Saturday, March 21, 2009
The boys on the black bikes: a socio-economic thesis on winter cycling.
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.