Philadelphians ride for many different reasons, but the changing subcultures coexist in a fast-paced city.
A cyclist decked out in a multi-colored costume, messenger bag does a track-stand on his fixed-gear at the red light on Broad and Chestnut streets with an elitist’s air of confidence and a Kryptonite U-lock sticking out of his back pocket.
This image screams “bike culture” to junior mechanical engineering major Thomson Yiang, an avid cyclist himself. But this image does not account for everyone on two wheels.
“Many people who envy bike messengers thought it was the hip thing to do,” said John Boyle, advocacy director of the Bicycle Coalition of Greater Philadelphia. “They got their messenger bags and their fixed-gears. This was the tip-off for urban bike culture.”
But Boyle said those who put up a bike messenger front are not the only members of Philly’s bike culture. Rather, there has been a rise, especially since the 1990s, in the utilitarian use of bicycles.
Boyle, who has both volunteered and worked for the coalition for the past 15 years, sites Septa’s allowance of bikes on trains as well as a bicycle network plan that the city adopted in 1997 as major factors in increased bike usage.
“But, nothing attracts bicycles like bicycles,” he said. “Their presence alone encourages more people to begin cycling.”
All this led to the culture change, along with the fact that in the last five or six years, many young people have taken to bicycling, Boyle said.
Todd Lippin, an employee at Breakaway Bikes at 1923 Chestnut St., said anyone on a bike is included in the bike culture of a city.
“Bike culture encompasses all people who are involved in bicycle riding, no matter what end,” he said. “Whether someone rides for pleasure, commutes, trains and competes in bicycle races [or] enjoys the ‘cool’ of bike riding, we all like bikes, and that’s cool with me.”
Lippin finds it easy to define the bike community, but others continue to struggle with a precise definition.
Yiang has the same opinion that, as a whole, bike culture represents “the love of the bike.” He considers the community to be divided into subsets, however.
Senior political science and religion major Kaelin Proud agrees, as she notices different groups under the umbrella term “bike culture.”
“I believe that there are different subcultures within this whole bike culture,” she said. “There are those who commute, there are those who ride for recreation, and there are those who train and race.”
Proud is one of the few females who races on the Temple University Cycling Team and also competes with the women’s Verducci Racing Team.
Not only does she commute everyday by bicycle, but she can also be found riding with her teammates.
“I don’t see myself as being immersed in the bike culture, but I suppose I’m a part of it,” Proud said. “I try to help the community through my love of cycling. I suppose that is how I fit in.”
Bike culture also includes those who ride for the sake of financial practicality. Senior sociology major Audra Winn may commute on bicycle most days, but it is not her most prized possession.
“I fit in because I do it,” she said firmly. “I just have a bike, get on it and so I’m seen as part of this movement to always be riding bikes. It’s not the love of my life.”
Though many agree that Philadelphia has an established bike culture, the question follows as to whether this indicates a friendly solidarity between riders.
“I think some people find solidarity between cyclists, because it’s nice to find people who enjoy the same things as you,” Proud said. She added that caution on the road could increase a feeling of security among riders.
“Safety is key,” she said. “All cyclists want to return home safely after a ride, right? So if you feel safe riding behind or next to another cyclist on the road, I think that creates a great deal of solidarity.”
Even though the gamut of cyclists is broad, a lot of riders agree that more solidarity could be established among them. Winn suggested a wave when cyclists encounter each other. Liang said this kind of greeting is almost customary in his hometown of Pittsburgh.
Although Lippin observes a wide-ranging community of cyclists, he said he also struggles to notice a consistent camaraderie between them.
“I don’t know about solidarity between all cyclists,” he said. “But the Naked Bike Ride seemed to bring a bunch of cyclists together.”
Many cyclists use group rides or physical locations to interact with other members of the biking community. Lippin said he believes shops have the potential to become hot spots for meeting with other riders.
“I think bike shops can play a large role towards supporting the community of cyclists in the city,” he said. “Since I work at Breakaway Bikes, I spend a lot of time with many members of the cycling community nearly everyday.”
While Liang thinks that cyclists should be civil with each other, he is skeptical that solidifying the bike culture may take away from it.
Whatever a rider’s definition of bike culture, numbers show that the city houses a wide variety of people on cycling machines.
“Philly has seen a major switch from something for just a few people who are really into biking, to it being more accessible for everyone,” said Tom Faust of Trophy Bikes, located at 3131 Walnut St.
Faust said more and more customers are looking for a variety of different bikes, many of which for more utilitarian purposes.
“I really think it’s going to keep getting bigger and better,” he said. “It’s really on its way.”
The city of Philadelphia is currently working on a new bicycle plan, expected to be released in the spring of 2010 and put into action in the summer, and with bicycling across the Schuylkill River doubling between 2005 and 2008, it is clear the Philadelphia bike community has been and is only going to continue growing. And with that growth, the biking community has and will change and continue to become more various and inclusive.
As Mayor Michael Nutter said as he donned his business suit on a rainy bike ride at the opening of the Pine and Spruce streets bike lanes:
“You don’t need Lycra to be a biker.”