The Bicycle as a Vehicle of Self Expression

Civia Bryant

I have a friend who rides only the most exquisite and rarefied handmade bicycles. His bikes are always perfectly appointed to match the style and era from which they came. He’s a true aficionado. I have another friend who rides a big box mountain bike for transportation. He’s only concerned with basic functionality and as long as his bike gets him to where he needs to go, he could care less how it looks or where it came from. He’s a user of bicycles, but he’s anything but what most people think of as a “cyclist”. In both cases, their approaches to bicycling are clear and obvious expressions of their differing personalities.

Most of us fall somewhere between these two extremes. Within the broad spectrum between fetishism and pure practicality exists a myriad of niches to which we can knowingly or unknowingly assign ourselves. Some of us outfit our bikes with leather, cotton, and cork while only using retro parts such as friction shifters, freewheels, and cottered cranks; others insist upon the latest in high tech gadgetry such as carbon belts, internal gear hubs, and STI shifters; while others choose to ride only fixed gear bikes tricked out with matching anodized components. Wherever each of us falls in the spectrum, the bike we choose to ride (and the way we outfit it) often says something about who we are and how we want the world to see us.

Rivendell Sam Hillborne

Personally, I’m a bit of a chameleon. I certainly lean toward preferring the classic look of lugged frames, gently curved handlebars, and level top tubes, but, I can also get excited about modern, high-tech bikes, particularly when the technology makes sense and provides real advantages in functionality. Probably more important to me than the particular style of a bike is that the parts and accessories installed on it are a good aesthetic match for the bike. For example, to my eye, many modern bikes don’t pair well with Brooks saddles, hammered fenders, and shellaced bar tape, while rubber hand grips, synthetic racing saddles, and STI shifters look out of place on a vintage frame.

I still haven’t decided who’s the more evolved bicyclist; my friend who rides the handmade bikes or my friend who rides the department store bikes. I suppose it doesn’t matter; what really counts is that they’re both out there on the road enjoying bicycles in their own unique way.

22 Responses to “The Bicycle as a Vehicle of Self Expression”

  • Derek says:

    Great post! Really enjoyed reading it.

  • Steve Butcher says:

    Though my attention is attracted (or distracted) by nearly any bicycle, my preference is for the classic steel-framed bicycle. Intellectually, I am most interested in bicycles and bicycle accessories from a utilitarian aesthetic rather than a racing or competition point of view. Limiting factors for me include access to shops that carry the more classic style bikes along with some financial constraints. These are probably the main reasons why i buy older/vintage bikes and alter them to my tastes. I tend to believe the classics became classic because their usefulness and durability extend past their era of production and continue to be quite relevant, even excelling over “modern” bikes in many ways such as ride quality and appearance; though this is certainly highly subjective.

  • Jheri says:

    I live in København and most bikes are pure utility. People look for something sturdy foremost. I have two bikes. One is my commuter, which is a 15 year old Batavus I picked up two years ago to replace my old Batavus that was stolen. The other bike is for pure joy and is a beautiful custom made steel lug frame bike. She is only used on beautiful days and is never left alone and she is very much in a vintage style.

  • Rick Houston says:

    For me, it’s an evolution of taste; initially, as a teen-ager, I rode an old Centurion throughout high school, and then graduated (no pun intended) to a full-Campy Trek 760 that I raced to Cat 3 in college. Once out in the real world, I rode a Specialized Stumpjumper every day to work, and raced it on weekends. From there, I had my first “real” bike–a Waterford 1400 Mountain Bike–and I never looked back. I had that bike for nearly 15 years before selling it and buying the Rivendell Quickbeam. Now that my knees can’t handle the singlespeed thing, I’ll be getting the Public D8 for my everyday needs.

    A step down from a Waterford, to a Rivendell, to a…Public? No, I don’t think so; as I’ve gotten older, I realize that for the type of riding that I do (work, shopping, going places with friends), and the place I live (Midtown Sacramento, very urban), the D8 is all I’ll ever need–and that’s how I look at bikes now.

  • eddie f says:

    uh oh. i can’t identify myself or my level of evolution. i know i have a very short attention span…and have owned approx 25 bikes and bents over the past 10 years. None of the current four is old. But I do own a 58 cm coupled Riv Rambouillet, a custom fillet braised carbon forked, STI, long headtubed Steve Rex, an all steel new 60 cm Gunnar Sport with custom Waterford threaded fork option, and a really new all carbon Fisher Cronus that weighs 17 lbs. All the contact points on all the bikes are dialed in about the same = bars at or slightly above saddle height. i mostly do medium paced rides on my own or with my two local clubs and all of my bikes have nearly exactly the same drive train = 9 speed STI triple, 26 granny, 34 toothed cassette. variety in some aspects is the spice of my life.

    on another hand, i live in a perfect place do do way more stuff on my bike, rather than doing in a car…and that would be my path to evolving. however, it might require a belt drive, Alfine 11 something or other.

  • Scott says:

    As a kid, I rode a beautiful Schwinn Sting-Ray with the huge 3-speed “stick-shift” in the middle of the top tube … full-on banana seat and fat slick in the back … awesome. Then I got a “real” bike … another Schwinn, but this one was a Collegiate Sport drop-bar 5-speed with the shifter on the stem! I loved that bike and rode it for a very long time … until “adult life” forced its replacement with a car or three.

    When I moved from the Midwest to California, I realized I missed riding a bike … and got a Trek 6000 mountain bike, which could serve as commuter and fun bike on the trails. I realized a few years later that it wasn’t EXACTLY a road bike … and as I coveted a relative’s new Lightspeed, I decided I “needed” a real road bike, and saved up for a Look 555 carbon model, which I rode hard and fast (at least in my miind) for a while.

    At that point, I started to slowly discover that this beautiful carbon race bike had limitations … how do I carry stuff? No rack or fender mounts. And those tires were starting to feel a little thin … max size 700×25 … limiting where I could ride quite a bit. To top it all off, my hands started to get painful after long rides, which went well with my stiff neck. It began to be a lot less enjoyable to ride.

    It was about this time that I started to learn more about bicycles, and found that there were actually more choices than just a race bike, mountain bike, or toyish cruiser. And then the real fun began …

    These days, I ride a steel Surly LHT for most things … racked and bagged for whatever I might do, be it sight-seeing or grocery shopping. I also have a Soma ES, turned 650b, for fun rides where I don’t need to carry the heavier loads. Both bikes have fenders, fat tires, and the ability to carry more than a tiny tool kit. They ride smooth and allow me to ride in a more comfortable position … and that’s what’s most important to me.

    As for style concerns … my eyes have become drawn to lugged steel frames. Not necessarily vintage or classic, but designed to be both beautiful AND utilitarian … something that will last, and that will be versatile enough to change with my needs as I get older. The piggy bank is collecting for a Rivendell Hunqapillar … which is the perfect example of what I’m trying to describe. It’s stout enough for the trails, but sleek enough for the roads … adaptable to any handlebar, rack, fender, or bag setup … and it’s beautiful to look at, too. Why shouldn’t a bike be both functional AND beautiful?

    Bottom line for me … having spent many years getting to a point where I know what I need and want from a bike … the next bike I buy will be with me for many years, and while the fit and function are most important, I’d like it to be pleasing to the eye, as well.

  • Darryl Jordan says:

    I”m going to make a simple generalization that people buy bikes/clothes/accessories/cars/houses? to appeal to their peers and to say “I’m one of you guys” as much as it is to have something of esthetic and/or utilitarian value.

    I just purchased a recumbent trike for utility and adaptability. So far, I enjoy riding it. But that doesn’t mean I can’t lust after a beautiful road bike to blend in with the club rides and a functional mountain bike to try something I haven’t done since I was a kid.

    Anyway, buying a recumbent doesn’t mean I’m going to blend in with anyone anytime soon. But it is surefire conversation starter.

  • Sally Hinchcliffe (aka townmouse) says:

    I think your last thought is the right one: it really doesn’t matter. It’s not a competition. We’re all cyclists, whatever we ride

  • Cassi says:

    Wonderful post … I have thought about this often, especially upon looking at your bikes. There is definitely an aesthetic, and I think you always capture your love of form and function in your amazing photos.

    While I really love the pure classic look you described, I am afraid my bikes have sometimes tended to be a little more of a mish-mash, stylewise, based on what my budget is and my own ability to tinker and customize. I have sometimes found that there are components I would like to switch out for a style change/upgrade, but functionally (they are perfectly serviceable and I like how they operate/feel), or my budget can’t justify making the change just for aesthetic purposes, I end up not doing it. I hope someday, however, I own a “full package” – lugged frame, perfect bar shape, every detail as put together as one of your bikes.

    Thanks, always, for the inspiration!

  • brett lindenbach says:

    i find it fascinating how we express ourselves through our bikes, but want to say that we can be both the utilitarian and the aesthete, depending on our circumstances. i’m 42 and grew up in the chicago suburbs. first bike was a real beaut, don’t remember her name, but she was shiny and gold, i got her from my grandparents for my 6th birthday, and mistakenly left her outside the first night…gone the next day. i learned quite a lesson! fortunately my parents replaced it with a nice white, banana-seated, columbia bike that i rode over homemade ramps, \choppered\ out, etc. at one point the white paint got so dinged up that at age 8 i took it all apart, stripped and repainted the frame a nice yellow. at 10 i moved up to a schwinn collegiate sport, which i quickly outgrew; then went through a series of odd cast off bikes that were pure utility. managed to pedal around quite a bit until college when i had a bike stolen for the second time. still loved bikes but too broke to afford one, i coveted my roommate’s diamondback mtb, which he let me occasionally borrow (thanks ralph!). in grad school – 20 years ago – i bought a bianchi nyala. though a low-end mtb, it was the nicest i could afford. i’m still in academia and have put many, many miles on that bike. just recently decided to treat myself and splurged on a used blériot frameset, which I built out with components from rivendell and nice birdseye maple fenders. my love for bikes has been renewed. while i have often viewed bikes as mere tools, i have always appreciated nice bikes; i am glad that my circumstances allow me to have one that is also an expression of who i am. now my biggest concern is to stay true to rule #1!

  • Velouria says:

    For me, these differences are what makes cycling interesting, but beyond that it does not really matter. Personally, I am attracted to classic and vintage bicycles, with some modern components thrown in for added comfort. I am also a big fan of personalising bicycles – really trying to build up something that is uniquely yours as opposed to “going by the book” and trying to imitate an existing look.

  • Eric says:

    It is a mistake to think of evolution as everyone riding down the same street, and whoever is in front is more evolved. Evolution as a process leads to more diversification as each species changes over time to become better adapted to their environment. You *could* make the argument that all species in an environment are equally evolved, and therefore it is the diversity of an environment that indicates how evolved it is. Bringing this back to bicycles, (and individuals rather than species) your aesthetic and utilitarian friends are equally evolved because they exploit different niches in their environment. One could even argue (weakly) that the more diverse cycling culture(s) prevalent here in the US makes us more evolved than the mostly transportation oriented Europeans ;-)

  • Matt says:

    Bicycles may be a way of expressing ourselves but it’s to a very limited audience. I’m a cyclist and have been for ages, I like steel frames and ride a Rivendell Atlantis as my main bicycle, but as a way of demonstrating my exquisite taste it might as well be a dog whistle. The few who think like me might recognize it and ask questions about the components, racers might see me as a retrogrouch if they deign to notice at all, the vast majority of people won’t know my bike at all, just know it’s not a Schwinn or Trek or other widely-known brand. This goes two ways; show me a current racing road bike and I couldn’t tell you if it cost $1,000 or $10,000, visually they look much the same to me and I can’t be bothered to stay attuned to the latest in components and frames. Bicycles are not a great way to display wealth and status in the way that, day, driving a Mercedes is, because they don’t carry the messages in an obviously recognizable way like fancy cars, designer clothes or the latest smartphones. So, we can express ourselves with our bikes all we like, but we’re doing so to a tone-deaf audience, mimes working in the dark.

  • Scott says:

    Perhaps a more visible self-expression is the way in which we ride out bikes, rather than the bikes themselves. When I see someone on a bike with the anguished facial expression of intense effort, I immediately think “there’s a roadie on some kind of training ride”. I don’t often take note of the bicycle itself, other than maybe the “type” of bike it is … drop bars, tri-bars, etc. When I see someone riding who smiles and waves, I think “there’s someone having fun on a bike”. Again, I don’t necessarily notice the bike itself … just the person riding and the expression THEY present as they do it. The same applies to a person carrying groceries … hauling a trailer with kids … dog in a basket … surfboard on a rack. I notice more what they’re DOING while riding than WHAT they’re riding. It’s also fairly obvious when a person is comfortable and having fun … but then not everyone rides with that purpose in mind. ;-)

  • Don says:

    Bicycle aesthetics definitely tell a story, although I advocate less of a search for pedigree or history, which has its place to be sure, than a kind of high/low appreciation of the incredible diversity within the constraints of basic bicycle design.

    I do tend to enjoy looking at spare, simple, utilitarian bikes, but I also like quirky bikes with unusual details or funny owner decisions or solutions. My own bikes are almost constantly in flux in terms of set-up, and I appear to be obsessed with handlebars in particular. I guess my unspoken dictum is that the bike should appear unified and not have any particular element stick out.

    They are such beautiful machines that even a rusty discarded bike has its fascination.

  • Bob Bryant says:

    This week I test rode a new aluminum + carbon road bike – and really liked it. Yesterday at the bike coop I spent the afternoon refurbing a 70s Schwinn Varsity. Today I rode my 70s Astra fixie around town, and purchased a sweet white 70s Motobecane mixte triple to refurbish for my wife. I’m still thinking about the road bike as well.

  • Bettina says:

    Nice article! I personally feel like my preferred bike styles show my own process of growing up and maturing, and at 31 I have found the style(s) that I think will suit me best. As a kid in Brazil, I rode a little green foldable Caloi Berlinetta. After a sad period without a bike to ride, my parents bought me my first full-sized bike, a used mixte, lugged steel-framed, 5-speed Peugeot. I loved it! (After I moved out, they unfortunately gave it away before I could save it). I did already harbor a secret love of dropbar road bikes back then, but I knew that was not something my parents would ever get me.

    In college I then had this craving for a more “modern” bike. It needed to be utilitarian, so the road bike I had always dreamed of was out of the question. Mountain bikes seemed like overkill for the streets of my college town, so I went with a Giant hybrid. I liked it a lot at the time. I still own it, and it’s my commuter bike, but I have to say I have totally grown out of that style and am saving up for the commuter of my dreams.

    Last year I finally bought a road bike, though not a high-end one due to budgetary concerns. She’s treated like a princess: cleaning after each ride; perfect adjustments to the drivetrain; nice accessories; and while the commuter sits outside, she has her own little corner in my living room. I enjoy riding it with my club, and it’s lightness amazes me every time I roll it out to the street.

    As I dream of my next commuter, I know I will not get rid of the road bike. You see, I will be leading a bit of a double life. The roadie will continue to be for pure enjoyment and fast riding with friends, but hopefully I will also soon be riding a nice European style commuter, with a steel frame and internal hub, dynamo lights, maybe a carbon belt drive — a classic look with modern components. I think this style is where my love of bikes has found it’s permanent home.

  • Alistair says:

    “Have nothing in your house that you do not know to be useful, or believe to be beautiful”

    Williams Morris
    (Designer, Poet, Craftsman, Socialist)

  • Rob Perks says:

    Things can be pretty and usefull as we all likely know. The full range of the spectrum is part of what keeps the world from getting too boring. My dad has always fallen on the dept store/functional side of things. He could get 10 years aout of a pair of kmart shoes, the soles would crack before they wore out in thickness. Somehow I fall more to the craftsman side of things looking for beauty and function built into the form. The core of my decision is quality and durability of design to suit the given task. No more no less should be needed. This can bee seen in well made bicycles, piston filling fountain pens, straight or double edge razors, Birkenstock shoes and the list can go on.

  • Ed L. says:

    Hmm… not sure what my current stable says about my own personal aesthetic. I currently own two bikes – a high-end aluminum racer, mass produced by a major corporate bike builder and kept essentially stock except for the tires and bar tape; and a sweep bar, IGH, utility commuter, that I built up from a Devil frame from Handsome Cycles and that seems to get endlessly tweaked and adjusted as I try to get it “just right.”

    The former is my weekend/club/solo ride, impractical for anything other than long, fast and light training rides wearing more spandex than a grown man with a desk job should have a right to own. The latter is my everyday commuter/picnic/errand ride, that is a dream for excursions of 10 miles or less, but that gets to be a pure pain for anything more than twice that length. I love to ride both and I love the look of both, even though they are sort of polar opposites.

  • Kurt Jensen says:

    My first effort to personalize any new bike is to remove the decals/stickers if they aren’t clear coated. My Surly Cross Check frame received this treatment before being built up and my new HP Velotechnik Grasshopper fx did as well. I just don’t like the looks of most decals. After that, my aesthetic is fairly simple: I like black. Sure, it has been done over and over but I think of it as The Proper Color for my bikes. The Surly arrived painted black and I paid extra for that color on the Grasshopper fx. My first year Volpe, originally painted in something called Salmon received a black powder coat early on. My very first good bike, a Raleigh Professional purchased new in 1970, received a black paint job and some braze-ons in the early ’80’s. I guess that ruined it for any future collector but I won’t ever sell it; it carries too many memories of rides long ago. I’m too lazy to disassemble my red Brompton and have it painted The Proper Color and the same for my Long Haul Cargo Bike which would look wonderful in TPC rather than the (again) salmon/pink color the original owner found attractive.
    I don’t quite get the fussing over and shaping of lugs. It’s just a way to join tubes, after all, but since people clearly get very excited over their shape and how they’re painted, I can step back and appreciate all the unnecessary attention given them by various builders. I’ve never broken a TIGed joint, either in steel or aluminum, though, and the look of a welded joint offends my eye not at all. That said, I suspect I’d find a nicely done lugged recumbent intriguing, if only for the novelty.
    Conventional Road Race bikes do little for me at this point but I find carbon fiber racing recumbents visually appealing. Perhaps a more performance oriented recumbent is in my future but only as long as it’s The Proper Color.

  • Matthew says:

    What a great thread!! In reading each, I get a sense of the authors view of their own aesthetic as well as their view of putting time into such things. I tend to disagree with the notion that bike style is not similar to the choices we make with automobiles and fashion. I work as architect and view all aspects of life through the same lens. Some view a shirt as just a shirt, while others seek out and have an eye for fine fabrics and tailoring, while others are just clinging onto brand names in an attempt to fit in out of fear of being ordinary. I think the same can be said about the way in which we select our bicycles. Without getting into a huge sociological debate, I think the proof can be found at any urban bike rack anywhere in the world. I feel that seeing bikes all lined up in a rack is often my favorite way of appreciating bicycle form and details.
    Is a bicycle a worthy enough commodity to spend time stressing the fine details? In my mind, yes very much so. I do it for self expression and because I get real joy out of finely crafted materials and details. One could make a spacious argument that spending time that way is shallow and materialistic, but I think viewing it that way tends to overlook the joy a artistry.
    I’m about 80% aesthetic and 20% function guy. Often this gets me into trouble buying beautifully crafted accessories that don’t function well. Here’s the paradox though!! Often for me, beauty can be found in a simply designed item that majority of attention of in the design is put towards seamless functionality. A well designed and crafted bike is a harmony of both. The Civia Bryant Alfine to me is a good example of that relationship.

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