What your bicycle says about you

Cycling doesn't just get you from A to B any more. Bikes have become an inspiration for writers, fashion designers and photographers. They are an expression of who we are – and who we want to be, argues Harriet Walker

Wednesday 18 May 2011 00:00 BST

The internet has a great capacity to nurture niche interests until they somehow end up a part of mainstream culture. Whatever randomly generated or rarefied search terms you enter will always throw up some results, often more coherent ones than you could have imagined.

Search for "cycling in heels", for example, or "cycling in dresses", and Google will offer you hundreds of images from websites that document such practices. Type in "cycling with a dog in a rucksack" or "cycling on the phone with a latte in your left hand", and you'll see hundreds more. The proliferation of street-style blogs in recent years, coupled with the internet's tendency to give any micro-trend cult appeal, has led to the rise of "cycle chic", a half-sporty, half-fashionable subcultural phenomenon with rules and a dress code that are all its own.

One of the first such blogs, Copenhagen Cycle Chic, was started by Mikael Colville-Andersen in 2007, to catalogue effortlessly sleek Danes as they pedalled around the capital. "It was a coincidence, actually," he admits. "I was doing a lot of street photography anyway and I spotted a girl on her bike in the morning traffic, so I took her picture. The comments on my blog started pouring in, like: 'Dude, she's wearing a skirt!' So I took some more."

That spring an online London-based boutique opened selling cycling equipment that took its inspiration from vintage and retro styling, rather than the anorak aesthetic that the discipline was at that point better known for. "We began importing Dutch bikes," recalls Sian Emmison, the co-director of Bobbin Bicycles. "Tom [Morris, Bobbin's other director] and I met in Holland. Cycling isn't a marginal activity there – people pick up their mates and go to the pub on their bikes."

The following October, the French couture house Chanel launched a £6,000 bicycle featuring the label's signature interlocking 'C's and a quilted leather pannier in the style of its best-selling 2.55 handbag. The bike was moving up in the world and riders were becoming more discerning: 2007 was the year that cycle chic was born.

And it seems to have come to a head this year, with a flurry of cycling literature that has at its heart the simple pleasures of an urban cycling lifestyle rather than any more serious sports-industry or racing knowledge. Bike-riding bookworms can choose from: Bicycle by Helen Pidd; The Bicycle Book by Bella Bathurst; I Love My Bike by Matthew Finkle and Brittain Sullivan; Bike Snob: Systematically and Mercilessly Realigning the World of Cycling by Christopher Koelle; and Wheels of Change: How Women Rode the Bicycle to Freedom by Sue Macy.

There's also the new collaborative collection from the "sartorial cyclist" label Rapha and the designer Paul Smith, and the imminent launch of a street-cycle clothing range by Levi's. The fashion brand Red or Dead will unveil its new collection of frames this week, while the trendy hotel chain Morgans – the name behind London's St Martins Lane and Los Angeles's celebrity-heavy Mondrian – last week announced a cycle-hire scheme for guests.

"The bike programme is in keeping with our signature style," says Morgans' creative director, Kim Walker, of the modish Public J7 Dutch bikes that are on offer. "Guests are keen to explore and experience the cities they stay in, and are now able to do so in the most efficient and stylish fashion." It says a lot that an A-list haunt in one of the most traffic-heavy cities in the world should turn its gaze to cycling. There's no more perfect indicator of the bicycle's astronomic rise in status and cool.

This summer also sees the inaugural Cycle Chic bloggers' conference to be held in Barcelona in July by Mikael Colville-Andersen, in response to the global blossoming of sites looking to imitate his own. "There are more than 130 Cycle Chics now," he explains, and Britain alone has spawned sites celebrating the cycling chic of Edinburgh, Manchester, Sheffield, Taunton and St Andrews. "Some are authorised, some not," says Colville-Andersen. "We're looking to strengthen our sense of community. We want to know what Cycle Chic can do now. And then we'll all get drunk together."

This is where the cycle-chic mindset differs from tradition: where bicycle use now is certainly a part of working exercise into our sedentary lifestyles, it is no longer the preserve of racers, cycle clubs and serious helmet-heads whose lips curl at those who don't know their crank from their big ring. Cycle chic is about building your life around your bike in the most nonchalant way possible.

In fact, you're more likely now to be sniggered at for wearing luminescent safety gear than you are for looking like an amateur. The movement has brought with it a renaissance of the age of the "citizen cyclist", as Colville-Andersen calls his tribe. "You don't have to be a cycle geek to be cycle chic," he intones.

"There's no doubt that cycling is booming," says Juliet Elliott, a trick rider and bicycle messenger. "With that has come a new, style-conscious breed of riders far removed from the Lycra-clad enthusiasts of old. These days your bike says a great deal about you: where you're from, what you're into, even what kind of job you have. Your bike is part of your identity." This is nothing new – people have been seduced by bikes ever since their invention in the late 19th century; there is something about them not only as a mode of transport but simply as an object that inspires heart-bursting affection, joyful enthusiasm and borderline obsession. It's the freedom they offer, the speed and fleetness, but most importantly, the sense of independence and individualism.

"The bike trade used to be very male-dominated and chauvinistic," says Sian Emmison, who opened the Bobbin Bicycles store in Islington, north London, in 2008 and another London branch earlier this month. "But more women are cycling now and what they want is different. You can wear stylish outfits on your bike; bikes are very beautiful things."

The phenomenon of the "lady cyclist", as she was known in the early days of the discipline, is nothing new. Back then, bikes gave women a much-overdue taste of freedom and autonomy. And what is now evident on fetishistic websites called things such as "Chicks and Bikes" (you can probably guess the rest) began rather naïvely as an appreciation of the female form in motion. "A new era seems to have sprung up," wrote Charles Sisley in an 1896 magazine for women who rode. "Life which has hitherto seemed dull and uninteresting now looks bright and attractive."

And one can't help but compare this to the current resurgence of lady cyclists: those wholesome prototypes took to industrial streets and gave them colour; today's versions combine fashion and function, as well as progress and nostalgia. They are a winsome and heart-warming sight.

"Ten minutes after the first bike was made, the cycling girl became a widespread icon all over the world," explains Colville-Andersen. "From the beginning she sold bikes and bike culture, as an alternative to sports cycling in the 1890s. And she lives on – she's the defining moment of spring in Copenhagen. Friends say: 'Oh the cycling girls are out,' she's on the news with her legs and her summer dress. She's a powerful figure, a never-ending icon."

It's a theme explored on ridesabike.tumblr.com. Created by Steven Rea, a film critic on The Philadelphia Inquirer, the site is a collection of old Hollywood stars on their two-wheeled steeds, from the days when A-listers would pedal between scenes on studio lots. James Stewart gives Grace Kelly a lift down the road; Jean Harlow walks a bike on a pavement; Audrey Hepburn pedals past Humphrey Bogart. Each is romantic and nostalgic evidence of the elegance of bike-riding, a reminder of why it endures.

"In the Forties and Fifties, it was an excuse to take leggy pictures," says Rea. "It's about sex appeal – you have a beautiful actress showing her legs, her anatomy. Plus, it's not as unnatural as her being stretched out on a bearskin rug."

If the female cyclist is indeed an eternal trope in our culture, then her prominence now – not to mention her agency over her image – is greater than ever. As well as being a poster girl for cycle chic, she is also an avid consumer of it. Realising the gap in the market and resultant demand for bicycle accessories that are more chic than geek has re-invigorated the industry, not least in terms of which bikes are being bought and sold.

The classic cycle chic bike of choice for women is the sedate and elegant retro Dutch bike; for men it is the minimalist fixed-gear bike, or "fixie", which has only one gear and, in its most hyperbolic incarnation, no brakes. (These versions were subsequently banned in the hipster epicentre of Berlin.)

The look is as various as any other street culture, of course, but the stereotype is a girl in a full-skirted floral dress atop a sit-up-and-beg shopper bike with a basket, pedalling down the road seemingly regardless of her four-inch platform wedges or of the fact that everyone she passes is looking at her. Her male counterpart is a moustachioed fop in skinny jeans or chinos, sporting a band T-shirt and some sort of retro hairstyle.

Amy Fleuriot is a fashion designer who specialises in cycling accessories. "I was studying at the London College of Fashion," she explains, "and riding about 30 miles a day, when I started looking for some nice cycle-specific clothing. There was none, so I decided I'd have a go myself."

The likes of Fleuriot are increasingly common and the amount of cycling spin-offs from fashion brands certainly denotes a future in this line of work. Fleuriot designs her own range called Cyclodelic, which is now stocked in Harrods and available online. "Everything I make is designed to be at least as functional, or more so, than 'technical-looking' gear," she says. "My favourite piece is our sports dress, which is engineered to perform on long bike rides but can also be worn just around town."

Other popular items include saddle bags with 1950s-inspired linings that evolve into everyday handbags and reflective ankle cuffs. Keeping riders safe is, of course, of urgent importance; the sartorial easing of cycling codes is by no means an indication that fashion necessarily comes before function. But the extreme dorkiness of bicycle accoutrements has been for years a significant reason for people avoiding the discipline.

Eloise Moody, 29, is a hatter, and another young female designer making cycling and cycling safety more palatable; her idiosyncratic helmet designs are on sale at Bobbin Bicycles. "There was just nothing around for people who didn't want tech-y Lycra," she recalls. "All the helmets were terrible, but things have moved on so much." Moody's versions come in the form of replica bowler hats, deerstalkers and trilbies, each cover stretched over a fully durable helmet. "The bowler hats were unusual but straight out of that vintage era that cyclists are so fond of," she adds. "Trends move on of course – my instinct is that, because nostalgia is now so mainstream, the next step will be towards a more minimal aesthetic."

This is a look honed by the luxury label Rapha, whose sleek mix of urban roadwear with utilitarian cycling tradition has proved popular for the more seriously minded rider. Rapha bridges the gap between the girl in the summer dress and the automaton in the velodrome, and is as highly constructed as many designer labels.

"It's elegance combined with functional performance and timeless aesthetics," says co-founder Simon Mottram. "We offer functional, intelligently designed clothing and accessories for everything the city throws at you." Rather daringly, this includes fitted shirts and even jeans, all produced with features, such as hidden pockets and storm flaps that cyclists will appreciate. And they look normal, too.

This new generation of designers, bloggers and riders has created for itself an entire culture around cycle chic, and the introduction of Boris bikes to London has brought some sort of validation, as well as the inevitable mainstream attention.

There is a certain pack mentality. Lewin Chalkley of the bike café Look Mum No Hands recognises the tribes and the trendies alike. Set on London's Old Street, the café serves coffee, cake and beers to riders, couriers and assorted hangers-on. "You see lots of different groups: club riders, racers, fixies," he says. "There are so many lazy stereotypes around cycling, I may sound a bit scornful. But anything that gets people on bikes is a good thing."

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