This has been a great month or two for fans of professional cycling. Le Tour provided three weeks of excitement (and, in contrast with last year’s Tour, no competitors got hit by a car). Now, the Olympics are in full swing, with a week’s worth of track cycling to come. For those who have never watched track cycling, it’s truly an incredibly entertaining event, one that probably even NASCAR fans could appreciate. Finally, perhaps most importantly for cycling fans—particularly French fans—no Americans placed in the Tour and it’s likely that none will medal at the Olympics, either.
Yes, while American athletes are dominating sports ranging from basketball to volleyball to even
football, our cycling program lags far behind international standards (aside
from Tour breakout TeJay van Garderen).
To most, this comes as no surprise, since competitive cycling is
considered by most Americans to be a “European” sport. Hell, even the most promising American
prospect, the aforementioned van Garderen, has a Dutch lineage. Which I suppose is fitting, since
Americans think of bicycle commuting as a Dutch thing, right along with
windmills, wooden shoes, and legalized marijuana.
(The Netherlands, according to Americans)
This reminds me of something that I’ve often thought about while riding my bike—why is cycling considered so European? It’s time to claim cycling for what it is: a truly American activity.
Whoa, did I lose you? Stay with me. Also, be warned, this might be a little jingoistic.
First, cycling has a rich American history. For instance, one discipline of track cycling is called the Madison Race, named for Madison Square Garden in New York City, where the first indoor bicycle races took place. Also, American industry is responsible for making bicycles available to the masses; an immigrant in Chicago named Adolf Schoeninger began manufacturing bicycles in the late 19th century, and pioneered many mass production processes. Schoeninger would later be referred to as “The Henry Ford of Bicycles,” even though he manufactured his bikes long before Ford started making cars.
But the main reasons I call cycling an American activity are much more interesting than mere history. The bicycle enables Americans to actually be Americans. When I think of America, there are a lot of things that come to mind, but here are a few:
· Freedom of mobility (geographically)
· Freedom of mobility (socially)
· Freedom of mobility (economically)
The bicycle makes each one of these freedoms a reality for people in a way that nothing else can. Stay with me…
The United States is a lot of things, but small is not one of them, and we didn’t get to be that way by staying put; 19th Century Americans got on their horses, loaded their wagons, and headed west. They didn’t need gas stations to fill up their tanks, no fences kept them out, and no tollbooths impeded their progress. Today, the bicycle enables this same freedom of geographic mobility. You can get on your bike in Miami and, provided your legs can make the trip, ride all the way to Seattle without buying a single tank of gas. Sure, that’s an extreme example, but it’s an accurate one. On the less extreme end of the spectrum, think about the first time you, as a child, got on your bike and rode to your friend’s house down the street. That moment, right then, your first time getting somewhere without a parent taking you there, was the first time you got to experience what it means to be an American. On a bike, you can ride as far as your heart desires and your legs can take you. The only thing to make it more American would be fighting Native Americans along your way.
Social mobility is another great American development. Think back to the childhood example presented earlier. How did you make your first friends? It’s likely that they were just kids that lived close by, that you could get to easily. If someone moved away, it probably ended the friendship. It didn’t even have to be far away; a move of five or six miles was probably enough to do irreparable damage to a friendship. But with a bicycle, that loss of friendship could be avoided. Five miles can be covered in thirty minutes pretty easily on a bicycle. With a bicycle, friends in other neighborhoods or at other schools are suddenly accessible. That park across town where the cool kids hung out is within easy reach. Bicycles removed/mitigated one barrier to a wider social circle.
The bicycle also broke down social barriers. It was particularly popular among suffragists in the United States. Susan B. Anthony said of cycling:
“Let me tell you what I think of bicycling. I think it has done more to emancipate women than anything else in the world. It gives women a feeling of freedom and self-reliance. I stand and rejoice every time I see a woman ride by on a wheel...the picture of free, untrammeled womanhood.”
Riding bicycles gave women their first true taste of personal freedom. In fact, I’d imagine that many women would not have been able to attend suffrage rallies if they were dependent upon their husbands for transportation to the rally.
Finally, though, the bicycle enables that most American ideal: upward economic mobility, the American Dream. In 2009, I moved to Chicago, selling my car in the process. Having not yet been enlightened by the bicycle, I was dependent upon public transportation for a while. Because of this, I had to pass on several employment opportunities because they were inaccessible by public transportation. And this was in a city with a good public transportation. I can only imagine how limited job prospects are for someone without a car in a city with poor public transportation.
Consider the minimum wage worker. The average annual cost of car ownership is $8,000, and the average take-home pay for a minimum wage job is about $13,000 for someone who works 40 hours a week, 52 weeks a year. That leaves $5,000 for EVERYTHING ELSE: childcare, rent, food, EVERYTHING. But consider that same person with a bicycle instead of a car. I do not know the annual cost of bike ownership, but let’s say it’s: $100 for a used bicycle, $100 for lights, helmet, and safety equipment, and $100 to fix various flats and breakdowns. That leaves $12,700 for everything else. Still not a lot of money, but a lot more than $5,000.
Bicycles Against Poverty, a charity that gives bikes to poor people in Uganda (so, I guess, most Ugandans), reports that of the recipients of their bikes, 67% experience an increase in income, and 24% went on to start their own business. Imagine the impact on poverty in the United States if 67% of poor Americans experienced an income increase combined with a simultaneous cut to expenses of $7,700 (the benefit of not owning a car).
So why do Americans insist on referring to cycling as a European activity? Why does it seem like such liberal thing to do? Why don’t conservatives embrace the bicycle as the truly American thing that it is? Actually, the last couple paragraphs might have answered those questions. Say what you want about my tinfoil hat, but it doesn’t seem farfetched to believe that there is an intentional effort by the rich and powerful of this country to paint cycling as European. After all, it isn’t uncommon for conservative politicians to use European as a negative adjective to describe something they are against (European healthcare, European socialism, European education). I think this country’s elite recognize just how much the status quo could be upset if Americans started riding bikes en masse.
(This scares the shit out of "The Man")
Think I’ve gone off the deep end? Just look at how General Motors led a coalition of automobile makers and oil companies to kill the streetcar.