Dandy on Wheels?: The New Cult of the Bicycle

When one considers the classic dandyish modes of conveyance, the bicycle does not at first blush top the list. Rather, one first thinks of the horse (either actually ridden or merely wagered upon), followed down through history by the yacht and the doomed first-class ocean-liner, then perhaps in the air by the Graf Zeppelin, the private plane, the China Clipper and, finally, the Concord. On the ground, the classic roadster springs to mind (as does the racing car (à la Porfirio Rubirosa), followed by the chauffer-driven Rolls and the Town Car.

But the bicycle? Not so much.

There is, however, a growing movement afoot that may change this common conception. They’re called “tweed rides” or “tweed runs” and they’re happening periodically in cities across the Occident. At these events, participants get decked out in their tweedy Sunday best and take their classic (or neo-classic) bicycles for a leisurely cruise across town to some designated pastoral spot or watering hole, where the party really begins.

This may be fair to the venerable velocipede. The first “bicycle” – that is, a two wheeled, human powered transport – was invented in 1818 by a German baron. Aptly nicknamed the “dandy horse,” this bone-shaker was simply a wooden frame over a pair of in-line metal wheels and a handlebar for steering. The rider straddled the contraption and pushed it forward like a kick scooter, setting off his tight-fitting, instep-strapped “inexpressibles” admirably to the ladies. (Talk about sacrificing comfort and practicality on the altar of style.) Later in the 19th century, bicycles more or less as we know them today were all the rage among fashionable urbanites wanting to zip around town rapidly. The bike-riding Oxford student in tweed jacket, flapping robe and mortarboard cap is among the most classic images.

Through the magic of the googling engine, we were recently apprised of an article in the Washington Post about an upcoming “Seersucker Ride” (June 9) sponsored by a D.C. outfit calling itself “Dandies and Quaintrelles.”

The article quotes a Ms. Holly Bass, identified as a “performance artist” who organizes D and Q’s cycling events. “It’s as much about an attitude as it is about a style of dress,” she told the Post. “It’s about harking back to an era when the way in which you presented yourself was viewed as a reflection of respect, courtesy and manners.”

The very same day we got an invite to a “Last Minute Tweed Ride,” organized by your correspondent’s hometown San Francisco tweed ride group, SF Tweed, the event is scheduled for Sunday, June 3. Sadly, we’ll be celebrating H.M. Queen Elizabeth’s Thames Diamond Jubilee Pageant (albeit from a different time zone) that day and won’t be in any fit condition to ride. (Note: Cycling under the influence may result in arrest.)

The Spring 2012 London Tweed Run occurred May 6, attended by hundreds of “tweedsters” who came from as far afield as your correspondent’s fair city of San Francisco.

The tweed ride movement – if such it is – is an outgrowth of a new, practical interest in cycling to get around urban areas either without a car (read: “green”) or using public transportation (read: dirty, dull). Finding a stylish way to do this, one that sets one rider apart from another, is only natural. When the automobile hit the big time after Henry Ford released the Model-T on the world, for example, the first thing people wanted was something flashier, bigger, more elegant than the guy next door. (“You can have any color as long as it’s black,” Ford once quipped.)

The most recent (and obnoxious) trend among cyclists has been the “fixie” or “fixed-gear” bike with no brakes. Intended for the velodrome and not the street, the fixie requires the rider’s legs to revolve in constant motion with no coasting possible. (Where, we ask, is the fun in that?) This is the preferred choice among 20-nothing hipsters who seem to believe that the legal injunction to STOP at intersections applies only to the unhip.

Vintage bikes (old, refurbished Raleighs, Schwinns, Hercules, BSAs and the like) and new but vintage-inspired models (such as those from Linus) and custom bikes, meanwhile, are all the rage among the tweedsters. This is the more stately choice.

Of course, like retro-cycling itself, the terms “dandy” and “dandyism” have both undergone a resurgence in recent years, as evidenced by the existence of groups like Dandies & Quaintrelles, online retail outlets like the Fine and Dandy Shop and the popularity of formerly niche trends like Steampunk, not to mention luxury publications like Dandy Magazine and The Rake. Historical and fantasy costuming are growing businesses catering to those with the money and time to spend on them, as is custom tailoring. Whether this “dandy” resurgence is merely a social media phenomenon – a “me-to” flash-in-the-pan subcultural trend – or a genuine interest in the literature and the life remains to be seen. (There are those who read history while others just look at the pictures – because they saw some  cool ones on Facebook.) What’s becoming clear is that some young people at least, even some young people in the high technology fields, are fed up with baggy jeans and spandex cycling shorts.

We’ll take that as a can of WD-40 half full.

(Top photo by Swamibu via Flickr, CC 2.0)

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8 Responses to “Dandy on Wheels?: The New Cult of the Bicycle”

  1. Bill Thompson Says:

    I would imagine a substantial hindrance to dandy bicycling is the legal requirement for those damned stupid styrofoam helmets. Tweed or not, it is impossible not to look like a mother-smothered five year old in those idiotic abominations. It is, in fact, the sole reason I do not own a bicycle.

  2. Scho Says:

    Bill, helmets might make you look stupid, but you’d look stupider if you came off a bike and died from a brain injury that was easily preventable.

  3. Neil S Says:

    Great article giving recognition to the few who insist on looking sharp even when cycling – perhaps requiring even more commitment than looking sharp on foot – the sweat from cycling, the rain from an umbrella-less ride, and the dirt from the bike and road all take their toll.

    I cycle around Oxford in my tweed jacket, tie, brogues/monkstraps and corduroys/coloured chinos depending on the weather, snd although the compliments are worth it, there is a downside. Cycling is very dirty, and one’s trousers and cuffs take on grease from the bike. The tweed jacket is practical, but the trousers take a beating, especially the lighter ones since oil shows up. I’m tempted to try plus twos, since the socks can be changed when dirty and do not need bicycle clips…

  4. Michael Says:

    Neil,

    Try biking up a San Francisco hill with a 20% grade. You’ll sweat. There’s a reason San Francisco Tweed Rides stick to the flatter parts of the city.

    Bill,

    Hard to believe that the either of the Carolinas would have a law stating that an *adult* must wear a helmet while cycling. Talk about your nanny state. Not even lefty San Francisco has that.

  5. Bill Thompson Says:

    Michael,

    That seemed very odd to me too, prompting a little bit of investigation on my part. I turns out that NC actually DOESN’T have a bike helmet law for adults!

    Which means that all the spandex-clad tree huggers pedalling around in Charlotte are wearing those stupid Wiffle-helmets on purpose…and voluntarily. I shall laugh at them with renewed gusto now.

    I may just rethink my plans, and go out and buy a Penny-farthing.

    And Neil S.,

    Have you looked into some old-fashioned leather bicycle gaiters? Keeps the oil and dirt off your socks and cuffs, and would look suitably sporting with the tweed.

  6. Marie Says:

    Can you recommend a literature with dandy characters? I would be very grateful.

  7. Michael Says:

    Sure can. If you look in the right-hand column of this site you’ll see a link called “The Canon:”

    http://www.dandyism.net/the-canon/

    There you’ll find an extensive bibliography. I addition, see the column called “The Library” which provides text you are unlikely to find anywhere else.

    Best,

    M2

  8. Marie Says:

    Thank You, Michael!

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