By LIESL SCHILLINGER
Published: October 10, 2012
ARE you in the mood for a contentious debate? Stroll past the North Pavilion of Union Square in Manhattan before 7 p.m. on the last Friday of each month and ask any of the hundreds of cyclists who gather there for the Critical Mass ride why women’s bikes tend to have a low crossbar (also called a “mixte” or “step-through”), whereas men’s bikes have a high crossbar that juts from below the seat to below the handlebars.
Is the feature a quaint leftover from the days when women wore petticoats, and maneuvering themselves over the high bar would have been a challenge? Might it reflect a surprising impulse toward modesty among modern women who don’t mind weaving among taxis and buses, but still prefer not to bestride their steel (or carbon fiber) steeds like a cowboy hopping on a palomino? Or is the step-through an anachronism in these days of unisex denim and leggings?
Why do male and female riders require different kinds of bikes? The answers you get will be vociferous. They will not be unanimous.
With her charming book, fetchingly illustrated by Clare Owen, the British velophile Katie Dailey skirts the controversy by mildly pointing out that, however it came about, the lower bar is easier to clamber over than the higher one.
She also notes that the “feminine aesthetic” in bike design lately has gotten nods from Chanel (its eight-speed model comes with quilted pannier bags) and Gucci (whose Bianchi by Gucci model is meant “for those looking to turn heads while on the go”). Hermès has one, too, though it is unclear if it comes wrapped in tissue paper in a bike-size orange box.
To speed the spread of the urban biking trend, Ms. Dailey offers tips to help would-be pedal-commuters “incorporate cycling into your lifestyle”: don’t wear gummy lip gloss, lest flies get stuck in your pout as you whoosh across bridges; keep wet-wipes at your desk to deal with grease smudges; wear sneakers without laces when possible. She also celebrates the variety and velocity of today’s stylish, eco-conscious cyclists.
Ms. Dailey identifies four chief types of “ladies burning rubber out there”: the Fashion Victim, whose outfits harmonize with her trendy neo-vintage wheels (like Agyness Deyn, Ellen Page and their emulators); the Speed Demon with extraterrestrial helmet and sleek, Matrixy gear (like Gwyneth Paltrow); the Earth Mother, who careers toward farmers’ markets with her baby bobbing precariously in the front basket; and the Retro Rider in Steampunk get-up, whose vehicle “weighs more than a cement-mixer.”
High bar or low bar is the least of the concerns for discerning women, Ms. Dailey shows; a host of personal and athletic preferences guide their choices.
Beyoncé Knowles is a devoted urban biker who relishes the anonymity a bike gives her when she’s in public. “By the time they realize it’s me, I’m already gone,” she says.
The suffragist Susan B. Anthony declared that bicycling “has done more to emancipate women than anything else in the world,” and the novelist Iris Murdoch called the bicycle “the most civilized conveyance known to man.” Albert Einstein, though not a woman, gets a pat on the head because he came up with his theory of relativity while riding his bicycle at night. (Let’s hope he had a headlight, as his mind clearly was not on the road.)
Ms. Dailey might be pleased to hear about Vespertine, a business started by the New York cyclist Sarah Canner to make female night riders not only extra-visible, but extra-attention-getting. In the garment district, Ms. Canner produces lightweight reflective corselets, ostrich-trimmed jackets, vests, sashes and belts that slip over outerwear and resemble glowing lingerie. Last summer her line (she jokingly calls it Haute Réflecture) arrived at Vespa Soho, Hudson Urban Bicycles and at the new, woman-owned shop Bicycle Roots in Bedford-Stuyvesant, and at boutiques across the country and overseas.
In her book, Ms. Dailey mentions useful fluorescent safety options like Velcro bands and American Apparel waterproof hoodies, but Vespertine’s citron Gogo Dirndl adds flair to fluorescence, fulfilling the author’s instruction to women to “wear clothing as bright and brash as you can possibly muster,” so they and their bikes won’t go bump in the night.