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The Sit-Up Cycling Revolution 16

Toronto Morning Rush Hour - May 2009

Photo ‘Toronto Morning Rush Hour’ by James D. Schwartz / The Urban Country (May 2009)

A few days ago I was propositioned by a sales rep for an online retailer to promote their cycling clothes. Such E-mails are very common when you run a website, and 99% of the time I simply ignore them.

This time however, I felt the contents of the website would generate some interesting dialogue. The online retailer is called “sharethedamnroad.com” and they sell “cycling jerseys that make a difference”.

sharethedamnroad.cut_

Photo courtesy of sharethedamnroad.com

Make a difference indeed. First of all I wouldn’t be caught dead wearing skin-tight lycra clothing on my bike. Even when I competed in a triathlon this summer I wore my kayaking clothes rather than the typical cycle racing gear. I was obviously there for fun rather than to win.

Cobourg-Triathlon\

Photo by James D. Schwartz / The Urban Country

Secondly, these clothes are certain to piss off some drivers. There is already enough tension here in Toronto where it is common for drivers to feel that they own the road and have no obligation to share it with cyclists.

Wearing a shirt that reads “share the damn road” is not going to earn you any respect from drivers – even with the futile “thanks” written on the front of the shirt intended for drivers to see through their rear view mirror.

The Toronto Cyclists Union, a membership-based cycling advocacy group here in Toronto took a different approach. They started the “Cyclists Paving the Way” campaign in October to pass out thank you cards to drivers who “made a point of treating you with respect in traffic”.

Christine thank you

Photo courtesy of the Toronto Cyclists Union

The media attention this campaign received was probably more effective than the impracticality of handing out thank you cards to drivers. I am more pragmatic, so waving to a driver who makes a conscious effort to respect my safety serves the same purpose.

Which leads me to a topic that has been on the forefront of my mind as of late – the effect that your cycling style has on a driver’s tendency to have animosity toward you.

Since I moved to Toronto in 2002, I have commuted on different styles of bicycles while observing the behaviour of drivers as a result of each cycling style.

It is perhaps no surprise that cycling on a sit-up-style bicycle, moving at a slow, relaxed pace tends to have a contagious, tranquil effect on drivers and other cyclists alike.

This style of cycling is far more common in Europe than here in North America, but the last few years in Toronto have seen vintage cruiser-style bicycles become immensely popular.

DSC03762

IMG_1206

CruiserBicycle

Above photos by James D. Schwartz / The Urban Country

How could any driver in their right mind be hostile toward somebody on such a relaxing, sit-up bicycle that you see my fiancé Han riding in the photos above?

My friend Michael Rubbo – the Australian filmmaker – coined the term “situp cycle” on his website www.situp-cycle.com. Mr. Rubbo is fascinated by the European sit-up cycle culture that eludes Australia with its hunched over, racing culture.

I went through a phase of riding a hunched over racing bike in Toronto, and I found it only contributes to the tensions and the “rat race” feeling, rather than allowing you to enjoy your ride.

After visiting Washington DC in September and renting a comfortable sit-up hybrid commuter bike, I knew it was time to get a more practical commuter bike in Toronto. Storage space in my condo building is limited, so I would have to resign to storing my bike inside my unit.

Since I bought my Trek Navigator commuter bike in October I have ridden it every day – noticing the calming effect it has on drivers. It is also more enjoyable, comfortable and safer.

When cyclists scurry, it makes automobile drivers think they need to speed up as well. “Why should that cyclist get where he is going faster than me? I pay for these damn roads”. (Which of course we know is not true – cyclists pay for the roads too).

Bicycle sharing systems (such as BIXI) may also have a calming effect on downtown traffic. BIXI launched in May 2009 in Montreal and is slated to launch in other cities in 2010 (including Toronto).

The BIXI bicycles provide the same European style sit-up cycling that can slow down our bustling cities, having a calming effect on drivers to help our roads become safer for everyone.

In the coming weeks I will be heading to Montreal to meet with some BIXI representatives to find out how successful BIXI was in its inaugural year.

It’s important for all of us to take a deep breath and slow down a bit – drivers, cyclists and pedestrians alike. Life is more enjoyable when you actually take the time to enjoy it.

James D. Schwartz is the editor of The Urban Country. You can view all of James’ articles here.

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  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/09120845677047461745 Todd

    So true, what you say about the style of riding and clothing affecting the attitudes of drivers. We’ve already seen studies showing that at least in the UK, looking competent and wearing a helmet can sometimes result in folks passing you more closely.

    I think in addition to quickly passing the ‘scurrying’ bikes, there’s also an attitude that if folks are going quickly, and perhaps a little erratically the safest thing to do as a driver is to get them behind you as quickly as possible.

    Another (unsurprising in retrospect) thing I’ve noticed is that no matter where I am if I am very visible I get treated with way more respect and have more positive interactions with drivers. Sure there’s much to be said for the idea that riding one’s bike doesn’t require any special clothing but the bright fluorescent green jacket helps me out a lot.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/02486808945912681657 z

    When bixi arrives it will change everything. They are all sit up style.

    I also want to say that I am not a fan of the hybrid bikes. Dutch style bikes are far superior in my opinion. Unfortunately they are useless on hills. Hybrid comfort bikes from te likes of trek have never fit well on my body, and they’re made of cheap disposable components.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/10510514405099510918 Michael

    James, as you know I agree with you 100% about the pacifying effect the sit-up bike has on other traffic. I experience it everyday.

    Indeed, I sometimes feel on my Giant Suede (an ideal posture for me) that I’m conducting informal diver ed. courses as I ride along.

    I definitely reward any good behavior coming my way with a friendly wave.

    The Lycra shirt you show is clever, cheeky, but I would take it as unabashed claim that the wearer enjoying the state of war that presently exists, a futile un-winnable war.

    If you don’t think we should have been in Iraq and you don’t want to be in Afghanistan, don’t go to the cycle wars either

    I propose that a sit-up bike can by contrast be seen, no only as practical, but a political statement as well.

    It says; I am going somewhere sedately, confidently, and much appreciate your safe treatment of myself and my vehicle. I look at you, you look at me, and it’s a friendly encounter on our separate ways

    I suspect the sit-up revolution is going to be turbo charged by Bike share, since the Bixis and velibs around the world are all sit-ups.

    I’ve asked friends in Montreal how they found Bixis on hills because, as a commenter here remarks, the general opinion is that they are less good on hills.

    To my surprise, I was told they are fine, esp. since they’ve changed them to 7 gears.

    Bring on the Bixis and let the thousands who’d never have thought of riding a sit-up see how practical they are for getting from A to B, all the while keeping their faster bike for the weekends as you do.

    In the meantime, do take a look at what David Hembrow has to say about sit-ups on my blog. http://situp-cycle.com

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/04454437680686627778 James D. Schwartz

    I agree Todd – drivers are extremely careful around me when I am pulling a chariot trailer – not knowing if a baby is inside or not. So I suspect wearing a helmet has a similar effect where the driver assumes the cyclist is safer and passes more closely. I have no statistics on this, but from observational perspective I have found that this seems to be the case.

    I also agree that wearing bright clothing helps to let drivers know you are there and I find they usually slow down and cautiously pass me.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/04454437680686627778 James D. Schwartz

    Michael, I like your assessment of war in your comment. A war mentality is pointless and very unhelpful for both drivers and cyclists. A war can only exist if we acknowledge it exists and I do not acknowledge that a war exists here.

    My experience with BIXI bicycles is that they had a very low gear that made it easy to climb hills (and that was when they only had 3 speeds). I found going down hills was a different story – the bikes didn’t go very fast at the time. I think the commenter was referring to Dutch-style bikes when he/she referred to them not being great for climbing hills.

    I enjoyed David’s perspective about sit-up bicycles on your website. I think his viewpoint is again a reflection of the Dutch being so far ahead of the rest of the world. Cyclists in the Netherlands aren’t trying to earn respect from drivers – they already have it.

    The sit-up cycling culture is more important here in North America and in Australia where we need to earn respect and slow the pace down in our cities.

  • http://raleightwenty.webs.com/ Martin Hartley

    Find yourself an old steel MTB with rigid forks (no suspension). Throw away the straight handlebars, and fit a set of “North Road” handlebars (the kind that curve back towards the rider) on the tallest stem you can find. Put on a set of mudguards, a carry rack, a wide comfortable saddle and a front basket and you’ll find yourself with an excellent budget city bicycle. I bought mine for $25, and slowly acquired the bits and pieces needed to turn it into a city bicycle. Now if I could afford an 8 or 11 speed hub from Shimano it would be the ultimate modern city bicycle.

    Otherwise, I could simply fit an 8 or 11 speed hub to a vintage bicycle such as my Raleigh Twenty.

  • http://twitter.com/rubbomike mike rubbo

    I think the penny is beginning to drop, James, though it sounds like you are ahead of us here in Sydney. I’m hoping my coming art show will give a boost to the style since it’s virtually only sit-ups that I feature in my art.

    Here is my art show “manifesto”

    The bike is a very cool presentational device for the human body.

    Historically, the nude has had a revered place in art. The human figure on the bike, especially bikes of the stately sort, deserves it’s place as well.

    I want to position the sit-up bike in the public mind as a creator of grace and beauty as well as a sensible transport provider.

    I want people to go from thinking, “what a wonderful sight, that person gilding along there on the sit-up bike,” to, “that looks like it feels great. I should try that.”

    Once the urge to try is strong enough, the fear with which compulsory helmets have cloaked Australian cycling, will to some degree slip away and be replaced by more positive feelings.

    The cycle chic movement paved the way for me, photographing riders, as it does, to reveal elegance and grace in movement.

    It began in Copenhagen with Mikael Colville-Andersen’s now famous blog, Copenhagen Cycle Chic, and has since spread around the word with 34 other national cycle chic blogs now publishing photos of graceful riding.

  • http://twitter.com/rubbomike mike rubbo

    I think the penny is beginning to drop, James, though it sounds like you are ahead of us here in Sydney. I’m hoping my coming art show will give a boost to the style since it’s virtually only sit-ups that I feature in my art.

    Here is my art show “manifesto”

    The bike is a very cool presentational device for the human body.

    Historically, the nude has had a revered place in art. The human figure on the bike, especially bikes of the stately sort, deserves it’s place as well.

    I want to position the sit-up bike in the public mind as a creator of grace and beauty as well as a sensible transport provider.

    I want people to go from thinking, “what a wonderful sight, that person gilding along there on the sit-up bike,” to, “that looks like it feels great. I should try that.”

    Once the urge to try is strong enough, the fear with which compulsory helmets have cloaked Australian cycling, will to some degree slip away and be replaced by more positive feelings.

    The cycle chic movement paved the way for me, photographing riders, as it does, to reveal elegance and grace in movement.

    It began in Copenhagen with Mikael Colville-Andersen’s now famous blog, Copenhagen Cycle Chic, and has since spread around the word with 34 other national cycle chic blogs now publishing photos of graceful riding.

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