I've been struggling with the notion of Cycle Chic: is it really urban cycling reimagined, or is it just sexism in a leather saddle?
Cycle Chic sprang from the imagination of Mikael Colville-Andersen, a Calgarian who followed his heart and heritage back to Denmark, and in 2006, began his blog Copenhagenize. Copenhagenize itself is a riff on the urban planning ideals of Danish urban architect and consultant Jan Gehl, who I posted about after hearing his inspirational closing address at Velo-city Global 2010 in Copenhagen last month.
Copenhagenize is about living in the city and using cycling as a way to reconnect with the city: a slower pace, more open to the urban scenery, more interactive with people and places around you, a sensual experience, rather than the disconnected experience of racing through urban centres locked in the metal cage that is the automobile.
If driving a car is "wham bam, thank ya ma'am," then cycling is an all-nighter.
It was the sensuality of cycling that led to Cycle Chic. About three years ago, Colville-Andersen posted a photo on Copenhagenize of a woman on her bicycle, one foot on the ground, waiting for the signal to change. No helmet, no cycling-specific clothing: just a well-dressed, apparently attractive and confident woman. The response from the blogosphere was surprising, and Cycle Chic was born.
And born, and reborn and born again in city after city. There are now dozens and dozens of Cycle Chic clones in such places as Charleston, S.C., Victoria, B.C. and Lodz, Poland. Some of these websites just steal the Cycle Chic label, and others have crafted their own, such as VeloBello, Sweet Georgia Brown and 416CycleStyle. (Not to be confused with CycleChic, the Ottawa-based women's cycle clothing business.)
Most will post photos about cycling infrastructure, wine, bicycle accessories, bicycle trips and the like, but the mainstay is what people, largely women, are wearing when they ride their bicycles, such as the photo above taken by me in Copenhagen.
Women in sandals, women in calf-high boots. Women on their way to work, women out shopping (such as the woman above, taken by me, walking her bike along the Stroget in Copenhagen).
Lots of personal style, such as the blue and red sneakers on the rider below, also taken by me in Copenhagen. And lots of women in leggings and many, many women in short skirts.
My female colleagues and relatives gasped at the idea of wearing miniskirts on a bicycle, but in Copenhagen, and apparently in many other cities around the world, this timidity is easily overcome by female riders.
If you thought that wearing mini-skirts on a bicycle might somehow inhibit women from riding, consider the numbers. According to the 2006 Census, in Waterloo Region there were 3,845 cyclists commuting to work, of whom 2,795 were male and 1,045 were female. That's 72.6 per cent to 27.1 per cent or roughly a 2.67 to 1 ratio of male to female (thanks to John Hill of the Region of Waterloo for those figures). Rough ratios from London and New York put the balance at about three to one, male to female.
In Copenhagen, 55 per cent of the cyclists are women. We're talking virtually one to one. What is different about Copenhagen?
Colville-Andersen says that bicycles are freedom, that bicycles allow women to participate more equally in the urban scene.
His message is resonant in Denmark. His photos are used by Danish agencies to promote cycling, and he was invited to join the Cycling Embassy of Denmark, the world's first "bicycle embassy."
He declined, so that he could retain his independence, an independence that he demostrates with his opinionated blogging. He is a bit of a libertarian about cycling, and vehemently opposed to such government intervention and "nannyism" as mandatory helmet laws. He is sought out as a speaker, and was one of the plenary speakers at Velo-city Global, speaking on Cycling as Culture and Status.
Colville-Andersen, (shown above, right, with his long-john cargo bike, with one of the several bicycles he was riding during the conference -- if you're going to blog about bicycling, you might as well test the products) told the 1,000 gathered participants that "The bicycle was the big bang of social inclusion. Cars isolate; bicycles integrate."
Part of that integration is the rejection of separate cycling clothing. Rarely will you see a Copenhagen resident wearing Lycra (or a helmet) on Cycle Chic. It's not that they are not there. I saw plenty of helmets on my commutes to the Velo-city conference, and was passed by several cyclists wearing the cycling jerseys of their favourite pro teams or sponsors.
But in the Copenhagenized culture, cycling-specific clothing is a disconnect from everyday life. Who wants to race to work, get sweaty, shower and change, and then do it all over again to attend a meeting across town. You ride to work in your work clothes. If you're pregnant and going shopping, just put on what you would normally wear and go shopping. The trick, as in this photo above from the Stroget, is to look good doing it.
And as the well-dressed Colville-Andersen demonstrated, "You look better on a bicycle in the urban theatre." It's that "looking good and feeling good" that helps build a liveable city, he said, "and liveable cities don't suffer from brain drain or the exodus to the suburbs."
Not everyone has to be ready for the catwalk. Some people, such as this commuter arriving at the Central Station in Copenhagen above, just put on their platforms, stick their briefcase in their handlebar basket and go.
Others just put their cool on and join the urban theatre. (Also taken by me, at the Central Station, same time as the previous photo. Commuters and cool dudes use the same bicycle parking lot.)
If there is a weak point in embracing Cycle Chic, it is the sexism in the saddle. The overwhelming number of posted photos are of women, or women with their male cyclist friends. Consider the aforementioned VeloBello of Bucharest, where readers can vote on the best skirt on a bicycle. Or consider this Flickr photo posted by Colville-Andersen in 2007 of a woman back-lit so her undergarments are showing. I am pretty confident that she would have politely declined to have this posted, had she been asked. Colville-Andersen argues that she is participating in the public realm, so no model release is required.
So, is Cycle Chic just photo voyeurism?
That notion raised questions with two students at the University of Copenhagen, Lisbet Falsig and Charlotte Winslow Jensen. After hearing a lecture by Colville-Andersen and considering his Cycle Chic message, they decided they'd seen enough of images of long-legged blond female cyclists and took their cameras to the streets for a project that led to their article: Giv plads! Her kommer cykelfyren (Give space! Here comes the bicycle guy) in the U of Copenhagen magazine Visuel Cykelkultur.
You can see their article by going to this website and downloading the Visuel Cykelkultur pdf (click on the cover of the magazine). Their article starts on page 23. Helps to know Danish, but their points are well-illustrated with their photos: guys can be "chic" and being part of an urban cycling culture doesn't always have to be about what is being worn. Just being is enough.
So, does the "sexism in a leather saddle" criticism stand up?
You might be able to make that argument if all the bloggers/photographers were men and all the photos were of exposed thongs or cleavage. But a number of the Chic sites are run by women, and their interest in what other female cyclists are wearing seems to be more about commonality than objectification. Most Chic sites include info about bicycle lights, travel, food, baby carriers and just about anything cycle-ist that the hosting blogger wants to write about.
And Colville-Andersen's own arguments that Cycle Chic is just a reflection of cycle chic seem to make sense. Cycle Chic didn't create the movement; it only acknowledges it.
Will looking "good" on a bicycle encourage others to ride? Colville-Andersen would argue that Cycle Chic is only part of the reason for Copenhagen's success with cycling, and with the higher ratio there of female cyclists. Other factors, such as simple A2Bism (the desire to get quickly from Point A to Point B in urban centres), are hugely important.
Whether you call Cycle Chic sexism in the saddle or urban cycling reimagined, you can count it as a successful tool to be used in enlivening the urban environment.