The Spokes-Models

Meet the beautiful bicycle girls of New York, a breed that bears little resemblance to the hard-charging, Spandex short-wearing species of 20 years ago.

Published in the September 10, 2007, edition of The New York Observer
By Gillian Reagan

On a recent sunny Saturday afternoon, Vikki Eichmann was striding through the Union Square farmers’ market, one hand steering a sea-green, 1970’s Schwinn Breeze bicycle and the other tossing a curtain of silky brown hair over her bony shoulder. She was wearing a strapless plum-colored sundress and $400 Cole Haan knee-high boots. “They’re perfect because they’re sturdy and I don’t get scratches or bruises from the bike or anything,” Ms. Eichmann said, stopping to pick through a crate of peaches. “Plus they just plain look cute on a bike.”

Meet the beautiful bicycle girls of New York, a breed that bears little resemblance to the hard-charging, Spandex short-wearing species of 20 years ago. Those women were athletes, pumping the pedals, fighting to win. Getting somewhere. Today’s girls—and one always thinks of them as girls, even if they’re well into their 40’s—are more meandering, their long legs flashing along the pot-holed alleys of SoHo and the boutique-lined bike lanes of the West Village. Eco-conscious and ethereal, they wear flowing frocks and gigantic sunglasses but never helmets. Their hair flutters in the breeze as they leave a trail of swooning male pedestrians in their perfumed wake. They’ve been known to weave up the Brooklyn Bridge, holding up traffic as they absent-mindedly chomp on almonds, steering through a stop sign while texting on their BlackBerries.

Local celebrities like the actresses Naomi Watts and Chloë Sevigny and the Brazilian supermodel Gisele Bundchen have all championed living the green life in this most public and only incidentally calorie-burning way. “I go every day to work on my bike,” Ms. Bundchen told the Daily News a couple of years ago. “It’s faster than a car, and cheaper.”

Ms. Eichmann, 25, a former part-time model currently working as a photographer, also decided to go green two years ago. She buys energy-efficient light bulbs. She uses a Kate Spade tote bag instead of plastic ones. She recycles. And she window-shops while riding her “lightly loved used bike.” Having the latest gear, as any bicycle girl will tell you, is simply beside the point.

Fashion designer Lela Rose, who will show her spring 2008 collection in Bryant Park on Thursday, Sept. 6, rides a tricycle around Tribeca, taking her 6-year-old son to school every weekday on the upholstered back seat, often accompanied by their Norwich terrier, Stitch, or cruising to run errands in the Garment District. “Or I’ve taken my mother around to the galleries in Chelsea, all on the bike,” Ms. Rose gushed in a phone interview. “I know, it sounds ridiculous, but I don’t go anywhere anymore without bringing the bike, because to me it’s like my car. At a minimum, it’s the best way to get around. It’s for the environment. It’s great for health reasons. For me it’s just a great way to get a better peace of mind. I could go on and on about the benefits of bike riding.”

Ms. Rose’s first adult trike was purchased on eBay; her second custom-built by one George Bliss, owner of the Hub Station on Morton Street, who specializes in pimping rides for the new set of beautiful bicycle girls. “Lela shows that you can carry a load on a bicycle and look glamorous,” Mr. Bliss said. “She’s really inspired me, and now I’m focusing on the tricycle child carrier as a product for upscale women in SoHo. … That’s the niche, professionals and models because, you know, if you go to a cocktail party, you’ve got to have something to talk about. ‘Green? What’s green? Oh, bicycling!’

“Women are our best customers,” Mr. Bliss continued. “They know what they want. That’s all that really matters.”

And, pray tell, what do women want?

“Vintage,” replied the craftsman. “If it’s a unique color, that’s usually attractive.”

Mr. Bliss, who is revered in the cycling community, darted around his warehouse-style shop in shorts and Croc sandals, pointing out the various contraptions that make biking beauties go giddy.

“Fenders matter to protect them in the rain,” he said. “A chain guard matters; you don’t want to get grease on your clothing. And they want a basket. They really want a basket. They’re using bicycles in a more practical way, while for men it’s more to stay in shape or it’s some other symbol of machismo—athleticism, let’s call it.”

Schwinn Went the Strings of My Heart

“Yeah, the basket is totally essential,” said Jessica Torres, a 22-year-old freelance graphic designer with tangled, sand-colored hair who was hanging out in McCarren Park in Williamsburg on Sunday, Sept. 2. Nearby lay her copper Raleigh bicycle with, yes, a steel-colored basket attached under the swooping handlebars. “I like putting my purse and stuff in there, and sometimes I’ll put my roommate’s dog in there,” she said. “He’s a Chihuahua and he looks sooooo cute in there.” (Bells are also popular.)

Every weekend afternoon, the tiny, dirt-filled park seems to turn into a cruising area of sorts, with 20-somethings lounging on the sparse patches of grass and gazing up and down at each other’s bikes. “I think women look sexy on bikes,” Ms. Torres said. “I mean, I feel sexy and really good about myself when I’m riding. And why not wear a cute dress while I’m doing it?”

Certainly, there’s nothing wrong with femme-ing up bike riding. In the late 19th century, critics considered the pastime a threat to women’s physical and mental health, not to mention a hazard to their complexions and hairstyles. In March 1896, Marguerite Lindley, a professor of physical culture in New York, said the bicycle is destructive to “feminine symmetry and poise” and a “disturber of internal organs.”

Although it was considered a somewhat heathen sport by most of America, especially because of its associations with the women’s suffrage movement (Susan B. Anthony said “the bicycle has done more for the emancipation of women than anything else in the world”), it was all the rage among New York’s elite class.

In 1895, they formed The Michaux Club on Broadway near 53rd Street, where handsome, muscle-ripped professional racers taught women the mysteries of wheeling, with riding lessons in the morning, music for indoor riding after lunch and afternoon tea in the clubroom. During warm weekday afternoons, Central Park’s drives heaved with cycling ladies riding equestrian-like in puffy bloomers under elegant Victorian-style dresses.

The buxom Lillian Russell, the most famous Broadway actress and socialite of her day, received a gold-plated, jewel-encrusted bike from her friend “Diamond Jim” Brady, the railroad supply businessman and millionaire, and could often be seen riding up and down Fifth Avenue grasping the mother-of-pearl handlebars in long white gloves. The contraption became a city sensation.

Another resurgence in biking popularity emerged in 1958, when Marilyn Monroe posed with a bicycle as Ms. Russell for a photography series of 20th-century sex symbols for Life magazine.

And then came the 80’s! While the boys popped wheelies during the BMX craze, Spandex-clad ladies pulled their hair into a side ponytail, feeling the burn on their bikes in a fitness frenzy.

It wasn’t until recently, however, that bicycling took a turn back toward the literary aesthetic—think Gwyneth Paltrow as Sylvia Plath tooling around Cambridge in 2003 movie Sylvia, rather than, say, Sigourney Weaver suffering through a spin class. Also in 2003: Julia Roberts in Mona Lisa Smile, cruising in tweedy outfits around the Wellesley campus (Ms. Paltrow and Ms. Roberts have also gone green in real life, of course).

On July 14, 2004, Daily Candy, a fashion and beauty Web site, wrote an article hailing Electra bikes—“the cutest retro two-wheelers around”—as the newest must-have for summer. “We probably got 100 phone calls that same day, 95 percent of them from women,” said Edlin Pitts, manager of A Bicycle Shop on 22nd Street in Chelsea.

“The girls would come in, get on the bikes, and turn into an 8-year-old again. It’s that memory of riding from their childhood, and the bike was bright and colorful. And then they become 8, and they want pink and floral print.”

Electra’s cruiser and “townie” bicycles are also so popular among the biking beauties because they offer a wide variety of eye-catching colors (“pink sweetheart!” “purple fade!” “green polka dots!”) but also a whole catalog of accessories, from leopard-print bike seats to red leather streamers (go crazy, ladies!).

Melissa Broder, 28, senior publicist for Penguin Group books, often gets compliments on her bright pink vintage Columbia Rambler with a matching helmet.

“The whole green thing wasn’t my original intention when I first started, but it’s an added way to feel self-satisfied,” she said, pulling over her bike at the corner of University Place and Ninth Street. “I definitely feel a little snotty about it now.”

She was in a simple cotton black dress with cream-colored embroidery around the collar and snacking on some Soy Crisps while she rode.

“But mainly it’s just the best way to get around,” Ms. Broder said. “I get a lot of comments on the matching helmet, people are surprised.”

Certainly, a beautiful bicycling girl wearing a helmet is out of the ordinary. Helmet hair, sweating and following proper city biking rules, as in, say, riding in the right direction, don’t seem to be part of their code.

“I call them three-speed terrors because they’re always going the wrong way, they’re always on the phone, they’ve always got like a Marc Jacobs bag hanging off the handlebars,” said the anonymous blogger behind the site BikeSnobNYC.blogspot.com, who refused to give his real name, but agreed to a phone interview. “All the time, I’ll be riding and they’ll just be out of it in the bike lane coming towards me. I usually will play chicken with them for as long as I can but they’re not even looking so I’ll just have to shout to get their attention or I’ll just kind of ride by them shrugging in disbelief. … I think they’re cruising. They want to ride into somebody. They see some cute guy and run him off the bridge and then run home” and go on Craiglist’s Missed Connections.

“You know, they’re dangerous but they get away with it because oftentimes they’re very attractive and attractive women get away with things,” continued the bitter blogger. “It makes me think of that Seinfeld episode where Jerry was dating this beautiful woman who could get away with anything and he called her beautiful Godzilla. They’re kind of like beautiful Godzillas.”

“You want to call us beautiful Godzillas?” Ms. Eichmann screeched, back at Union Square, when confronted with BikeSnobNYC’s comment. She stared at an eggplant and poked it before replying, “Maybe you’re right, but would a bunch of pretty ladies riding around on bicycles be so terrible?”