The Ideology of the Bicycle

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Back in the late 2000s, Williamsburg, Brooklyn, was the world’s coolest neighborhood. And if lifestyle blogs were to be believed, everyone in Williamsburg rode a bike. But not everyone in New York did, and then-Mayor Michael Bloomberg wanted to change that. He installed hundreds of miles of bike lanes throughout the city, which had the potential to cut both pollution and traffic deaths.

In the Hasidic section of South Williamsburg, the Department of Transportation striped a white corridor down a particularly chaotic section of Bedford Avenue, home to kosher grocery stores and Hasidic apartment buildings. Locals, already wary of outsiders, were furious. To them, bikes were not symbols of hip urbanism but of unwelcome intrusion—particularly by women riders whose clothes offended the community’s religious mandate of strict modesty.

Ahead of Bloomberg’s reelection bid, the city removed the bike lane. A few nights later, the Hasidic community patrol found renegade cyclists repainting it at 3:30 a.m. The city got rid of the DIY lane, too, leaving the two sides debating for months, but the lane never reappeared. Cyclists still ride that stretch, finding their own path through tightly crammed vehicles. The Hasidim still seem to resent the cyclists. The conflict grinds on.

Read: The design bible that changed how Americans bike in cities

Substitute 1890 for 2009, or London for New York, and this episode looks the same as any other in the endless drama between cyclists and the people who live begrudgingly alongside them. From their debut in the 1800s, bicycles have been a confounding presence on the streets, their riders’ unpredictable careening infuriating carriage drivers, then car drivers, and, the whole time, pedestrians. For just as long, many cyclists have tightly held on to a sense of moral superiority about their machines. As climate collapse looms, bicycles have taken on a saintly quality, extolled as squeaky-clean instruments of penance for wealthy countries’ carbon emissions.

Or at least, that’s the story that many of us, especially in the global North, tell ourselves about bicycles. What’s missing from it could fill a book, which Jody Rosen, a New York Times Magazine contributor and lifelong cyclist, has written. Two Wheels Good: The History and Mystery of the Bicycle takes readers time-traveling and globe-trotting to build up an alternate narrative about a simple machine that becomes harder to categorize the more you learn about it. Through history and across cultures, bicycles are a human denominator. Their past and future concern us all—even if you don’t think they have anything to do with you.  

The first machine resembling a bicycle emerged in 1817 from the workshop of the German inventor Baron Karl von Drais. His Laufmaschine (“running machine”) was essentially a balance bike—two wheels connected by a seat, which the rider pushed forward with their feet. It took until the turn of the century for the bicycle to evolve into what we ride today: two evenly sized wheels connected via a frame and propelled by a pedal-powered drivetrain. This iteration of the bike really took off, transforming the machine from a reviled plaything of the idle rich to a threatening equalizer of the classes and the sexes. (Susan B. Anthony said in 1896 that cycling was doing “more to emancipate women than anything else in the world.”)

Rosen covers this early history because he has to, but immediately starts mining it for nuance. “The bicycle is a populist project, the result of grassroots innovation and an exchange of knowledge that runs in all directions,” he writes, acknowledging that hobbyists retrofitted its design nearly from the beginning. He connects those amateur engineers to both Vietnamese guerrilla fighters who packed anti-French, and then anti-American, bombs into their frames, and to American “freak bike” clubs that solder together endearingly bizarre contraptions that are almost impossible to ride. Even when they’re a bit of a stretch, these historical and global parallels, which Rosen draws throughout the book, disentangle bicycles from the ownership of any one time or type of person.  

Having the motivation to write this much about bikes requires loving them, which Rosen does, deeply. After a childhood spent admiring bicycle design, he fell hard for riding as a messenger in Boston during college (“I’ve definitely never had a more pleasurable job,” he says), an experience that made him a lifelong enthusiast but not a pedantic gearhead. Even after decades of cycling he regards it with a fresh mind, still in awe of the pure joy of the experience. In the passages where he describes what it actually feels like to ride, he makes it sound irresistible:

[On] a particularly free-flowing ride, [your] body and being—shoulders, hands, hips, legs, bones, muscles, skin, brain—seem to be inseparable from the strong but supple bicycle frame. At such moments, to conceive of the bike as a vehicle is perhaps not quite right. It may be more accurate to think of it as a prosthesis. Ideally, it is hard to say exactly where the bicyclist ends and the bicycle begins.

His enthusiasm does occasionally overwhelm. Fascinating tidbits organized by loose themes, abrupt topical switches within sections, and chapters on trick cycling, exercise bikes, and bikes as sex objects make the book comprehensive but also unfocused. Still, the meandering structure often feels like a leisurely ride, full of spontaneous detours into unexpected delight.

But what makes the book essential is its rigorous reporting. Rosen holds his responsibility as a journalist higher than his love for his subject, sharing unflattering and sometimes bleak truths about bicycles that rust their shining image. Like the lithium that powers electric-car batteries (and e-bikes), the materials that bikes are made from are steeped in the blood of the global South. Rubber for early bike tires was harvested in the late 1800s by laborers in Portuguese Brazil and others in Belgian Congo, whom the colonizers mutilated or murdered by the millions. The asphalt that first paved major American and European cities around the same time (it was cyclists who first successfully demanded smoothed-out streets) came from Pitch Lake in Trinidad, then owned by American business interests in contract with imperial Britain, and later exploited mostly for foreign benefit despite being state-owned; Trinidadians still saw almost none of the benefit after more than a century of their labor.

Bicycles can also themselves be a vehicle for colonialism. Klondike bicycles, designed (albeit poorly) to navigate unpaved terrain in cold temperatures, helped 1890s gold prospectors in Canada more thoroughly exploit land that had long belonged to Indigenous communities. Bike lanes like the ones that bedeviled the Hasidim are also, in historically Black and Latino neighborhoods in the U.S., omens for displacement. Rosen doesn’t wrestle with these stories so much as list them in thorny intertwinings, challenging readers to put aside any assumptions they might have had about bikes before picking up the book.

To prove both the flexibility and unwavering functional value of bicycles, Rosen looks, near the end of the book, toward adjacent machines: the tricycles piloted by Dhaka’s impoverished rickshawallahs, and the e-bikes that New York City’s mostly immigrant deliveristas use to drop off takeout. Both types of work are grueling and exploitative, and the people doing them face government bans of the tools of their livelihoods. But as police and bureaucrats in those and many other cities have had to accept, there is no eliminating bicycles, or the various forms of transportation derived from them. Their promise of some sort of freedom, whether personal or economic, is too great to be suppressed.

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This holds true whether you ride for work, pleasure, or simple transportation. The world’s rickshawallahs and deliveristas use their modified bikes to navigate an economy that marginalizes them, so they likely don’t romanticize their rides the way that hobbyists like Rosen (or me) do. But anyone who cycles does so because that’s how you get where you’re going mostly on your own terms, something that no other form of transportation allows for in quite the same way. Bicycle history may be complicated, but the reason it’s such a long history is not. Everyone appreciates a hint of self-determination.

Amid the Hasid-hipster uproar, a self-appointed peacemaker named Baruch Herzfeld, a 30-something Modern Orthodox Jew who ran a bike shop on the edge of the neighborhood, tried several times to get the two sides talking. In 2010 he told The Atlantic that outsiders had been missing important context for the controversy: In this particular Hasidic community, typically only children rode bicycles. Brawling over something that they considered a toy likely made the whole thing not just infuriating but perplexing for the Hasidim.

But by Herzfield’s telling, a few Hasidic men would also rent bikes covertly at night, sometimes returning overwhelmed with joy—“They say, ‘It’s beautiful! It’s wonderful!’” Bikes became little miracles that zipped them through an enlivening, novel tour of their own neighborhood. Finding a personal relationship with bikes had changed their minds about who could ride. All it took was someone leading the way.

If non-bike people can be persuaded to read it, Two Wheels Good might do the same thing. In showing that bikes have always been complicated—accessories to some and essential to others, means of recreation and of labor, signifiers of both wealth and poverty—Rosen also shows that they are universal, inviting even the most skeptical readers along with his humility and humor. Bicycles don’t belong to hipsters in Brooklyn or to parents in Copenhagen, and riding one doesn’t have to signify anything about the rider. You needn’t give your bike a second thought if you don’t want to. In all of their complexity, and maybe because of it, bicycles have always been, and will always be, for everyone.