internally-geared 3-speed hub, but can also be converted to a "fixie" or "pure singlespeed." That's a lot of drivetrain options. They should send it to the guy at Slate--it would probably make his head explode. It should also come with a sticker that says "All You Haters Fondle my Touch Points." That would at least mitigate its serious lack of "prim rectilinearity."


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