Saturday, June 6, 2009

Can We "Ride Away" from Marketing?

[image from goldenoldy.com]

An article appeared today on Copenhagen Cycle Chic discussing the ironies of advertising "cycle chic" gear and merchandise, when the whole point of the movement is, in fact, not to do or purchase anything special for cycling. "Looking for cycling clothes, Girlfriends? Open your f---ing closets!" suggests the author; "If anybody tries to sell you cycling clothes... run... or ride away!"

Personally, I agree. However, I am not surprised at the development against which Copenhagen Cycle Chic laments. The way I see it, the explanation lies in American culture and its perception of cycling. The US-EU cultural differences in this respect should not be underestimated. Let's explore the central assertions made by Copenhagen Cycle Chic:

1. Cycling in regular clothing is not a new concept

One point that the article stresses, is that the idea of riding in regular clothing isn't new, citing that it has been done in Europe all along and even in the US at the turn of the 20th century. I have heard this remark before from my European friends, and I think it is mis-applied here. Keep in mind that most Americans never have a chance to visit Europe (especially beyond the context of being a tourist), and also most of them certainly were not alive at the turn of the 20th century. So for the collective memory of mainstream American culture, the idea of "chic" cycling is fundamentally very new, very shocking, and difficult to fully process. Until two years ago, most Americans did not know that bicycles with dress-guards and chain covers still exist.


2. It's as simple as "getting a bike and riding it"

I would say that riding a bicycle elegantly has been more difficult in the US than in Europe, for several reasons:

Availability of comfortable bikes: Until very recently, American bike shops only sold very sporty types of bikes: basically, road and mountain bikes, with the hunched-over seating position, male horizontal bar, no fenders, no chain covers, no lights, etc. I invite you to try riding such bicycles in your office clothing or pastel summer dress!... Even today, purchasing chain covers and dress-guards in the US is not a simple matter. Two years ago it was nearly impossible.

Geography: Most American cities have more hills than Amsterdam and Copenhagen. Also, typical commuting distances are much longer. In the US it is entirely normal to work 30+ miles away from where you live. Try arriving to work fresh and dignified in your office clothes after a 30 mile ride up and down hills! On the blogs out there, I have read comments from several American bike shop owners, stating that customers who buy heavy Dutch bikes are often not satisfied with them -- they find using them in their local terrain too physically challenging.

Infrastructure: Cycling on American roads is more intimidating and dangerous than on European roads. This causes people to feel that it is necessary to outfit themselves with athletic gear and helmets, in order to feel up to the challenge and be less vulnerable.

3. The advertising industry is using the "cycle chic" movement to sell us unnecessary stuff

I am not so sure that I would blame it on the predatory advertisers. Keep in mind that the United States has a more consumerist culture than Europe. When people have a new hobby or interest, part of the fun is buying lots of special stuff for it, and manufacturers oblige by providing that stuff. The idea that you do not need any special accessories for chic cycling is sad and boring American consumers. They don't want to open their closets, they want a reason to go shopping. Pushing the anti-consumerism aspect of cycling might actually reduce the rising public enthusiasm for the activity.

It might seem that I paint an unflattering picture, but really I am just being realistic. Cycling in North America has its own unique set of historical, cultural and geographical influences that must be recognised. The recent articles and advertising campaigns that may seem ridiculous to the European mind, make sense when the American point of view is considered.

19 comments:

  1. Excellent views. I have ridden bicycles for years in whatever I was wearing that day, be it casual clothes or a 3 piece suit (not often these days)

    In the US Consumerism is King. We average around 20sf per person of retail space versus less than 3sf per person in the EU. They have to fill those spaces with something. ;-)

    On the bike front things are getting better. I visited an LBS that actually had a pretty decent selection of city oriented bikes, ranging from single speeds to IGH (Internal Gear Hub) to 24 speed derailleur equipped. Many came with fenders, lights and racks. Now the challenge is to convince the buying public that a month or two car payment is not an exorbitant amount to pay for a quality bicycle. The paybacks are enormous!

    Ride on...in comfort AND style.

    Aaron

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  2. You refer to Copenhagen and Amsterdam regarding geography. But what of Gothenburg [7% trips by bike], or Aarhus [25%], or Berne and Basel in Switzerland [25%]? Not to mention scores of other cities not as flat as CPH & AMS.

    Nope. This old myth isn't relevant. And the geography of the US is the same, as far as I know, as it was 70 years ago when people rode happily about.

    Regarding consumerism, I don't buy that one. There are 500 million citizens of the EU and the EU is now the world's strongest economy. The standard of living in most western EU countries has been higher for ages. Homo sapiens with cash go shopping. I can't see how this would vary from one continent to another. The Japanese are by far the most eager consumerists on the planet and they shop more than the EU and the US. Oh, and they have a massive bicycle culture and a varied geography.

    Debunking the Flat Country=Bike Country Myth

    Infrastructure... there are many car-centric cities in Europe without dedicated infrastructure where some may feel intimidated by the traffic. Let alone Asia. So I can see how this argument makes any sense.

    Regarding availability of comfortable bikes... yes. We agree completely.

    cheers

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  3. I love the idea that one could just hope on a bike with whatever they're wearing and just go. However. I have an old mountain bike with an uncomfortable seat and made the executive decision that while I'd love a new dutch bike or even a brooks saddle, it makes more sense for the time being (whilst getting back into cycling) to go with the $20 bike-shorts-with-skirt-attached. Padding is needed! :)

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  4. Mikael, Thank you for your reply.

    I have read the "Debunking the Flat Country=Bike Country Myth" article, and overall I agree. However, the article does not address the interaction between (a) more hilly terrain and (b) commuting distance. In Europe, it is not typical to work more than, say, 10-15 miles from where you live, and neither is it typical to travel huge distances on a daily basis for entertainment. So even in hilly landscapes, European commuting is relatively short.

    In the US, the sense of distances is very different. A 60+ mile daily trip to work and back is not abnormal.

    There might also be an element of physical fitness at play here -- i.e. the average American is not as physically fit as the average European, and is therefore unable to cycle on a heavy relaxed-frame bike, up hills, wearing nice clothing, and still look presentable when arriving at work.

    As for infrastructure, this is of course to some degree subjective. I have spent my life in Europe and in the US about half-and-half. To me, the infrastructure and the attitude to cyclists in even the most bike friendly areas of the US, seem incomparably worse than even in the least bike-friendly areas of Europe, with the exclusion of Eastern Europe. I could be wrong, but this has been my impression.

    The bottom line is, something is different. If you don't think that the "terrain + commuting distance + infrastructure" theory is a good explanation, I am wondering what you think are the reasons for the US-EU difference.

    Regarding consumerism, I was not suggesting that it is the reason Americans do not have a bike culture. Rather, I was saying that Americans will enjoy shopping for a myriad of cycling accessories and special equipment, and will find the "look in your closet" approach not very exciting in comparison to "the must-have chic cycling shoes" approach : )

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  5. Carrie -- I have found padding to make zero difference in how much my "soft tissue" hurts after extensive riding. I do not have a Brooks saddle yet either (1 month to go!), but even the sprung Selle Royale on the Austrian KTM I am renting is better than the unsprung gel saddles on other bikes I've ridden in the past. Raising the seat has also helped with the pain.

    2whls3spds -- Yes, things are getting better in American bike shops. But even as of April 2009, 1/2 of the shops I visited in the Boston area did not carry relaxed frame bicycles.

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  6. I think American consumerism is an issue with respect to the support or lack of support for bike culture. Speaking as one, Americans generally are overly impressed with the largest, the shiniest, and the fastest. Convenience and individualism ("nobody better try to take my car away from me!") are prized above the common good and, for that matter, above self-interest. The average American has a morbid fear of any thing associated with socilaism - bike commuting and single payer healthcare, among them, unfortunately. Today, even as bad as the recession is and the unending reports of more job losses I am amazed at how many people here truly believe things will "turn around" in a year or two and they can start buying those large SUVs and 42 inch flat screen TVs again. I think we take consumerism to a totally different level than do Europeans.

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  7. Regarding geography. I live in Ohio in the foothills of the Appalachians. I checked out a dutch bike in a shop last week and there is no way I could ride it here. It was too heavy and then to add the weight of groceries etc, I would spend all my time trying to walk it up the hills. That is.. if I could push or pull it. I opted for a vintage three speed and I have a hybrid. The hybrid doesn't look nearly as cool as the dutch bikes but it gets the job done. I still love the Batavus but it's just not the right bike for me.

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  8. The Summer is making things change in Boston. I see more and more "relaxed" and "chic" cyclers on the streets. Could it be more than in the last season? I can't tell because I wasn't paying attention a year ago!

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  9. This is a very interesting post/discussion for someone living to where they have to ride across not one,but 2 mountains to get to the closest video or grocery store. Things I normally don't hear about,and real food for thought as the time my family and I move to a metro-type area in the next 1-3 years.

    I really enjoyed this one :)

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  10. Thank you for the comments everyone.

    I think it is clear, that there are different points of view regarding whether cycling can be done in normal clothes and on a steel-frame 3-speed across all nations and cultures. The mere fact that so many people report being unable to do it -- both on this blog and on others, including the responses to articles on Copenhagen Cycle Chic -- is evidence in itself that we need to consider differences in attitude/culture/weather/physical fitness -- and whatever other factors play a role.

    As for marketing and gear -- maybe marketing and unnecessary gear is not so evil and silly, if it popularizes stylish everyday riding.

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  11. Just some of my thoughts to your very interesting observations: In fact there are also a lot of people in Europe that cycle in Lycra. But they also have their own ways of coping with hills, e.g. in Zurich a lady with a trailer full of kids overtook me on a steep hill (then I realized that she had an E-bike ;-)). I've seen that especially in Switzerland. And I could probably agree that commuting distances in the USA are much longer (simply due to bad spatial planning in the past decades), but that's nothing that couldn't be changed. There are also people in Austria that complain that they "have to" commute 30km twice each day by car. They don't realize though, that they could just move closer to their workplace. That's generally more expensive, I know. But it's also not cheap to pay for one or more cars and having to play taxi for the kids because they can't go anywhere on their own..
    Anyhow, keep up your good blogging. It's very interesting to read your impressions as you probably know both "worlds"!

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  12. A few observations:

    1) I grew up in California's Central Valley. My dad, who came of age in the 1950s, was surprised at my interest in bicycling. He told me that when he was a teen, he either walked or drove, because bicycling was for children. In other words, if you were on a bicycle, you were a loser -- you couldn't afford a car.

    I think this attitude, which may well have applied to an entire generation of teens, is as much a reason that bicycling was largely abandoned as anything else.

    2) In my youth, in the 1970s and 1980s, I always had a comfort bike around, whether it was my mom's two-speed "girl's bike," my own banana seat one-speed, or later in college the three-speed I rode all over campus. These kinds of bikes always existed, and were well known, even in the small, podunk towns I grew up in. It wasn't for lack of comfort bikes that people didn't ride.

    3) For many people, bicycling became cool again for the very fact that it was European, that it was exotic and foreign, and somehow exclusive. From what I understand, the ten-speed was invented in Europe, and was a novelty on these shores for many years. But breaking the image of non-cool, the one that my dad had, required something unusual like the exotic ten-speed, and all the stuff it brought with it: funny outfits, clip-on pedals, weird metric sizes, etc. (When I later spent time living in France, I was surprised to hear that bicycle racing and soccer were both considered forms of "lower class" sporting events, unlike, say, tennis and Formula 1 car racing.)

    4) Geography and distance was never a problem with cycling, at least not for me. From the age of five, when I learned to ride, I've ridden for every kind of purpose a bicycle can serve. At age 15, I even did something unthinkable, a 230km round-trip solo ride to visit friends in a town far south. I continue these long rides even now.

    5) Until I started racing in my teens, I don't remember wearing any special clothing for riding. I just hopped on and rode. In general, I think it really has only been relatively recently, after the bicycle was recast as an exercise machine, that the lycra uniform became de rigeur.

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  13. @Filligree

    attitude/culture/physical fitness those are the only ones that really need to be overcome. I typically ride 3 speeds (hence my screen name);-) I have ridden them for years over all types of terrain in all sorts of weather. I realize not every person has the physical strength to do everything, but a very sizable portion of the US public does not live in the mountains. Besides they do make bikes with more than 3 speeds...I promise they do, I actually own a few.

    Aaron

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  14. People out to make a buck invoke cycle chic to sell things?

    Shocking!

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  15. Anna, Brent & 2whls -- thank you for your observations.

    The "uncool" factor in the US is an interesting point; I can probably write an essay on that alone (so I won't go there).

    Anna -- I don't know whether this fits your experience, but I have found the attitude to cycling in Austria a little disappointing. When I ask people here why they cycle, the reasons they give are usually financial -- "it is cheaper than a car," or "it is cheaper than the UBahn". I have yet to hear anything about the love of cycling. People's treatment of their bicycles reflects that. Although many bikes are fitted with baskets, I seldom see flowers or personal decorations.

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  16. Great commentary and discussion here! Thank you.

    She Rides a Bike is right. Americans are so fixed on the American Dream and individualism. Somewhere along the way the American Dream morphed into the idea of owning the biggest house and car.

    If selling Cycle Chic fashion inspires Americans to cycle, I'm okay with that. But I understand and admire Mikael's philosophy.

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  17. Excellent post and great discussion, a pleasure to read.

    For me, the central point is not consumerism, its target marketing, which creates its own subculture or niche within the general culture. If you need to have the right clothes for cycle chic, then how is this different from road or mountain biking. The result of wearing regular clothes (you can still shop) is that it lets everyone feel like they can participate.

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  18. I don't think typical commuting distances are a problem. 50% of the working population commutes five miles or less to work in the USA, according to Trek's campaign website 1 world 2 wheels:

    1world2wheels.org/get-involved/

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  19. Quick comment on this important discussion: I have lived in the EU for about 3 years and the US for about 29. My experience is that biking is all about options and, inherently, the lack of options. My year in Copenhagen was spent on a bike for 3 pretty simple reasons: 1) everyone else got around on a bike; 2) there is access to practical and cheap bikes and 3) once forced to ride, I learned that I loved it (and was surrounded by a culture that loved it). I am able to continue that lifestyle in the US but you always need a kick in the pants to move against the cultural norms.

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