Where did the prestige commuting bikes go?

In America or Australia, the cyclist who turns heads on the street, will usually be dressed as though for a world record attempt of some sort. That is because, in countries like mine, bicycles have for a long time been viewed as sporting equipment, if not merely as toys.

But advertisements from as late as the 1950s, plus other photographic evidence, tells us commuting bikes were marketed as prestige items, to adults, right up until some time in the 1960s when the scales finally tipped, irreversibly, in favour of car use. I say irreversibly, because once cars own the road, no way of taking roads back for bikes has thus far been demonstrated. Once a majority of voters are personally invested in a way of life that is dependent upon individual car ownership, history shows democratically elected governments are compelled to go on building roads and car parking. And once commuting bicycles were pushed off of the roads by motorised vehicles, two kinds of cyclist were left: those who can’t drive because they are too young or too poor; and those who see cycling as some kind of sport.

Empirical studies don’t exist to verify what I’ve just said. But evidence enough is in bike stores. In discount stores like K-mart, and toys stores like Toys-R-Us, those who cycle because age or a lack of money prevent them from driving, are catered for with $100 bicycles and cheap parts to keep them running, albeit slowly with squeaks. In specialist bike stores, whole sections are sometimes devoted to each sporting discipline, with $12,000 versions held up in each as a pinnacle of what one might aspire to in that style of bike.


Velorbis: the plushest retro city bike $2000                              Brooks and Brooks Brothers (well, at least I see the humour)

In Australia, Gazelle, Giant, Trek, Surly, and Electra are the main brands offering bikes for transport and utility, rather than sport and recreation. What I would like to see though, are 12K versions of each of these kinds of bikes, up on pedestals in bicycle stores. There is a little of that kind of thing on the shop floor of Cheeky Transport in Newtown, but even they could go further. I would like to see ultra high end commuting bikes with Rohloff Hubs, Titanium frames, those brakes Egor has on his touring bike, etcetera. The Velorbis was the best quality chic urban commuting bike I could find, but at just $2000 it stops well short of being the Rolls Royce that would truly behoove me.
If people could walk into a bike store get green eyes for a commuting bike, they would have something to aspire to other than bikes made for sport.

2 Comments

  1. Anonymous says:

    A well cycled friend commented on a link I posted on Facebook

    ‘The point of utility bikes are their utilitarian nature, cheap to buy, cheap to run, simple, efficient and readily available. Put him onto Copanhagenize and some of the similar Dutch sites to see what is happening in the real world of utility cycling. He seems locked into the ‘image’ of cycling as demonstrated by high end road bikes.’

    -Gusto

    • Steven says:

      Hey hey, nice comment. First let me say I agree with your friend on facebook about utility bikes. I have one as well, that I paid 37 bucks for, and clean and lube with the rest of my stable.
      That said, I am image conscious in the extreme. But then, most people are. That’s why we bathe. It’s also why we consume like we do. No one is immune. Hippies with dreadlocks spend large portions of their available incomes going to festivals, or Nepal to go hiking, to gather stories and upkeep their image that way. We all devote a significant slice of our income to maintaining or creating an image.
      Certain cheap bikes—old lugged fixies for instance—are inverse status symbols, but status symbols nonetheless. Alain de Botton’s book STATUS ANXIETY shows just how insidious this need is for us humans, and frankly offers very little by way of remedies.
      If the rape is inevitable, one would do best to enjoy it.

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