Wide Angle

Americans Are Ready to Embrace Bicycles, but There’s One Thing Standing in Their Way

Bike sales are booming, but on-screen depictions haven’t budged since the 1980s.

Pee-wee Herman, Channing Tatum in 21 Jump Street, Brad Pitt in Burn After Reading, and Paul Rudd in This Is 40, all looking like nerds on bikes or in bike gear.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by Focus Features, Universal Pictures, Sony Pictures, and Universal Pictures.

In Pixar’s Luca, the antagonist is easy to identify: He’s the grown man riding a bicycle. The Gaston-like Ercole is clearly too old to be taking part in the Italian seaside town’s annual bike race—the cutoff is 16, and he looks at least twice that—but he insists he’s still of age, even as he dons fancy cycling gear that the movie’s actually teenage protagonists can’t possibly afford.

A major studio making yet another high-billed movie portraying such a character is evidence of a depressing trend: The tropes movies and TV use to depict cyclists have barely budged since the 1980s. Although nearly 50 million Americans ride bikes every year, American culture would have you believe that bikes are for dorky children and even dorkier (or more heinous) adults. True freedom, not to mention success and societal approval, is found behind the wheel of a motorized vehicle, preferably one with a high-polluting engine.

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Think back to the most conspicuous images of bikers on American screens. There’s the titular 40-Year-Old Virgin who’s not only continually asked when he’s finally going to get laid but also when he’s going to get a car to replace his bike and helmet; Arrested Development’s hapless Bluth family, whose antisocial nature is in part symbolized by their frequent use of bikes; the middle-class teenage biker who scraps with a millionaire car driver in Rushmore; the insecure roommate in MTV’s Downtown who envisions her much cooler friend ripping the streets on a motorbike while she pedals furiously behind on a tricycle; Brad Pitt’s goofy and luckless fitness enthusiast in Burn After Reading; the man-children in Step Brothers who fight each other using bikes as weapons, are emasculated by the rich sibling who owns a big family car, and only manage to beat up the middle schoolers who taunt them after using a private helicopter; and of course, all the Napoleon Dynamite moments.

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And those are just my reference points. More recent occurrences include the undercover officers in 21 Jump Street, who mess everything up on their initial bike duty before getting the opportunity to engage in some badass car chases; BoJack Horseman’s soft-spoken biker Judah Mannowdog, who kept getting rejected by his love interest; and Big Little Lies’ Ed Mackenzie, who regularly rocks full cycle gear and gets cheated on by his wife.

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I genuinely love and cherish most of these shows and movies, which is why these particular scenes continue to stick in my head, and why their overarching thesis bothers me: that bikers are nerd losers who flail through life until they get their shit together and buy a car or another sick engine-powered transport method. Cars are virility and power and authority; bikes are emasculation, virginal, a reminder of your lesser means and lame-o social status. Automotives rule, bikes drool.

This stereotype of the biker has deep sociocultural and political roots. A pernicious apathy against bicycles has crept through American discourse and policy over the decades, from the racist ideologies behind the centering of the automobile in public life to Republicans’ hostility toward bike infrastructure and safety policy. In his 2010 book One Less Car, professor and cycling advocate Zack Furness cites a Worldwatch Institute study that showed modern Americans thought of commuting and traveling on a bicycle as “uncool,” a “children’s activity,” and “socially inappropriate for those who can afford a car.”

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One way we got here is through policy, as postwar U.S. governments sanctioned the destruction of minority neighborhoods to make way for a massive highway system literally inspired by Nazi Germany; this had the effect of not just prioritizing the automobile but necessitating it, stripping metropolises of public transit and open streets and leaving them congested with asphalt, pollution, and deadly hunks of metal. But to make the automobile the preferred vehicle of Americans—and an easy receptacle for gas and incentive for oil rackets—a culture war had to be fought as well. Even as Eisenhower paved America’s new junctions, concerned American households protested the dangers automobiles and roads posed to their neighborhoods and children. It took ample propaganda to normalize the car, creating a deep cultural pathology that climate advocates attempting to denormalize the car are still fighting against. As history professor Peter D. Norton noted in Fighting Traffic, the now-well-worn idea of Americans having a “love affair” with their cars was popularized only after 1961, when NBC aired a documentary starring Groucho Marx that touted the awe-inspiring, futuristic possibilities of the automobile and brushed off the safety and environmental concerns—in essence, manufacturing consent. Marx, whose game show You Bet Your Life was sponsored by Chrysler, could reach and persuade a wider swath of American society than an anti-car activist writer like Jane Jacobs could. From there on, the idea of Americans having a “love affair with the automobile” that “started so far back” became repeated in all kinds of media, despite its dubious premise. Newspapers led the initiative, promulgating negative coverage of bike riders and pitting them against car drivers—a practice that’s still very much in effect.

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The context of Groucho Marx’s crusade makes it worth repeating that the cultural dominance of the car—which is literally killing us in myriad ways—was never inevitable. It was all planned and thoroughly implemented policy and propaganda. Image matters, and it was used to not only bolster the car but denigrate the bicycle.

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Zack Furness traces one path toward the broad cultural souring on bikes to decades of pop culture depictions of bikers as “childish men, eccentrics, sexually odd characters, geeks, and/or financial failures.” The main flashpoint is the glitzy, wealth-revering, environment-wrecking Reagan ’80s, when hippies became hedge fund managers, when wealth and the uninhibited accumulation of it became the all-encompassing goal: fast cars, lifestyles of the rich and famous, THE WORLD IS YOURS. It was then that two protagonists would come to define the American cyclist: the bike-obsessed oddball Pee-wee Herman of Pee-wee’s Big Adventure and the failed stockbroker–turned–bike messenger Jack Casey in Quicksilver. The former, Furness writes, ties “bicycling to the lifestyle of a naïve eccentric whom mainstream Hollywood audiences may love to watch, but probably do not wish to emulate,” while the latter “suggests that riding a bicycle—as a job, no less—is the very opposite of the American Dream; it is what people do when they hit rock bottom.” It was fine for the kids of Stand by Me or E.T. to pedal around the suburbs, but not to bike their way into adulthood.

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This image of bike as childish failure was be compounded in the following years, from the TV show Get a Life (featuring, per Furness, a “thirty-year-old, irresponsible, idiotic paperboy living with his parents”) to I Heart Huckabees’ “neurotic, hyper-existentialist environmentalists.” You can even catch this loser dynamic in music videos: Redman’s 1998 video for “I’ll Bee Dat” has an infamous sequence where Red and his friends are transfixed by a beautiful woman biking on their street, who turns to wave at her admirers only to miss the car right in front of her and take an ugly tumble—in a reference, of course, to a similar scene from Wayne’s World.

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Factors outside the realm of popular culture occasionally played a part as well. In Judd Apatow’s This Is 40, Paul Rudd’s often-pathetic character takes out his frustration on poor car drivers, while on other occasions he’s clad in gear from superstar cyclist Lance Armstrong’s Livestrong. The movie was, pointedly, released the same year Armstrong’s drug use was formally exposed by the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency.

I’m well-aware I may come across like one of those fictional bike riders, like a clumsy, aggrieved loser whose grip on life is as wobbly as his balance. But it’s worth noting just how perniciously the image of the biker-as-failure has solidified in the decade since the publication of Furness’ book, even as Americans saddle up in ever-increasing numbers. Look around you: The pandemic augured a massive bike boom that’s continuing even as vaccinated Americans go back to their routines. Cities across the world have experimented, to great popular success, with banning or restricting cars on streets in order to transform them into public places for pedestrians and runners and bikers. Paris is going all-in on the concept of the “15-minute city,” bringing the city’s businesses and homes closer together while constructing and incentivizing cycle commutes. It’s not just liberal cities, either: I spent the summer of 2016 in Traverse City, a beautiful metropolis smack in the most conservative regions of Michigan, and had ample opportunities not only to bike safely around the city through woodsy trails and roads but also to write about public bike-centric events like the Art Path and the PubCycle (which you gotta see to believe). On a national level, politicians like our very president and Sen. Bernie Sanders have been seen riding bikes, breaking a stigma regarding the weakling image of American politicians who cycle. Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg has been conspicuous in his desire to be seen riding to work on a bike and has been the most enthusiastic bike advocate in the Cabinet position since Republican Ray LaHood left office in 2013.

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The reckonings over public space and urban design brought on by the pandemic have simply accelerated what’s only inevitable—a shift from cars to more sustainable modes of transport—and needed, if we are to survive the coming decades. More and more Americans are buying bikes these days, to the point where bike shops are now suffering supply chain shortages and delays as they handle these unprecedented booms. Why not keep it going? And why not encourage it further, perhaps by finally bucking the long and harmful image of the biker in American TV and movies in favor of something different?

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