How The Track Bike Saved NY

The track bike has contributed significantly to the ever increasing number of bicycles in New York over the past couple of years. By doing so a market has been created that has brought greater representation to the biking community.

As a quick aside, the next mayoral election will be, imaginatively, the first time I’ve ever voted for a mayor who literally kept me alive to vote for them. Bike lanes are fantastic and Bloomberg gets my vote because of them.

So in the 80s and 90s bike messengers started riding the fixed-gear bicycles often used on velodromes called “track bikes”. They provided a faster means of getting around for two reasons. The fixed gear allows the rider to balance when stopped and there are no brakes (besides the fixed-gear) so it’s easier to dodge than stop. For these same reasons most people consider these bikes the activity of crazy people.

In recent years there has been a huge increase in track bikes not only in New York but in most other cities around the country. The reasons for the increase in popularity is four-fold:

  1. Increased learning curve from standard bikes
  2. Ability to perform tricks free-wheel bikes cannot
  3. Existing non-conformist sub-culture
  4. Greater ability to customize and create identity over standard bikes

These four features made the track bike perfect for mass consumption by the art-centric, style-conscious youth. These 20-somethings found themselves living out of reasonable skating range of Manhattan but still wanted mobility on their own terms (not via NYC transit). In this void, the track bike allows for a level of self-expression that a standard bike cannot. Ironically, the rebellious image of the track bike is completely exclusive to bike messenger. The current trend of track bikers are mimicking without mimicry in the way Hot Topic inspires teens to be Goth fashion without acknowledging Goth as a concept. And so suddenly pink deep-V wheels and Phil Wood hubs are popular in the face of bike messengers who, while holding the gauntlet of being first, cannot afford $300 wheels. Yet no one seems to mind much, the culture surrounding track bikes is inspiringly accepting and many messengers have simply opened shops dedicated to selling these expensive parts to the hipsters searching the right expression of their personal style. (Deep-V wheels now come in any color you want, not just pink)

So how does this save New York? Track bikes alone don’t. The shift in demographics out of Manhattan did. Forcing many New Yorkers, not just young college students, to move beyond the shores of Manhattan inspired many people to purchase bikes of all kinds. The track bike became simply, the perfect vehicle for the style-conscious to express their individuality. Conforming the the trend of the track bike has created a viable market (carbon-fiber wheels for example or this guy’s bike which is well over $2000) and that brought greater influence to the cycling communities in place around the city. More money and more influence has meant the city government has begun to listen to these previously disenfranchised bikers. And, after years of arrests and abuse from the police, action has finally begun on bringing biking to New York in a real way. Track bikes and the hipsters who began riding them have created the means by which biking will become integrated, and so then regulated, by the city of New York.

Personally, having rode track for about 5 years now (well after they became popular), I’m happy to see people biking more. But more enlightening is to see how increasing the city’s involvement is changing how people ride. I’ve noticed an increase in both bike-related tickets and in n00b biker outrage at the aggressive style of riding that was the norm. Now, it seems, we have to chill out and follow the rules. Part of me is happy about that, another wants to go on some rant about how hipsters ruined the last vestige of my GenXer rebellion. Guess I’ll just be happy about it.