22 July 2011

The Value of Cycle Chic

Some of our readers have notified us that an "internet debate" about the "value of cycle chic" is currently underway. Just hearing those words "internet debate" is enough to send shudders down our spines, but hey... it's silly season and real news is few and far between so we had a (brief) look at the 'debate'.

Not surprisingly, it is mostly 'avid cyclists' doing the debatin' so right there we could figure that it probably wasn't going to have much to do with anything concrete and certainly not with mainstreaming urban cycling. Many 'avid cyclists' have long had a hard time with cycle chic. We know that. It's been a rather repetitive discussion for almost five years. Sub-cultures have a tendency to become defensive when their territory is ''infiltrated' by regular citizens.

The Photo That Launched a Million Bicycles
We're fast approaching the five year anniversary of what has later been called The Photo That Launched a Million Bicycles. We're repeating ourselves, certainly, but let's backtrack a bit.

In late 2006, the bicycle didn't exist in the wider public consciousness anywhere in the world. It had largely been forgotten in vast swathes of the planet. In many cases an entire generation had forgotten the simple imagery of Citizen Cyclists riding bicycles in their regular clothes. As transport, not some hobbyist weekend activity. This blog changed all that. This is where Cycle Chic was founded. Where the phrase was coined.

The story is well-known to most who visit this blog: THE HISTORY OF CYCLE CHIC™ - THE PHOTO THAT LAUNCHED A MILLION BICYCLES

From the very first week of the existence of this blog, it poured in with visitors. Simple photos of regular citizens going about their daily business on bicycles here in Copenhagen - the City of Cyclists - amazed people from around the world. This is the power of the internet, of course. One photo in Copenhagen brought the bicycle back to the public consciousness and launched the bicycle boom we are currently enjoying. In the 1970's it took a global energy crisis to bring the bicycle back, however briefly. Now it has been accomplished with a handy camera on a November morning, Flickr.com and Blogger.com. Amazing.

The 'value' of cycle chic was apparent from the beginning. The fashion industry, recognizing a trend, were quick to get on board. We here in Copenhagen started recieving requests for permission from many regions to start copycat blogs. A whole lot of people saw a value in Cycle Chic. Very few of them were 'avid cyclists', which was a good thing. Now there are easily over 140 cycle chic blogs around the world. That's quite a few people who see a 'value' in cycle chic and the message we bring to the world.

I now travel that same world giving various keynote speeches and one of them is about how to promote urban cycling. Four Goals for Promoting Urban Cycling. A template for cities who wish to increase the number of citizens on bicycles. In that talk I talk about marketing and about Cycle Chic. About how we should start applying basic marketing techniques to urban cycling. Mainly because the bicycle advocacy we've seen over the past 40 years has been a flop. It leans up against environmentalism with it's tone, message and sanctimonioius halo. The problem is that environmentalism is the greatest marketing flop in human history, which means it's not much of a lamppost to lean up against.

Forty years of activism and awareness and what do we have to show for it? Not much at all. All that finger pointing, all those guilt trips and the mainstream audience has turned deaf. It's like bicycle advocacy. All that crap about "it's healthy to ride a bike!" and "its green to ride a bike!" doesn't get people to ride bicycles. Especially when it's 'avid cyclists' doing the advocating. There are exceptions of course, but most bicycle advocacy is sub-cultural groups who wish that everyone rode a bicycle just like them. And can fix a bicycle just like them. And so on. It's the same with most sub-cultures. They are protective of their hobby and are wary of newcomers. Stamp collectors wish everyone loved and respected stamps as much as they do. They wish we would all place the stamp carefully and lovingly at a right angle to the edges of the envelope. But we all don't do that. I just slap 'em on and slide 'em into the slot.

What Cycle Chic has done and continues to do is inspire Citizen Cyclists. We are a sartorial replacment for 'avid cyclists' and their monotone ramblings. We speak to the 95% of the population, not the 5%.

Take one look at some of the testimonials we've recieved over the years. Everywhere I travel with Cycle Chic and Copenhagenize I meet people who humble me with their stories about how Cycle Chic made them buy a bicycle and made them realise that they didn't have to be a 'cyclist' to ride a bicycle. It inspires me. It moves me. Sometimes it makes tears roll down my cheeks.

One of the sites involved in the 'internet debate' writes that "The concept of "cycle chic" has been controversial almost from the moment it started."

No, it hasn't. Look at our timeline of press mentions about our blog and about cycle chic, starting in January 2007. It wasn't controversial at all.

People started getting their (lycra) panties in a knot much later. When it became clear that Cycle Chic was effective at getting people to ride bicycles. We have seen a long list of whining in articles, blogposts, letters to the editors from 'avid cyclists' who bitch about 'fashionistas' now riding bikes. Like it's a bad thing.

Let's back track even further. To the late 19th century. Until the invention of the Safety bicycle - the diamond-shaped design we still use today - bicycles were the exclusive domain of a sub-culture. Upper middle class to upper class men. (sound familiar?). When the safety bicycle appeared it transformed society more quickly, more effectively than any other invention in human history. Liberating the working classes. Liberating women for the first time. It wasn't all rosy. When women and working class citizens started riding bicycles, the sub-cultures started ridiculing them. Spitting on them, even. The mainstream was infiltrating their private little world. Regular citizens were taking to the bicycle and enjoying all the transportational benefits it provides. History is repeating itself in many ways.

The bicycle was fashion as well as transport back in what I call Bicycle Culture 1.0. Just as it is again now. Cycle Chic is just a phrase I coined to describe the effortlessness, gorgeousness, goodness that the bicycle can bring to society. The way we sold bicycles between 1890-1950 - give or take - was excellent marketing. It was Cycle Chic. Just look at many of the posters used for this purpose.

Someone tweeted "I'm more & more convinced that PR/branding campaigns to make cycling look chic & attractive do more harm than good."

Couldn't disagree more, but then again, sounds like a 'cyclist' talkin'. A 'cyclist' who can't reflect themselves in the mirror now placed before them. Citizen Cyclists - of all age and wage brackets, of all races, in so many countries embracing the bicycle.

What have we seen over the past 4 - 4.5 years with Cycle Chic? A long line of fashion companies embracing the bicycle in their campaigns. A new generation of citizens returning to the bicycle in their regular clothes - for transport, errands, etc. Who gives a shit if the bicycle is a fashion or lifestyle accessory for some? The most important thing is reestablishing the bicycle on the urban landscape. That requires a lot of Citizen Cyclists and a lot of bicycles to provide the necessary symbolism in our cities. We are well on our way but we are far from the goal in many cities.

What else can Cycle Chic do? It can contribute to social inclusion. A couple of years ago I was speaking in New York City. I chatted with a couple of nice guys - white, middle-class 'cyclists' and made the mistake of calling the many recent immigrants who deliver goods by bicycles in the city 'working class heroes' and the 'backbone of the cycling world'.

The two guys were shocked. "Those guys are forced to ride because they can't afford a car. We CHOOSE to ride", I was told. They saw no similarities between themselves and the delivery men.

If we are to succeed in mainstreaming cycling, we need more social inclusion. We have to give the bicycle back the same status now enjoyed by cars. When delivery men see wealthier citizens exhibiting Cycle Chic, they won't see a car. They'll see an attractive lifestyle. They'll see a bicycle in their cross-class societal mirror. Cycling sub-cultures aren't exactly helping, but Cycle Chic can and is.

What is most interesting about the evolution of Cycle Chic is that we at Copenhagenize Consulting, who run the blog and administer the trademark, are seeing a whole new group of people asking to start a blog. Municipalities and organisations. For example, when I was in Montreal recently to help launch Montreal Cycle Chic, it was Canada's largest cyclist organisation Vélo Québec who was behind the blog. The City of Murcia, in Spain, has a blog. Cycle Chic Belgium is run by a passionate group at an environmental NGO. At the recent Cycle Chic Bloggers Conference in Barcelona, we took part in events with the Catalonian bicycle NGO and were invited on a tour of the city of Saint Joan Despi by the mayor himself. We are currently discussing other blogs for other municipalities and organisations. Now more than ever before.

Cycle Chic has a value and while a small group may not approve of it, all the right people embracing it. People who wish to transform their cities using the bicycle as an effective tool.

It's not surprising that the countries and cities where urban cycling is booming and growing fast are places where there is little sub-cultural influence. When Citizen Cyclists are allowed to take to the bicycle without worrying about 'fitting in' with the fancy bikes, expensive clothes, gear and helmets of a cycling sub-culture, mainstream bicycle culture is provided with fertile soil. Check out Behavioural Challenges for Urban Cycling.

Cycle Chic is couture. Style. Fashion. Not profiteering like we're seeing in some places and not people capitalizing on the brand without asking permission but rather regular fashion for regular people. On this blog and many of the others we show lovely clothes on bicycles. People dressing for their destination, not their journey. We don't fuss much about the bicycles because it's not about the bicycle. It's about people on bicycles. It's about getting more people onto bicycles. It's about social inclusion. It's about transforming our cities and making them nicer places to live.

Cycle Chic continues to grow. It has been called Bicycle Advocacy 2.0. It's working more effectively in four short years than the past four decades of 'avid cyclists' promoting cycling. The tipping point grows closer day by day.

This is the value of Cycle Chic.


Jenny! said...

Thank you for reminding me why I am a student of Cycle Chic! There are so many bike advocacy groups out there that I can't get behind, but I can get behind being chic.

Yes, I judge. I judge the spandexers who buy expensive gear and bikes to ride a few days a year. I judge the students who are too busy getting from A to B to follow the rules of the road. But we should all remember: the more of us on the road, the better off things will be for us all.

Keep working at it, and I hope the haters leave you alone!

Mila S said...

Way to go, Cycle Chic!
So proud of you!

twelvedaysold said...

Great post, glad you stuck up for yourself (and all of us). Your blog is what made me realize I can get a bike and take my time riding somewhere, in my regular clothes. I fought riding a bike when I thought it meant I had to wear a special outfit and ride 30 miles an hour.

Erik Sandblom said...

I think cycle chic is great. But it's worth being aware of how it can be perceived sometimes, and I don't just mean profiteering. BikePortland reports about when they were going to put in bike lanes in a black neighborhood. Some residents said they were pissed off that safe streets only became a priority once white people wanted to cycle on them. In a setting like that, it's possible that some people could feel excluded from cycle chic. Which is terrible, because the whole point of cycle chic is to be inclusive and not exclusive.

Meeting on Williams project turns into discussion of race, gentrification

Sometimes it might be worth emphasizing that Citizen Cyclists and Cycle Chic are synonyms.

Nphorcer said...

Thank you Mikael ... posted a small blurb for you guys here:


Clyde S. Dale said...

As if 'internet debate' means anything, or will solve anything....

I, too, have been 'changed' by this website, and for the better; I realized that I didn't have to push myself ALL the time, to set PR's, and cause myself to be exhausted at the end of every ride. I still DO push, just not as crazily as before. Funny how the joy is still there.....

There will always be posers, as there will always be people who have to pigeonhole others, as there will be peo;lle who believe they have the answer to a question not asked.

kfg said...

USE a stamp? What kind of barbarian are you?

Anonymous said...

When Edinburgh Cycle Chic started, I was surprised by the level of resistance for other Scottish cycle campaigners and campaign groups. They objected to the idea of showing people riding bicycles without helmets! It really saddened me, thankfully this attitude is slowly changing.

Anonymous said...

That was a serious waste of space on cycle chic. Show us bikes, people, and fashion. You guys and gals are great. My wife and I sold our Prius last year when we moved to Hawaii. We own two beautiful bikes and two bus passes. We rent a car each month for the Costco run. Thanks. You reminded us about how much we enjoy urban cycling.

ManfredKZ said...

Great text Mikael! Posted on my Facebook and twitter. Hope Edmonton improves here... cheers

lagatta à montréal said...

Well, obviously I agree with cycle chic and the main thrust of your comment here - the late Claire Morissette advocated cycling and looking chic 30 years ago - but don't quite agree about environmentalism. Some ecological-consciousness related publicity has been effective - the key is not to guilt people but show how they can live green and pleasant lives.

There was terrible "lycragear" and "helmetoid" backlash against a very mild and derivative article in the Globe and Mail (Toronto) not long ago about how to look smart on a bicycle, illustrated (horrors) by a woman in a dress, bareheaded.

Akb said...

"The concept of "cycle chic" has been controversial almost from the moment it started."

"No, it hasn't."

No? No one ever said "Why isn't anyone wearing a helmet?"

Rarely are your featured cyclists wearing a helmet. Yes, it's dorky, but it's like wearing a seatbelt - better safe than sorry. In this post, you spend a lot of time criticizing others and taking all the credit for making biking cool, and that makes me kind of dislike the blog, despite its sartorial value (albeit helmet-less a lot of the time).

ManfredKZ said...

Lagatta: Oh, the lycragearism and helmetoism.... *sigh

jeff s said...

Not sure whether to laugh or cry about Cycle Chic. I'm an avid cyclist and could not care less what people choose to wear when they ride a bike. Just riding a bike is all that matters -- any type of bike -- it does not matter -- any day, anywhere, whatever. You are acting like there is some sort of trademark on bike fashion and cycle chic is the founder. What a load of rusty spoke nipples! Just ride your bike and be a human being, no one cares as much as you think, at least not me anyways!!

Glorius said...

thanks for calling attention to the immigrant community and their use of bikes. I live in the section of my town where there is a huge Guatemalan/Mexican population ... and everyone rides a bike. And these guys can do anything on a bike, make a phone call, text, carry a heavy bag of laundry in the rain or snow ... I often think of them as the true heroes of everyday life. (And btw they never--at least rarely--are seen with helmets, and when I do hear of a bike accident it is always some good American, 'avid cyclist' type, not one of these guys.) Yeah, maybe they ride bikes because they "have" to ... but at least they do it.

Reno Rambler said...

I adore Cycle Chic but this post betrays are extremely inflated view of oneself. Worse, it perpetuates the us vs. them mentality that ends up hurting all cyclists.

It's worth noting that some people ride more technical gear because it is the right tool for the job. I wear some nice Rapha wool stuff often on my commutes because it's comfortable and doesn't leave me stinking. MY COMMUTE IS TOO LONG AND HILLY TO GET AWAY WITH WEARING MY "CHIC" CLOTHING! I prefer to change into it at work and hopefully not wear those nice expensive clothes out.

There are all types of bicycle advocacy and they all have their place. Demonstrating that people around the world can wear beautiful street clothes and happily get around on urban style bikes is wonderful. No less wonderful are the people working to get better and safer infrastructure for cyclists. Or, people working in bicycle collectives providing cheap bikes to the poorest people in a city. Or, those working with educational programs to help kids learn how to ride safely. Or, people who work with legislators to create better laws to protect and help cyclists. Or, people who just ride their bikes because they like it.

Enjoy the ride!

cornliquordrinker said...

Cycle Chic awareness has changed my life profoundly, and I was already an established everyday cyclist when I stumbled on this blog in 2008.

I think the whole thing is passion and art, hands down, and that is missing in our collective conscience desperately. It has to be hard work, threading the delicate balance between celebrating the physical culture of urban cycling, and sparking awareness of it so we can diametrically almost forget about it and then go about our lives improving the poetic experience of the cities we live in. Cycle Chic does tend to favor cities and the mannerisms associated with that kind of life, but, alas, most of us live in cites nowadays. Your manifesto seems applicable as a no-brainer, no? I think that critics should relax, basically.

There will always be tedious enthusiasts (read: nerds) that tend to point out in a buzzkill grave manner the utter importance of a given routine or belief or activity. They lurk in every field and focus. All they succeed in doing, in my opinion, is selfishly drawing attention to the minutia and in turn, distract from the whole. I love it that Cycle Chic, for the most point, ignores them.

Anonymous said...

Bravo Mikael! Well said!

John said...

I love cycle chic, and I'm glad you're telling the world about it through your blog. However, can we revel in it without ridiculing our athletic cycling brothers and sisters? I just don't think it's necessary to be so tribal especially since many people cycle both ways!

mander said...


It shows a disturbing level of arrogance for you to claim credit for creating the post-millennial bicycle boom, while minimizing the efforts of bicycle activists worldwide and totally ignoring the role of the internet. I'm actually a bit stunned, though perhaps I shouldn't be.

Kyle said...

"In late 2006, the bicycle didn't exist in the wider public consciousness anywhere in the world."

Seriously? Do the hundreds of millions (billions?) who travel on bikes in India, China, Japan and many other countries not count? Are they not important because they don't get dressed up to ride? You may want to check yourself. A few thousand white people on bikes is nice, but really just a drop in the world cycling bucket.

Sarah said...


On behalf of the people of Amsterdam, I want to thank you for bringing cycle chic to the world. Since this blog started in 2006, transportation cycling has become quite a big deal around here!

Zakkalicious said...

The yoga is paying off, Mikael.

Jame said...

I thought I'd chime in. Around a year ago I saw your book in the waiting room at the doctors office. I did not have anything to do so I looked through it.

I was completely amused by the people on bikes doing everyday things. It planted a seed in my head that maybe I should get a bike. I live in a place where bike culture is a mix of spandex clad racers and hipsters with fixies.

I'm a middle class woman in my 30s with a semi preppy style. I didn't plan to wear spandex or leggings under my skirt. That wasn't me. I have always been a bike friendly, without riding but I didn't really think there was a place for me in bike culture.

I kept the thought in the back of my mind, and a month ago I won a city styled bike in a nice royal blue. With fenders, chain guard and step-through frame. In the days leading up to collecting my prize, it finally clicked what made cycle chic so different. An accessorized bike made things much more personal and flexible.

And now I have come full circle, converting car and transit trips to two wheeled ones.

This wouldn't have happened without the nudge of cycling in everyday clothes. (And chain guards, as the last time I biked I ended up having a near collision and getting grease stains on my clothes. )