The Problem With Lycra
April 20, 2010 8:59 AM
A lot more people would bike to work if it weren't for the dress code. One thing that became immediately obvious in our tour of European cities that are great for bike commuters is that biking isn't an event here; it's a way of life.
Men in business suites, women dressed to the nines, elderly couples, little kids - virtually everybody rides a bike. You see no Lycra shorts, racing jerseys, clip on peddles or helmets. And, except for the helmets, which is another discussion, that's a good thing. More people will ride if they can just hop on and go, not spend a half hour packing up their work clothes while they dress for the ride to the office as if it's the Tour de France.
One important thing that makes it possible to not have to dress specifically for the bike ride but for the destination is the bike itself. Europeans ride a sturdy bike with upright handle bars - sort of like the one ridden by Elvira Gulch in the Wizard of Oz, except they look a lot better on it. All their bikes have chain guards, so they don't have to worry about getting their pants caught in the greasy chain and most of them don't have the high cross bar so they can easily get on and off. And the upright position makes it easier to keep track of what's going on around them.
By contrast, the dominant bike in America is the ten speed road racing bike, which makes sense if you're going for a long recreational ride on smooth roads in the country, but doesn't really have much applicability for a three mile ride to the office. It's as if we're all driving sports cars when what most of us need is a reliable mini-van.
In the cities we've visited here in Europe one out of three trips is made by bike while in Madison it's only about 4 in 100. If we're ever going to get even half the way to one out of three trips, we're going to have to make it comfortable, safe and fun. That means we'll have to do a lot of things, including providing more safe routes. But we also need to lose the Lycra dress code and to rethink the basic American bike.