Saturday, March 21, 2009

The boys on the black bikes: a socio-economic thesis on winter cycling.

A black bike (unfortunately suffering from a pinch flat and waiting for motorized support)

Spring is definitely in the air. Friday morning riding into the city I not only swapped my hat under my helmet for just an ear band, but also took off my windproof trousers and was far more comfy with just fleece trousers over full-leg bib tights. But there are still ice patches around and rutted, hard re-frozen snow in shady patches on the cycle paths. I'm looking forward to changing my studded tyres back to summer slicks, but it is not quite time yet.

Riding into Helsinki from the outer edges of the city, as you get closer to the centre you see some other cyclists out and about, but the further out into suburbia you go, the quieter the cycle paths get. And this brings me to the phenomenon of the boys on the black bikes. My thesis is that winter cycle commuting in Helsinki appeals to a rather limited class of cyclists - identifiable by age, gender, bike preference, and probably socio-economic and educational background.

When you are searching for a new bike you quickly realise that all the companies are making very similar models to appeal to certain parts of the market. I wanted a flat bar 700c 'sports hybrid'. I wasn't bothered by suspension but wanted disc brakes. I ended up getting a Felt, but it was by no means the only possibility and other makes made similar at around the same price point. And oddly, in 2008, many of them were also black. And what I have noticed through this winter is the a very large proportion of the cyclists I have seen who are obviously commuting distance by bike are men, in their 30s and 40s, riding black hybrids. I've seen Inseras, Crescents, Treks, Nishikis, Canondale Badboys, Focuses and a dude this morning who I think was on a Kona - plus of course, me on a Felt. And they're all black. Weird. The only exception to this rule is blokes in their 30s and 40s who are riding cyclocross bikes. These are normally Focus Mares which are predominantly black!

So how to account for this odd socio-cycling phenomenon? Here are my hypotheses. Cycling in winter any distance requires studded tyres - this naturally cuts down on bike selection (many road bikes don't have enough clearance), but if you're cycling say 15+ kms each way for your commute, 700cc wheels on hybrid beat 26inchers of mountain bikes for speed, particularly on a clear cycle path. Secondly if you are going to cycle longish distance regularly, you are probably willing to invest in a decent bike. We're talking the EUR 600-1000 sort of price range, to get a decent frame and maybe hydraulic disc brakes and a Deore groupset. This might push this market niche towards middle class professionals, who have both the social capital to want to exercise, and also the financial capital to invest in a bike. Hence one reason for it being 30 something blokes.

But why bother? Cycling in the Finnish winter is in many ways a hassle - you need to layer up to stay warm. If the temperatures are below -5 oC I tend to wear three layers on my legs, waterproof socks, cycling shoes and neoprene overboots for my feet, various baselayers and jacket combinations on my body, different hats and face protectors that all have to fit under a helmet, etc. etc. Basically you need ten minutes to dress before you can even get on your bike, and more time at the other end to shower and change into normal clothes. It is also slower - both studded tyres and snow slow you down. In summer I can just about beat the time it takes the bus and tram to do the same distance, but in winter it's slower by bike. So you have to really want to do the exercise. So the factor that has to be what makes it appeal to men in their 30s and 40s must be children. Between having little kids and work there normally isn't that much time left in the day, or at least not the reasonably civilised times of the day when you don't want to collapse in front of the TV with a beer. I used to get home from work and maybe go out XC skiing, or go to the climbing wall, or even just go running. With kids this just doesn't seem to work.

But everyone (well, most) people have to commute, and that is often sort of 'dead' time - you can read a bit if you use public transport but not much else. But if you can exercise and commute at the same time you're being efficient. Plus of course having kids is the normal reason for moving out to a boring suburb rather than living downtown where all the action is in the first place. So for any blokes in their late twenties who like skiing or running or even just going to the gym, but who think their girlfriend is getting 'that' feeling - I'm warning you. Give it about five years, and you'll find yourself on black hybrid bike cruising into town from the suburbs on a snowy winter morning, studded tyres chattering on the ice, wondering why the few other people riding bikes look suspiciously like you.


Tomppa said...

Interesting theory, that might hold among the 30 and 40 somethings that have kids. However, me myself and those friends of mine that commute by bike, all on black bikes of course, are all single or at least don't have kids.
Since I've killed your theory (sorry!), I'll throw in my own. This segment of bikers have specific requirements; performance and endurance. They need a work horse, a bike that will be there for years, in all weather. They've been riding for so long that flashy colors no more catch their attention, it's the disk brakes, its the Deore groupset and the works. They also know that the colors that today look fancy, will be out of fashion by the time the frame looses it. But black never goes out of fashion.
So, black bikes communicate all this. They'll be reliable for years, they're cost efficient and, because all the other commuting guys have them, they're cool :)
Still, I don't yet have the disk brakes nor the Deore groupsets on my black Trek 7300 from year 2000, but then again, I was only 25 when I bought it. Now for the last few years, the thing I've really been dreaming about is the disk brakes. So, as soon as my trusted old Trek sighs its last breath, then I'll buy a proper black hybrid with disk brakes :)
Anyway, what would be really interesting is the question of what drives these not-yet-middle-aged men? It is a clear segment of people, with similar commuting habits, but not that many other commonalities. Why do we push ourselves to commute through the bad weather?


Toby - Northern Light Blog said...

Bugger. It was a great theory until you spoilt it. :-) Perhaps the fact that your old Trek hasn't given up the ghost yet, suggests that by the time it has and you can afford something new, black and sexy with disc brakes - you'll be married, have 2.1 kids and be living in the suburbs!

p.s. Disc brakes are great until something goes wrong with them - then you're left with this totally new technology that you don't quite understand. Whilst cleaning and lubing my bike today I managed to loose all pressure in the back brake - so now I think I need to buy some hydraulic oil and a squeezy bottle thingy and do something I don't quite understand to get them working again!

Jonas said...

I like your theory. I also have (a black) car which I use on days when the weather is bad, but otherwise I use my trusty black Tunruri hybrid :)