All About the Looks

Gazelle, Summertime
As recounted in previous posts, I am frequently approached by strangers who are drawn to my loop frame bicycles. It is not a matter of how expensive the bicycle is, and it is not a matter of whether the bike is new and shiny or old and crusty. But something about that elegant curve - combined with the dress guards, chaincase, and wide cream tires - seems to make these bicycles visually irresistible. Most of the time it is women who approach me, and most of the time they are not cyclists. Their attraction to my bicycle is purely a matter of looks. Upon learning that I actually ride for transportation, the ladies will typically enumerate all the reasons why they can't possibly ride a bike - all the while staring at mine with a longing that I can tell is normally reserved for jewelry store window shopping.

Having gone through this type of interaction more times than I can count, I cannot help but believe that aesthetic attraction alone can make people want to ride a bike, or at least try. And while that motive has been mocked by some, I personally find it fascinating. Just think about what this means: The natural beauty of the classic transportation bicycle is so powerful, that it can make even those who are not interested in cycling wish to do it.

Although my reasons for cycling were never based on looks per se, looks certainly played a role in pushing me over the edge from an ambivalent "it would be nice, but..." attitude, to the enthusiasm that led to the start of this blog. The Co-Habitant and I had talked about getting bikes for a couple of years, but when it came down to it I just could not imagine myself riding. Then one day, I spotted this bike in the neighbourhood and suddenly I could imagine it perfectly well. The design of the bicycle suggested that cycling could be done in a way that is easy, safe, and not in the least bit sports-oriented. While initially the extent of our cycling ambitions was to ride on the trails together on weekends, my growing fascination with the bicycle led to the research that made us view it as a viable option for transportation. And although this was never, ever our intent, two years later we stopped using our car entirely.

While I am not suggesting that every woman who thinks my bicycle is pretty is likely to follow the same course, I do believe that looks are important. And it is not so much a matter of beauty, as it is a matter of engaging the imagination - of the person being able to picture themselves riding the bike. There are multitudes of people out there who do not cycle, because they do not view it as something that is "for them." Setting eyes on a bicycle that appeals to them could change that in a matter of moments.


  1. V, I agree whole heartedly and not to open the whole Helmet can of worms again, but I think that is one reason more people don't jump in with both feet, because a cheezy lookin Bike helmet simply does not fit the romantic image; wind in the hair and all that, that people visualize when they see a Loop Frame bike or the Old Schwinn cruisers I used to ride. Too many of us grew up riding bikes and remember flying around the neighborhood laughing and yelling histerically, but our generation never wore helmets! After driving for a couple years I was drawn back into cycling by the big beach cruisers of the late 70's & early 80's they looked like grown up versions of the Stingrays and BMX bikes I coveted as a kid & I discovered to my surprise that the Schwinn Cruiser was in turn coveted by men my dad's age!!

    Anyway, I understand it very well!


  2. This makes sense to me, both from my own experience about getting hooked on bikes and then selling my car (something that the bike-addiction made possible, but not a plan when I first started vaguely thinking that it was time to have a bike again, or even for months after I started getting hooked), and from the responses I get around town to my different bikes.

    When the Pashley with her huge Fastrider panniers and her large front basket comes to the farmer's market in this small-ish midwestern town/mini-city, I get a lot of questions as well as compliments on her from both men and women - far more so than with Betty Foy or the Orco Ariel.

    It seems that the gorgeousness of the loop frame draws the eye at first (the Pashley gets FAR more random compliments even from passing drivers and pedestrians than the others, too, though they get some as well), and then people notice the set up and are impressed by how many potatoes one can carry, etc, and start asking hopefully about whether I bought the bike and its gear locally.

    I don't know if people will actually be inspired to put racks and panniers on their existing bikes, or start looking for more transportation-friendly bikes, but it definitely seems to stir their imagination.

    p.s. Velouria - I hope the semi-vacation is going well and is fun, even if there is no time for riding that century!

  3. Why not? Isn't that what the automobile industry has done for years? Maybe there is someone who needs a Hummer, a Ford 350, or for that matter a Jaguar, although I've never met one. What is clear is that there are lots of people who like the look of each vehicle. If it gets more people on bicycles, so be it!

  4. I have a loop frame bike, it dates from about 1950 and was my bike as a child. I have only recently started riding it again and now have virually abandoned my modern bike with its shiny paint and gears and brakes in favour of this older, rustier yet more stately bike. It sits me up a lot higher with its 28" wheels and upright posture, yet I love its riding position and find going up hills with only one gear is not as hard as I thought it would be. I haven't yet had people stop me but many look twice at it as they pass by. For me it is about the looks as well as the feeling of riding something older and in a way classic, and it is comfortable and easy to ride. I have pics of it on my blog.

  5. I am considering getting a 4th bike, a mixte, on pure aesthetics alone. I believe wholeheartedly that certain styles of bicycles (and that is subjective) can tip the curve for many people. Ride on.

  6. When I started riding my bikes [I have 6], there weren't many others doing it where I ride or in my office complex. Over the next three years I began seeing more people riding bikes, commuting to work or riding for recreation. Some people in my office began asking advice on which type of bike to buy. Some seemed interested in the looks of my bikes and noticed the fun I was having cycling. They also noticed my weight loss and fitness improvement. Cycling can be contagious.

  7. Velouria,

    May I make a suggestion? Do not take it any other way than it is: a suggestion...
    When that happens, i.e. the woman is standing there all wowed by your bike, why not proposing her to give it a try?

    I have done it a few times, not too often because my bike is not that nice, so it does not wow passersby like yours. But everytime, it won the person over.

    Once was a collegue who I would have sworn was a cyclist: green, vegetarian, very engaged in all kinds of issues. Turns out she hates bicycles!! I didn't insist on that day as she looked very defensive. Later I come back to it and she explains that she hates bikes because she is not comfortable on them: it hurts her neck, she can't what is going on etc. He boyfriend tried her on many times and she ended hating it. A light bulb went on in my head as I realised she had had her arm twisted into road-biking by her man and hated the experience (Just like your previous post on that issue). At the end of the day, on our way out, I manage to steer her in the direction where my bike is parked. Casually, I unlock it and I see that look (the one you described so well) on her face. Right away, I proposed her to give it a try. Next day the girl is on Craiglist looking for "situps" and "uprights".
    Was not too hard as the one was not a hard-headed motorist, but a public transport user traumatised by a bad cycling experience.

    Another case was when I gave a presentation about peak oil and cycling. People listen politely, vaguely interested but not alarmed as I had hoped. Yet, when I bring the bike into the room to explain how to organise for urban cycling, everybody wakes up and it becomes all about my bike. Again, I proposed folks to try it. If they would not bike for peak oil or the environment, then maybe the sheer "fun" aspect of it would do it. And it did. I later on found out that two of them where looking for appropriate bikes.

    I can understand people who feel territorial about their wheelsets or worry the bike will get stolen... Actually unlikely as the people usually leave whatever they are carrying (handbag etc.)with you. Yet I am convinced that if more of us did that, it would push a good proportion of the fence-sitters onto the right side.
    Also we underestimate how much prior "wrong bicycles" (the uncomfortable/inappropriate ones) encounters turn people off, sometimes definitely.
    Offering a try on a nice bike, instead of just an eyeful, can reverse that.

  8. I agree; the loop frame is graceful and in a way, may the perception that being on one will enhance one's own elegance, or that one would "look good" riding it -- that's one reason people buy new clothes, or cars as MikeW pointed out. We shop for items that will tell the world something about how we see ourselves.

    Beyond that -- I think loop frames are a bicycle form that most clearly communicates the fact that the bicycle is accessible, is meant for hopping on to go wherever you need to go, in whatever you are wearing, whether it's running errands or going for a Sunday ride. It is clearly not meant for training or racing or riding long distances.

    So it beckons. Beautifully.

  9. I agree- I often ride a 1920 loop-frame Raleigh around town, and I get nothing but respect (I'm a 30-something man). The guys at the corner store and the contractors in the F-150's, they all seem to understand that this is beautiful and appealing. Design can mean everything, and I think you're right in asserting that these bikes bring out our longing for romanticism. Thanks for the great post and consistently wonderful blog, I enjoy it every day!

  10. I admit to being appreciative of a machine which "looks right", that is, it's style and proportions seem correct for the job it is intended to perform.
    As far as bicycles go, I tend to prefer those which have a "practical" look to them, especially if they include some impressive or interesting mechanical specification...bikes like the Pilen Lyx, Public D8 (please review one of these, or the similar M8 mixte), Retrovelo, Velorbis, my old Raleigh Sports, my 70's Puch Odyssey, and other similar looking bikes.

  11. Everything is about the looks. Then humans intellectualize it.

    Stupid humans.

  12. ron, the d8 is great. Light, fastish, stylish. cheapish. Springy.

  13. Well, looks might be the initial attraction, but ultimately it is equally about functionality. Otherwise, I'd still have my Pashley.

    Mixtes... Interesingly, people who don't know about bikes don't seem all that attracted to them, especially in comparison to loop frames. I also remember thinking they were kind of ugly a decade ago.

  14. I can really get in tune with the aesthetics of bikes in general and the more detailed and focused on purpose the machine is the better I like it. I do sort of obsess over the looks of all my bikes but the vintage stuff really inspires me.

    Any nicely made bell is good enough for most of my bikes but only something old and stately like my old Raleigh DL1 will drive me to make a bell from an old brass doorknob, hand file a mount from an ancient nickel plated brass plumbing elbow and spend hours figuring out how to draw on it with wax so I can acid-engrave an Alphose Mucha nymph on the silly thing. And you're right, it's not the other cyclists that seem to respond to it the strongest.


  15. Montrealize - call me a hardened soul, but I don't know how good of an idea it is to invite a complete stranger on the street who compliments my bike to ride off on it : ) Under some circumstances I have let people try my bikes and they usually like them. Still, it's the looks that have that initial "I want it!" effect.

  16. Weirdly, I never got compliments on my DL-1 loop apart from people who were already 3-speed or vintage bicycle nuts. Most people new to cycling seemed to balk at it's size and weight, preferring instead a hybrid or something "modern." They'll look at the loop frames as a nice collectors thing but less of a practical option. Perhaps with a newer loop bike like a Gazelle or Pashley you might get a different response?

    Then again, perhaps it's partly a regional thing. Oddly, the bike that I found got the most compliments on the street was my blue Bianchi San Jose. Ironically, I sold the bike because it got *too much* attention and with the high rate of bike theft going on, I was always afraid it would be stolen. It was a nice bike and all, but it wasn't anything truly unusual in that you could buy it from a number of stores in the city. Perhaps the name recognition played into it?

  17. The good looks will draw one in faster than the perceived functionality- that part kicks in later, often as a form of rationalization. GR Jim's right in that respect.

    "...See Sex Sell Seashells at the Sea Shore...."

    Spindizzy, I would really really really love to see this bell of yours. Please?

  18. Velouria,

    What about, "may I hold your things while you try it?".
    Of course, if there is nothing of value in the bags... I don't know, I guess the prospect of converting someone is well worth the risk for me.

  19. Growing up in a small beach town, I've cycled around on cruisers my whole life, and I've done some cycling around Brooklyn on a beat-up Columbia 3-speed, but I have spent the past few days questioning the wisdom of buying a gold Motobecane Grand Touring split-tube mixte, which will probably need a lot of sprucing up, that I desperately want to buy *because* it's just so very handsome (I'm a lady but this bike is a prim French dude, I think) and I can just imagine myself riding through Brooklyn to work and the coop on it. (And reader, I bought it.) So, yeah, I agree that aesthetics have a strong pull.

  20. I ride a loop frame DL-1 around Seattle, especially in the summer. What I have found funny is that if I get any attention from riding it at all, it is usually from male bicycle riders. Usually they say something like "nice Raleigh" as they pass me, though once I got a riding companion out of the interchange for a few miles. Last week, I collected a total of 3 compliments in a stretch of 2 miles or so. I can only figure that there are more male bicycle enthusiasts that have appreciation for the more unusual bicycles than female, perhaps? I don't think these guys are hitting on me, but one never knows. People in Seattle typically are pretty reserved and don't like to approach strangers out of the blue on the street, so that could also be feeding into this.

    Only once, I was unlocking my DL-1 from a bus stop pole, and a young hipster-looking female waiting for the bus admired it, and told me so.

  21. Montrealize--As Velouria knows, I was once one of those terrible guys who arm-twisted a girlfriend into riding a road bike. It's a toss-up as to whether she ended up hating bikes or me more.

    If only she could see me now on my upright mixte!

    And I second what Velouria says about letting strangers ride my bikes. Hey, I wouldn't even let friends ride my fixed gear bike unless, of course, they'd ridden one before!

  22. Interesting, I've experienced something similar, but I wonder if it's primarily the novelty that people are responding to? When I ride on a bike that looks like an ordinary road or mountain bike nobody comments, but mustache or semi-drop bars, shellac'd tape, bar-end shifters, and unique combinations all seem to grab people's attention - they want to know how the alien device works.

  23. Velouria, the graceful looks of classic bikes DO have an impact on some of us. Two or more years ago I was contemplating getting back into cycling but it wasn't until I did a random eBay search on vintage bikes that my heart began to beat faster. I didn't want a modern bike; I wanted something older and more traditional. Simple, comfortable, stable. I'm not a lycra person; I wanted a bike that didn't want lycra. I get complimented on my bikes, the Raleigh Cameo because she's an embodiment of a slightly older bike ("I had one like that when I was a teenager!"), the Pashley because she's so elegant and stately.

    Do more traditional bikes ring a bell (sorry!) with women considering getting back into cycling? Yes, I think they do, and principally because when you see a vintage or traditional bike you think of cycling in 'normal' clothes to work or an otherwise reasonably local commute. You think of bikes in movies, in tv shows, bikes being used as transport without the fuss of lycra and trip computers. It's non-threatening; more than that, it's welcoming.

  24. "Mixtes... Interesingly, people who don't know about bikes don't seem all that attracted to them, especially in comparison to loop frames. I also remember thinking they were kind of ugly a decade ago."

    True of many people. I've seen some gorgeous mixes go for next to nothing on eBay. A real shame as they are a strong frame, and if the geometry and lugs are right, very elegant as well as functional. I think the mixte is really underrated as a frame option.

  25. I believe this. I hadn't been riding seriously for years until I met a beautiful bike in March. I fell in love with the looks of the bike and bought it. That bike made me want to ride again and now I can't go a day without wanting to be on a bike.

  26. I had to image search "loop frame" to see what you meant. I had been calling that "step through frame". I see you mean with a curved top tube and agree that they are very appealing and elegant. But I had seen this in the current Pop Sci and couldn't get the loops out of my mind:

  27. MelissatheRagamuffinAugust 17, 2011 at 9:30 AM

    Obviously, Miss Surly is no loop frame, but because I've got swept back handle bars, pink handle bar tape, silver pedals that perfectly match the silver chain and gears - I get a lot of comments about how pretty she is. Most people who ask about her are too short to ride her, so I can't offer to let them try her out.

  28. Velouria I used to ride beach cruisers and mountain bikes. When I started searching for a folding bike, every single one I found looked very "male" and utilitarian, aka to me had no personality. It wasn't until I started really researching more and looking on craigslist that I found my little soulmate, a vintage Peugeot thats from 1985 but is practically brand new because nobody really rode it or loved it its entire life. My boyfriend bought a more modern "male" utilitarian bike. I guess its something about the chrome curves on vintage bikes that speaks more to women or men who romanticize. It's the same like the Victorian age desire for shape and curvature of a woman, versus the waif-like stick figures of modern women or even women of the 20s who dressed flat.

    My Gazelle gets stares and looks from people passing by and they really only ask questions when I'm stationary. Sometimes I purposefully park myself in the middle of the public space here downtown and watch the people pass by and muster up the courage to question it. Once I got a guy and his sons questioning how much that thing really costs. Once a guy asked if it was an electric bike because of how I was gliding on it without pedaling. usually they ask how old it is and then I have to explain that its brand new and the style is timeless because it doesnt need to be changed. I always make my friends ride it around when they are considering bicycles to show them there is something else beyond mountain and road bikes that they can ride. As for complete strangers, if I ever DO offer, I make sure to rope them in withholding their personal valuables. Everytime I see other people on Dutch-style bikes around here (which is getting more common), we form like a little club almost. I recently acquired a vintage dutch bike for $50 and have brought it in to the bike shop on the island where he exclaimed how the hell did I manage to find that? He explains that recently he's had more people inquiring about the vintage dutch bikes with the loop frame and full chainguard and if he could get his hands on one he could easily sell it for $600 just because of the looks alone. Versus normally a bike that old isn't even worth 50 but its all because of the looks that its in demand, even here in little ole Palm Beach.

  29. Yes, looks and associations. The first bike I bought as an adult was an old blue Peugeot road bike, because that was what my father rode when I was a child. Practicality was not really in mind (though it turned out to be quite practical, with some modifications).

  30. Meaux - A loop frame is a type of step-through frame. Will have a look at the link when I have a better internet connection!

  31. @ Justine

    "It's a toss-up as to whether she ended up hating bikes or me more."


    "And I second what Velouria says about letting strangers ride my bikes."

    I can totally understand that. I ride a (relatively) cheap bike so that might be the reason why I'm ok with this.
    Too bad though...

  32. Many of them are quite the commoner while some like old (Chicago-built) Schwinn Suburbans can be very elegant, but in any case most are graceful looking.

    I do though wish to express some displeasure at the various self-conscious attempts to call them anything other than "ladies' bikes". They were ladies' bikes for the first 3/4ths of the 20th Century, why feel some sort of embarrassment at calling them that now?

    As an old guy who refurbs old Schwinns I remain willing to call them ladies' bikes even as I ride them out on the city streets and multi use paths. The women who've bought them from me each have been delighted to find, what every one of them has called, a ladies' bike.
    Old Alf in Davenport, Iowa

  33. A lot of mixtes are sold around here; it's girly without being too girly. Girlyesque. Loops are too girly for the girls who aren't girly-girls, nor girls who ride track bikes.

  34. I totally agree with you and happy to say that it was your blog that opened my eyes and made me realize that I can use a bike for commuting to work in addition to riding around Austin. I haven't owned a bike for over 30 years and am now buying a Mixte, panniers, dress guards, and dynamo hub lights. Your blog has helped me in many ways, but most importantly overcome my anxiety about riding in town and how to maintain my style vain as it may sound it is true.

  35. This article touches on several aspects of cycling. The aesthetic, and the emotional response can be quite powerful. It's about imagination, and a person visualizing the experience.

    That aside, what really matters, is what induces people to ride. If it's appearance, health, environmental concerns, it matters not. If it takes a beautiful bicycle, then so be it.

  36. Sometimes it is all about the machine. A Pashley Gov'nor is a beautiful thing to behold and I too get the occasional inquiries from all sorts of non-bike people who are drawn to it's elegance.

    And yes, there is something about the loop frames. I recently converted (actually re-converted) a late model Raleigh Tourist back to it's true sex. It was a loop frame that I bought new that had an added top tube. Maybe the factory needed to sell men's bikes so they converted what they had. I rode this sexually confused bike for years until I decided that it really wanted to be the loop frame it always wanted to be. Sans top tube we are now both happy.

  37. "I always make my friends ride it around when they are considering bicycles to show them there is something else beyond mountain and road bikes that they can ride. As for complete strangers, if I ever DO offer, I make sure to rope them in withholding their personal valuables."

    At last, I am not the only one. I was beginning to feel very weird.

    "I do though wish to express some displeasure at the various self-conscious attempts to call them anything other than "ladies' bikes". They were ladies' bikes for the first 3/4ths of the 20th Century, why feel some sort of embarrassment at calling them that now?"

    I would say bicycle metrosexuality.

  38. A lot of the aesthetic we respond to is nothing more than the small diameter steel tubes. Delicate tracery of fine lines,looking insubstantial, looking as if the wind might blow it away, yet strong and durable.

    Over a century of use those small tubes have grown an enormous vocabulary. For a very small canvas. Ever painted a bike frame? Bet you mixed way too much paint the first time.

    Or if you're not up to painting one, try stripping and prepping a frame. Rust rarely goes deep on cromoly, many basket cases come back nicely. As soon as you start to strip you'll find you need smaller tools, finer emery, enormous detail and patience. It's miniature work but the result transports you vast distances through landscapes and through your imagination.

    A well designed and artfully crafted frame is endlessly engaging and delightful. And then you dress it.

  39. It's always fun to use something very classic. I have a passion of riding old bicycles (I've a 1950's Goodyear)with cream tires with an attached basket on its carrier. I feel like I'm in 70's or 80's (can't imagine how 50's were...)when riding it with the iconic dual tone bell. It's great fun to go to country side roads where people are still young (the old people who still remember their childhood), they look at me in wonder and also some even have approached me to talk about it, and I found it very interesting. Very nostalgic it feels.

    Thanks for sharing your story. Have a nice day.

  40. Interesting that helmets would emerge as a sideline in the first comment. I've often considered helmets at distinct odds with "cycling fashion", though i do not know why this is the case.

    Aesthetics.. Such a compelling topic for those of us who find ourselves passionately drawn to the bicycle due to its form when function alone is enough provoke passion. Perhaps mankind's greatest creation.

    I wear a helmet.. And I adore a well designed model with the same level of attraction i reserve for lugged steel and the scent of new tires. I can tell you that a helmet absolutely prevented my untimely death once. A groundhog in your path late at night has the potential to see you sprawled upon the pavement guessing about the nature of your injuries just as much as an errant automobile driver will.

    Sometimes it is the less obvious cause of an accident.. The one you didn't consider.. The one you never imagined.. That leaves you estimating what your injuries might have entailed if the crushed front of your helmet might have instead been the crushed front of your skull.

    Enjoy the visual and the tactile, but consider the practical as well. The bicycle is indeed a beautiful machine. And so can be all that goes along with it.


  41. When I got my 1961 Lady's Raleigh Sports, I wasn't in the market for a classic or beautiful bicycle. I was just in the market for a bicycle, any bicycle, that felt comfortable. In retrospect it was pure luck that my friend had just tuned up a beautiful, classic bike.

    It's not a loop frame (sigh) but it's still pretty, even with its bent and rust-spotted fenders.

    And I wonder how much I'd be "into" bicycles now, if I hadn't been lucky enough to land, as my first "real" bicycle, one that is not only lovely to look at, but a true classic bicycle as well. Looking up more information on the bicycle after I acquired it gave me a strong sense of pride in my new steed, which made me want to take her out more!

    I distinctly remember an occasion just a few days into my riding the bicycle as part of my commute, when a bus driver pulled up next to me, opened up the window (he was in the right hand turn lane), and said, "Neat old Raleigh!" Put a grin on my face that lasted all day.

    The road bike I'm touring on, is not a lovely bicycle. I love it for its practicality, and I've all but covered the frame in stickers, partially to hide the ugly mid-1990's font of the logos. Oh well.

  42. ...check this out


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