Los Angeles & the "Mainstream Counterculture"
Posted on 05 December 2009
Editors note. A bit of a silly article but nonetheless one that raises a serious point. Bike shops in North America have often become heavily "tribal" or "niche" as they attempt to separate themselves from other shops. Today, the bike industry is selling more bikes than ever but at the same time, more stores are closing than ever. Shops are being told that to survive, they need to find their niche - and quite often city bikes are looked to as an example. But city bikes couldn't be less niche. They are made for everyone, not some tribe. You don't need to shave your legs and you can wear whatever you want.
- February 2016
Mikeal Colville-Anderson, in his popular blog Copenhagenize, recently posted a very interesting article around the issue of 'subculture' in emerging city bike cultures. Mikeal argues that city cycling needs to move from the subculture to the 'mainstream', a point we have often argued, since subcultures often identify as being 'exclusive' over 'inclusive' - and encourage a 'tribal' mentality. In our own critique we've noted that most bicycle subcultures rally around an object - not surprisingly, the bike itself. A fixed-gear rider is identified by his or her fixie, as a BMX'er by his or her BMX bike. The reason why we at bespoke measure a bike culture as much by its bikes as its bike lanes is because barrier-free city cycling means barrier free traffic as much as it does barrier-free bikes. People in Holland don't just bike because of the bike lanes, they bike because of the bikes. To a large extent, a democratic bike culture requires a democratic bike. We agree. Or at least we have always agreed. Until we went to Los Angeles.
When we first had the silly idea of bringing in Europe's benchmark city bikes into North America, Los Angeles was last on our list of priorities. In fact, the entire west coast was on our last list of priorities. Typically the bike industry has started its trends in the west and then moved to the east - which is why men in suits ride hunched-over on mountain bikes in NYC. Bikes certainly have more dignity than that. In the 70's companies like Raleigh imported bikes into east coast cities, starting a trend that moved from east to west. Raleigh bikes worked just like Dutch bikes in Holland. They could multitask a dense urban radius of activity and do so efficiently and stylishly. It wasn't sporty - not a bit. In the relentless pursuit for speed and performance in North America, the old Raleigh bikes were akin to the Volkswagen Beetle (which were imported at the same time), practical, efficient, and all you ever needed. Cute too. The Beetle sold very well on the east coast. But it also did well on the west coast. It was an icon that stood against the ideals of atomic-age America, manifested so rigorously in the suburban sprawl and googie architecture of California, it wasn't subculture. It was a counterculture - and, unlike various automobile subcultures, it welcomed anyone.
When Josef at Flying Pigeon LA first called us with an order from LA we were intrigued. I mean, who on earth rides a bike in LA? When Josef started calling every week with new orders, and when those orders were turning into multiple units we knew we had to come and visit. At bespoke we are not just importers of European city bikes, but keen observers of bicycle culture. Besides Mikeal Colville-Anderson of Copenhagenize, we may be the most travelled connoisseurs of bike culture we know of. Los Angeles wasn't just a challenge to figure out, it was a mesmerizing city to ride a bike in - a place where strip malls and freeway overpasses actually look good. Maybe its the sunlight. Los Angeles is that place where all the architectural similitude one grows up with in the suburbs of North America find their Platonic form, and despite all the cars, despite all the sprawl, it's somehow beautiful. And the mexican food is terrific (a travel tip: bike stores almost always know where the best and cheapest food can be found).
Josef sells a lot of city bikes at Flying Pigeon, and he will be the first to admit that they find a more genteel client. For now, a pricier bike still seems more expensive than a cheap car in LA, but in time, this perception will change. Situated in the poor but gentrifying district of Lincoln Heights, the Flying Pigeon shop represents the very mainstreaming of a bike culture in its most un-bifurcated and pure distillation. In cities like Toronto the 'mainstream' cyclist you would see in Holland or Copenhagen is often considered a bourgeoise counter to the existing bicycle sub-cultures. This, of course is strange given that a pricier bike hardly represents economic stratification as much as a simple practical investment with an excellent rate of return. But the bicycle has always been tied to ideology or subculture in North America. There is often little room for tribal unanimity between the 'outlaw' values of the fixed-gear hipster, the left-of-center views of the student-run activist co-ops, and the everyday cyclist who just wants to be safe and stylish (and values their bike for the simple reason that it does its job). In LA the situation is quite different, and the Flying Pigeon bicycle store embraces the entire cross-section of bicycle culture into a beautifully inclusive package. The Flying Pigeon bike store grew directly out of the Bike Oven, a bicycle co-op started by Josef in his garage and is now a full-fledged LA institution. Flying Pigeon and the Bike Oven intersect the highly inclusive bike culture of Los Angeles. By making cycling available to the working poor, the anarchist activists, the fixed-gear bike kids and even the rich Hollywood celebrities, Flying Pigeon is a total free-for-all. But then so is Los Angeles. When you are battling a concept like Los Angeles (and Los Angeles is a concept), it doesn't matter what you ride; the mere act of riding reflects the most basic shared value. Ride past another cyclist and they will give you a wave. That never happens anywhere else.
Several years ago I was in Moose Jaw, Saskatchewan. For fun I went to a nightclub to see how the locals party. What shocked me was that all the punks who normally would party at punk bars in NYC were partying with all the frat boys who would usually party at frat bars. When you only have one nightclub, you make do. Everyone seemed to be getting along rather well. Despite the huge conflicting ensemble of tribal signifiers, the barriers were suspended. Los Angeles bike culture is a bit like that. Josef, who leads some of the biggest rides in LA said that he simply got sick of the 'sanctimonious reasons' that encourage bike ridership and simply made it a big party. Today, the daily (daily!) Midnight Ridazz rides outnumber the people on Critical Mass. Critical Mass is too political. Midnight Ridazz is just fun. And that's why its political. It attracts more cyclists, disseminates the issues, and gives the scene an artistic, colourful and creative air. Men in suits show up. Ladies in beautiful dresses. Families. Hipsters. Activists. The whole entourage. In a city famous for its gangs, there is no rivalry in the LA bike culture. There's no reason to be overly ideological about bicycles here. It's Los Angeles. The car won ages ago. And that's why you ride, because at the end of the day, it's still more practical, still more fun.
The neat thing about LA, I suppose, is that nearly everyone is really buzzed about bicycles. In a city where Toyota Prius cars can be spotted every second, it appears that despite inheriting a sprawling polluted megapolis, the citizens of LA still like to make better choices - sprawling infrastructure be damned. And while new infrastructure like bike lanes are taking a long time to manifest, the LA drivers appear to take note of cyclists. We rode two days straight in the city of Los Angeles and were thrilled to discover that just like Toronto, the best bike lanes are the backstreets where cars are less frequent and much slower. We felt safe, supremely safe - but this may have had to do with our super upright and efficient Batavus BuB bikes. I felt safer than when in Paris, and even New York to some extent. The more we rode the more cyclists we started to see. And most of them were just regular people huffing and puffing way too much on bikes either designed to cruise Venice in a Speedo or climb mountains in bright spandex. While some bike stores in LA still cater too much to the highly rarified subcultures of fixies and porteur afficianados, Josef's little shop is opening up the cycling experience to anyone who simply wants something common-sense, stylish and free of novelty. Like the VW Beetle or Toyota Prius the bikes of Flying Pigeon are the first installation of a new visual landscape that is changing the built city.
If you visit Los Angeles or live there, you must join Josef on his dim-sum rides. If these rides aren't in the next Lonely Planet, they need a new writer. Josef's shop is at the cutting edge of the new bicycle movement that is sweeping over Los Angeles, and his rides are packed with hundreds upon hundreds of people on bikes. Josef is making the concept stick, and others are beginning to follow. We had time for an annoted dim-sum ride on the new Batavus BuB bicycle (alas, no dim-sum). In our short tour Josef led us through the post-industrial barrenness of North East LA, past old prisons and streets surrounded by barbed-wire, garbage, and streetcar tracks that never got ripped out. Through pedestrian infrastructure that moved citizens over freeways in graffiti-strewn cages and in tiny walled alleyways with blind corners and only one way out. Scary. And then, in a moment of pure urban poetry, we descended into the concrete mouth of the LA River (pictured above). An apocolyptic ribbon of cement cutting through the city. A concrete ditch passing skyscrapers and undercutting a spaghetti of overpasses. Riding in Los Angeles is mesmerizing, like a stream-of-consciousness book, a parade through the failures and promises of a lost dream. Through an increasing urbanism that suddenly finds the downtown core alive at night (you can ice-skate downtown!), a massive subway expansion project, and a growing disillusionment with the automobile.
We've often said that a city bike culture is neither measured by its bikes nor its bike lanes - but by the sheer amount of cyclists. How these cyclists get along is the basis of a cultures inclusion, in short, its democracy. There may not be a lot of cyclists, bike lanes, or even proper bikes in LA. but, the cyclists of Los Angeles represent the best democracy on wheels we've seen. Like any good democracy, it's a bit messy. A free play of signifiers. Sometimes dangerous. Most often safe. Exhilarating. It's hardly a subculture. It's a counter-culture. And that's why it works. Everyone in LA loves a counter-culture. The city is a counter-culture - against itself, against atomic-age America, and against the old-money conservatism of the east. Today you can count the Prius cars, tomorrow count the bikes.