The Bicycle: Toy or Tool?

A majority of mainstream bicycle manufacturers marketing to the U.S. audience would still have us believe bicycles are primarily intended to be used for entertainment by baby boomers with an abundance of discretionary income and leisure time. In the U.S., bikes are marketed as fashion statements, requiring replacement every couple of years for fear of looking passé. They’re marketed more as fitness machines and “healthy lifestyle enablers” than transportation. Carbon fiber frames and uber-lightweight components and wheels only feed into this consumerist, disposable bike mentality.

In the U.S., bikes are marketed as fashion statements, requiring replacement every couple of years for fear of looking passé.

Stroll down the main aisle of any large, mainstream bike shop and on one side you’ll see mostly carbon fiber and aluminum racing bikes with spindly wheels, splashy graphics, and pencil thin, high-pressure tires. On the other side you’ll see mostly mountain bikes with crazy monocoque frames of every shape and configuration, complex long-travel suspension, and bristling knobby tires. In front of the shop, you’re likely to see a line-up of brightly colored 50 lb., one-speed retro-cruisers. And if the shop is keyed in to the latest fashion trends, they may have a half-dozen pseudo fixed gear track bikes to cater to the suburban high school crowd, which seems to have bought hook-line-and-sinker into the gritty, urban courier image (it’s more than bizarre to see suburban teenagers cruising to the mall on “fixies”, though at least they’re on a bike and not in front of the television). I’d volunteer that all of these bikes are only marginally useful as anything other than toys.

If the shop happens to be located in a large urban center and is somewhat progressive, you might find a small section of “commuter” or “utility” bikes sequestered in the back near the restroom. These bikes are the ugly ducklings of the bike world (only recumbents are more disdained) and don’t garner much attention on the sales floor. They look clunky with their fat tires, fenders, racks, lights, and upright seating positions that conjure up images of your mother’s 3-speed junker. They’re heavy and they have subdued graphics, they lack curb appeal and they make an anti-fashion statement: “Look at me, I’m a clueless nerd.” Sadly, these are the bikes most people need if they’re going to use them for anything other than entertainment, but they get lost in a sea of glitz and glamour.

Since when did bikes become fashion statements, with their design and functionality being driven by marketing and image over practicality and usefulness? As recently as the late ’80’s you could walk into a bike dealer and find a balanced selection of practical bikes on the floor. Somewhere along the way to 2008, the emphasis went from building practical bikes for real people to ride everyday, to pumping out Tour De France and World Cup look-alikes to fulfill aging baby boomers’ racing fantasies.

I’d like to suggest that it’s time we start thinking about bikes as tools again. With gas prices approaching $4 per gallon, peak oil on the horizon, and the looming environmental catastrophe that is global warming on many peoples’ minds, there’s never been a better time to seriously look at bikes as a legitimate alternative to the automobile and give up this ridiculous idea we have in the U.S. that bikes are only playthings for the well-to-do.

6 Responses to “The Bicycle: Toy or Tool?”

  • Charmaine says:

    Hi! I am enjoying your new website – and I totally agree about people needing to seriously look at bicycles as an alternative to cars! I donated my car in Nov. 2007 and though I have a free, lifetime membership to Zipcar (car-sharing program), I’ve only used it a handful of times – I’m able to get around by bike, subway, bus, etc. just fine. It takes a little longer, but as you said, it gives you time to unwind and read, etc. I wonder how long it will be before others quit the “car and gas habit” and return to a more simple, economic way of life….? People think I’m CRAZY being without a car – it’s like I’ve told them I’m homeless! Silly. Although I know a lot of people live far from work…but even so, they could get a folding bike, like yourself, and get around that obstacle. I have a couple of folding bikes myself and LOVE them!! :)

  • Alan says:

    Great for you Charmaine! Keep up the great work!!


  • mike says:

    Tool. And toy. I’ve never had so much fun getting about. Esp. with the little one.

  • Elembee says:

    My 5 1/2 daughter is a bike commuter. She and I ride our bikes from from our house to her
    school 0.5 miles away, on short errands less than a mile away, and on longer 3 to 5 mile
    “family trips” on weekends.

    On one of these occasions, we got to the playground, where one of her friends was riding around on her bike, and I suggested, “Why don’t you ride around the playground with Gigi?” My daughter looked at me like I was crazy! In her mind, bikes are for getting places…they are not toys.

    Her kick scooter, now that’s a toy. But her bike…that’s a vehicle.

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