Ladies & Gentlemen: A Case Study of Small Cycling Economy

By: Andrew Gardner Jul 10

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If you know the environmentalist and climate activist, Bill McKibben, then you know that he possesses a bike racer’s nervous system. Thin and fit, McKibben mostly rides the gravel roads around his home in Vermont, which is good for his health and the well-being of Vermont motorists. (I was once on a ride with Bill when he, driving hard on the pedals, blew through a stop sign - nearly ending his life and with it the world’s chances to solve the issues of climate change.) Road safety aside, Bill’s drive has given him access to a world that needs his vision and when he speaks, its like the final laps of a criterium- one just does their best to stay near the front of it all, to keep up with the urgency.

“We are all going to have to slow down.” Bill has implored consumers around the world. “We’re going to need to need our neighbors, to focus on the durable economies closer to us.” His written work continues in this pressing notion, highlighting the economy close to home and the benefits beyond mere money, “To wit, the farmer's market: energy-efficient local food, and the average shopper has ten times as many conversations as a supermarket shopper. No wonder they're the fastest-growing part of our food economy. Now we need to get going on other sectors too.”

Bill McKibben in the non-cycling season. (Print by JDK design.)

Other sectors like cycling. The regional loyalties that pervade cycling have catalyzed local fabrication, collaboration and creative economies. Sure there is large scale globalization, beautiful products from around the world, but one need only look at the rise of the regional frame builder to know that cyclists, in particular, long for authenticity in what we own. This takes a village. The people of Gaulzetti Cicli, the handmade, local offerings of this very website describe it thus, “It's a costly business, building bicycles in the US by hand. Skilled workers who have devoted their lives to their craft demand outrageous things like health insurance and a living wage. We're only too happy to be able to provide for those who provide for us, so we gladly accept the price of local, handmade fabrication.”

Not far from my home, the Burlington, Vermont-based frame builder, Hubert d’Autremont has a title for the needs and interconnectedness of his business with a larger creative economy, he calls it “Ladies and Gentlemen.” Working out of a studio in Burlington’s south end, Hubert has slowly and quietly built himself a following by mastering his craft and tapping into a collaborative approach to bike building- the deep economy of the industry.

“Ladies and Gentlemen is for me, a showcase of the people who have gotten me as far as I have. It represents the lifestyle I get to live and the ones I live it with. Ladies and Gentlemen is everyone from industry people like my painter, to suppliers and inspirational souls. It’s about people who have gone against the grain to pursue their dreams because they just don’t see living any other way.”

You can feel a McKibben-type of commitment in Hubert, the same urgent drive. Disposable life would be easier but crafted, durable work calls Hubert. His bikes are beautiful, lugged affairs- tasteful in the way you’d expect from a guy with no marketing, no website and no ads. In his entry for the highly regarded Oregon Manifest last year, Hubert built a Vermont-style porter bike capable of withstanding rides in miserable weather. The bike itself highlighted the craft of frame building while pushing a stout bike commuting agenda. In the process of building his manifest bike, Hubert researched the options for a daily porter bag capable of elegance and tough rides. Finding those options wanting Hubert launched a sister-brand, 27th Letter, a collaboration with Queen City Dry Goods maker, Matt Renna and another foray into creative hand-made materials. In addition to waxed canvas and leather porter bags, 27th Letter boasts cycling caps, flat kits and still more bits and pieces of cycling culture built with Hubert’s keen eye towards the details and the durable. 27th Letter stitches are tight and interconnected.

In a deeply thoughtful and bike-committed way, Hubert’s collaborations mean fuller living, more sustained living. He’s wildly grateful to the people around him and he’s a model for a small interconnected approach to business. He explains it the ease of a builder, putting together the pieces.

“Its about a balance of all of the enjoyments of the world while having big goals. It’s about being conscientious of the decisions we make.”


Pushing Back

By: Andrew Gardner Jul 1

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In the July 16th print issue of Time, Brian Walsh wrote a piece for the magazine’s culture section entitled, “Pedal Push: Biking is on the rise, but is there room enough for everyone?”

In the short piece, Mr. Walsh highlights the increasing popularity of urban cycling and with it a cultural friction between those who pedal and those who do not, between “cyclists” and “drivers.” Like Mr. Walsh, I agree there exists a cultural bias between driver and cyclist. I’ve written about that divide here for Embro. (Who hasn’t worn their kit into the grocery store at some point to the consternation of fellow shoppers.) So in reading his piece, I understand the conflict that Mr. Walsh is highlighting is very real. In serious and satirical polls, the largest reason people do not ride, for utility or pleasure, is a fear of traffic danger.

Jeff Frings, featured in the Pedal Push article’s introduction and conclusion serves as a symbol of that danger for Mr. Walsh. Frings’ website is a compendium of narrow misses and angry motorists, complete with Frings' often irate commentary. Looking at his website, there seems to be no shortage of cars where Frings rides, no real bike infrastructure near his Milwaukee home and no incentive for a person intent on avoiding time in the car.

Here’s where the hiccup exists in how the Time article frames the cyclists - driver conflict. For all of the positive cycling news highlighted, the “290 miles of bike paths added to New York City,” the “new Citi Bike system, witih 600 stations...the Velib in Paris...,” there remains an assumption in the article’s asking, “Is there room on the road for everyone?” That assumption is that cars aren’t going away or whether they even belong on those roads in the first place. Only how many cars belong is briefly touched on in a paragraph assuming that New York’s congestion is the country’s worst and that this a bad thing in light of the economic costs to the city.

The answer to the question of “Is there room on the road for everyone?”, even prior to the growth of cycling in the US, has long been no. Even with bikes out of the equation, the number of cars continues to rise world wide and America leads the way with 240 million automobiles, almost 2 cars per household. Faced with the prospect of gridlock and endless windshield time, car manufacturers have started to spin creative solutions to help manage the “saturation” of roads throughout the world.

Bill Ford Jr., the executive chairman of Ford Motor Company and great grandson of Henry Ford sees this in a more careful organization of the increasing cars on the road, “The cooperation needed between the automotive and telecommunications industries will be greater than ever as we prepare for and manage the future. We will need to develop new technologies, as well as new ways of looking at the world.”

Fortunately, packing cars in tighter spaces on existing roads using telecommunications isn’t where the physical struggle is heading in the hearts and minds of real people. In his conclusion, Mr. Walsh writes, “The brains of the U.S’s more than 200 million licensed drivers can’t be rewired.” That is true. Yet, the brains of future drivers aren’t wired the same way as current motorists. Witness the endless news of fewer young people of driving age getting licensed. Witness also, the increase in urban population by carless youth: more people are choosing to live where public transportation is wide-spread. Finally, witness the congestion taxes levied on urban dwellers in European cities and the push for that type of fee closer to home. While the US leads the way in car ownership, the registration numbers have stalled out. It is possible, we’ve hit a peak.

Physically, motorists will continue to ignore cyclists, presuming to have the right-of-way, as highlighted in Mr. Walsh’s piece. But anyone assuming that the car will have perpetual reign over all roads in all places is short-sighted. Smaller towns and rural areas pushing for parking spaces over bike racks are doomed to repeat the history of their larger city brethren fighting congestion. The bike is coming. The readers of Embrocation already understand the pleasure of riding over driving. In greater cultural circles, the cycling converted are gaining credibility and press. To that end, the question isn’t whether cyclists “could become the in group.” They will. The question isn’t: “Is there room on the road for everyone?” Rather, the question for those pedaling and those finding the bike is simple: “What can be done to get all the cars get out of the way?”


Five Questions for Tom Vanderbilt

By: Andrew Gardner Feb 22

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Tom Vanderbilt is a Brooklyn-based writer, a frequent contributor to publications like Outside, Slate and Wired, and the best-selling author of Traffic, a book on the driving habits of Americans that ended up drawing a large response from cyclists. The writer spoke with me on driving madness, cycling advocacy, racers versus utility cyclists and the best fictional cycling characters.

AG - You were drawn into cycling after finishing your best-selling book Traffic, what makes the book compelling to cyclists and what about cycling appealed to you?

TV - What I kept hearing from people who bike is that they were glad to have this examination into the psychology and behavior of this person — the driver — who often causes them such risk or outright menace, even if I did it more from the perspective of a driver himself. The very idea that we talk about “cyclists” or “drivers,” when many of us are both, reveals right away one of the dynamics going on: Social categorization, which affects the way we think and act, often without us being aware of it.

I’ve always been an urban cyclist, but what got me on a road bike in 2012, for the first time in decades — logging some 7000 miles, more than I drove! — was a trip I took with someone for a story I was writing. This guy’s occasional commute was about 45 miles, one way. First, I thought how incredible this was, that this exurban trawl could be managed on a bike. It was like John Cheever’s The Swimmer to me, a secret, almost insane route. Second, I realized how sort of wrecked I felt after my 60 miles. What struck me was the almost narrative satisfaction of the journey, the on-bike camaraderie, and the physical challenge. Whether it was riding through the clouds on Mt. Tam, wheezing to keep up with Cat 2s like yourself (ahem) on short sharp Vermont hills, or even cruising down the Champs-Élysées on a Velib, many of my fondest memories from last year were on two wheels.

Photo courtesy of Alex Ostroy.

AG - You've participated in the Ride on Washington and written about cycling advocacy for Outside- what's your take on the state of cycling advocacy today? What are the largest challenges to improving life for cyclists in the US?

TV - I was just down in D.C., looking at their bike share system, and what struck me was that the people who were first thinking about this, a number of years back, were planning students and bike advocates, noble voices dwelling largely in the wilderness. Now they’re the people administering the programs, doing the consulting, getting the money, making it happen. It’s becoming rather expected that a city will have a bicycle projects coordinator, just as it will soon be expected that any city worth its salt will have something like a bike share system. And hence the answer to the second question: Infrastructure, infrastructure, infrastructure. People’s choices are shaped largely by their environment; put an escalator next to stairs, 99% of people will not take the stairs. Build things that are good for a person on a bike — whether they are eight or eighty — and you’ll get more people on bikes. Get more people on bikes, and the other issues, like behavior and safety, virtually take care of themselves.

AG - Being keen on racing and interested in advocacy, any thoughts on strategies to bring those communities closer together?

TV - Cycling is incredibly divisive, almost like some mutant dividing cellular organism — the racers snicker at the “Freds” in hi-viz spandex, even as they terrorize people riding Dutch bikes on multi-user paths. There’s division everywhere — steel versus carbon, disc brakes versus cantilever. 29ers versus 26ers. There’s probably some huge clash over wheel skewers I’m not even aware of. It’s so far beyond anything in the world of cars — e.g., I drive a wagon, but it’s not like I harbor some huge suspicion of sedans.

Having ridden with Tim Johnson in the Ride of Washington, I’m of course enthused by his whole approach, which is basically to say that all of us on two wheels are basically on the same road, that the pro racer of today was the kid on the Schwinn a few decades ago, and to enlist those in the racing community to help promote that. There are many noble rides for charity causes, why not rides to make things better for cyclists in general? How many pro riders, after all, have been killed or seriously injured by drivers on training rides?

Another promising turn is the sort of fusing of urban riding and racing, in a kind of socially responsible way. L.A.’s Wolfpack Hustle, for example, which started as a kind of outsider, guerilla midnight ride through the city, recently got the city for the first time to host a closed-course urban race. Closer to my home, there’s the Red Hook Crit, which mixes a number of communities. I was struck, during this last event, how many people had ridden bikes to the race itself, blurring those lines I’m talking about.

AG - You've blogged about popular culture's unflattering take on cycling. With many bad examples, who's your favorite fictional cycling hero? Who gets it right?

TV - I’m definitely a sucker for Jacques Tati, in his raincoat and pipe, on his Veloselex. Just that perfect mixture of dignity and whimsy that urban cycling should be. And of course Dennis Christopher in Breaking Away, the bike as metaphysical transport. And when things are getting a bit too smug, Portlandia. But cycling is rarely presented without some kind of agenda, comic or otherwise (e.g., Life at 40). When I saw some recently coverage marveling at how LeBron James rides his bike to and from Heat games, I was flabbergasted how the story didn’t even mention the first thing any self-respecting cyclist would want to know: What’s he riding?

AG - In addition to cycling, you write about technology for a number of publications. To you, what's the most important technological improvement to hit the cycling world? (Ebikes? Strava? Compression socks?)

TV - I’d have to go with the simple, yet utterly indispensable, smart phone. With one device you can track your ride on Strava, Instagram that epic ascent, conduct your business even as you’re playing hooky, find the nearest bike share station in cities around the world, locate the closest bike shop when that mechanical strands you — the list goes on. It goes in my jersey pocket even before that spare tube.


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