Something new is shaking up Santa Barbara’s two-wheeled sprocket world, bringing a whole different vibe that’s both playful and practical. Conspicuously absent is the grim asceticism and macho elitism that’s wafted off cyclists of yore, the hard-core old-school riders for whom performance and efficiency were the ultimate virtues. Instead, now dominating the cycle scene is an effervescent fusion of fun, fashion, and functionality.
“Not so long ago, the message from the cycling community was, ‘This is what people need to do,’” said Ed France, founder of BiCi Centro and executive director of the Santa Barbara Bicycle Coalition, “but nobody responds to that approach. Now, we’re having events because they’re fun.” And the results, he said, speak for themselves. “It used to be we had to pull teeth to get people to come out; now they’re upset if they miss one.”
Here’s a case in point: This past weekend, the owners of Cranky’s — the latest new bike shop to open on State Street — hosted an underground bike race from Santa Barbara to Santa Monica. Fifty riders showed up to make the 70-mile trek that was hyped only by word of mouth and Cranky’s Web site.
Also on the calendar is the Bicycle Film Festival, a traveling, multi-centered event now entering its 10th year in existence and being held for the first time in Santa Barbara this weekend. The films celebrate bicycle culture writ large, rather than the raw athleticism of cycling as a sport. (See box for complete info.)
Hosting the film festival was the brainchild of Jim Cadenhead and Rebecca Long, owners of Cranky’s. They, like Evan Minogue and Erik Wright — owners of WheelHouse (528 Anacapa St.) — are recent arrivals to the area and cultural refugees from sprawling urban megalopoli to the south. These entrepreneurs have focused on new urban commuters — the fastest growing market in bicycle sales — though with different twists. Cranky’s offers faster, high-performance models, bursting with zip and schwing, whereas the two-year-old WheelHouse specializes in high-end Dutch city bikes — the two-wheeled equivalent of Clydesdale horses — and extended rear-end work bikes capable of carrying heavy loads.
But both shops are selling much more than bicycles. Each brings an evangelical zeal to their mission far beyond the dollars and cents of keeping their respective businesses afloat. Both start with the premise that few locales are as ideal for cycling as Santa Barbara, with our flat roads and omni-pleasant weather. “Whatever your excuse is for not riding, we have an answer,” said Minogue of WheelHouse. “We understand people want their creature comforts, their chain guards and fenders. People don’t have to wear lycra and spandex to ride. Our approach is to make it as easy as possible to get out of a car without a major change in lifestyle.”
To that end, WheelHouse has played a major role in promoting valet parking for bicycles, starting with the Saturday Farmers Market, located conveniently across the street from WheelHouse’s spacious downtown digs. The S.B. Bowl has gotten into the act, as well, with volunteers from the Bicycle Coalition making sure bike-riding concertgoers’ wheels are safely locked up during Bowl shows and ready to go when the music stops. The West Beach Music Festival, likewise, has embraced valet parking for bikes. And the Bicycle Coalition is working City Hall to require a bicycle valet parking for all special events that would otherwise have to provide valet parking for cars.
Cranky’s Cadenhead said there’s no reason why Santa Barbara isn’t “the best place in the country for bicycle culture,” given its backcountry trails and urban network of bike paths. The biggest obstacle — other than sheer laziness — he said is “the perception of danger and an atmosphere of danger.” Statistically speaking, he noted that bicycle riders have a one-in-3,000 chance of getting killed while riding, while pedestrians have a one-in-600 chance of getting wiped out crossing the street. The odds for people behind the wheel of car, he said, are even worse. “We’re trying to take away the fear and make it fun,” he said.
Cadenhead hopes to expand the number of fun rides for Santa Barbara. Currently, Santa Barbara’s only regular fun ride, Bike Moves, takes place the first Thursday of every month, and is decidedly un-athletic in ambition. Now in its third year, that ride starts at WheelHouse, reassembles at State and Victoria streets, from where riders (anywhere from 100 to 250) pedal down State Street, hooting and hollering, to the end of Stearns Wharf, where they engage in a bicycle version of sumo wrestling. The riders create a large circle on the pier, inside which two cyclists at a time attempt to circle around each other without taking their hands off the bars or their feet off the pedals. Some pushing and shoving has been known to occur, but all in good fun.
Each ride has a specific theme; in September, riders dressed up in costumes riffing on the TV show Bay Watch. In October, they’ll dress up as Star Wars characters. The ride’s been (not) organized by John Hygelund — each ride is technically a happenstance gathering of like-minded cyclists — a former-racer-turned-mechanical-engineer who moved to Santa Barbara three years ago. His attitude is light-years away from the in-your-face confrontational approach pioneered by Critical Mass rides. “We follow all the rules and obey all street lights and stop signs,” Hygelund said.
Efforts by more radical riders inclined toward civil disobedience, like Critical Mass, never really caught on with more mainstream bike agitators like Ed France, Erika Lindemann, or Ralph Fertig, all with the Bicycle Coalition. The closest thing to bicycle anarchy Santa Barbara has is the Fiesta Fun Ride — now approaching its 30th year — that takes place every Sunday after Fiesta. This year, nearly a record number of 840 joined the ride from Santa Barbara to Isla Vista and back, with frequent beer stops and uninvited romps in swimming pools along the way. While Fiesta riders routinely ignore red lights and stop signs, they are motivated more by a party-hearty sensibility than any anti-automobile ideology.
Social movements erupt both despite and because of organizers’ efforts to conjure them. The same is true for the seismic shifts now seizing the world of cycling. In Santa Barbara, 42 percent of the population rides recreationally. While the number of people who commute to and from work by bike is much smaller, it’s nearly doubled since 2000. U.S. Census reports indicate the number of bicycle commuters has jumped from 3 percent to 5 percent between 2000 and 2008. But Fertig, the founding father of the Bicycle Coalition, reports that his own counts in 2009 indicate the numbers may be as high as 16 percent at certain intersections.
In Santa Barbara, five new bike shops have opened in the past two years, flying in the face of stiff recessionary winds. Propelling the rise in ridership is the specter of global warming and the volatile spike in gas prices two years ago. When gas hits $4 a gallon, bike shops experience a significant bump in interest. In economic hard times, many have opted for the bike simply as a cheaper alternative. According to AAA, the average car costs $9,520 a year to own and operate, a new high.
Also, as UCSB expands, it spawns new generations of bike riders, automobiles proving a luxury for which I.V. offers scant accommodation. UCSB administrators, facing pressing space and financial constraints, would rather equip new student housing complexes with 1,400 new bike racks than parking lots. For thousands of students, fat-tired cruisers are their primary means of transportation, while the sublimely minimalist fixed-gear bike has been wildly embraced by the tattooed and tongue-pierced as mode of transport.
The most obvious shift in ridership is the number of women on the roads. Traditionally, women have been the most resistant to bicycle commuting. Women reportedly are more sensitive to safety issues, more concerned about showing up for work wet with sweat, and more likely to juggle the transportation demands posed by children, shopping, and family. Fertig claimed women riders have achieved proportional representation on UCSB’s buzzing bike paths. And while they haven’t achieved parity downtown, they’ve come a long way.
Lindemann, a major player in the universe of bicycle activists, recalled how struck she was while on a recent trip to Europe. “There were all these elegant, gorgeous women dressed to the [nines], wearing high heels and riding bikes,” she said.
Lindemann was one of several activists involved in this year’s CycleMAYnia extravaganza — a month-long celebration of the bicycle as opposed to the customary Bike to Work Week. One of the more successful events was a bicycle fashion show, cohosted by WheelHouse, the Bicycle Coalition, Traffic Solutions, and a handful of upscale clothing boutiques. In place of the customary power bars and yogurt drinks traditionally given out at a Bike to Work Week, the fashion show offered beer, wine, and hors d’ouevres. In lieu of anorexic models slinking down the runway, the event featured buff women wearing iridescent blue silk Suzie Wong dresses, complete with slit-thigh, black fishnet stockings, and high heels, riding comfortable yet stylish commuter bikes. The event drew a crowd of about 350, including city Councilmember Das Williams, who made a point to be the first male model to ride down the runway. While his opponent, Republican Mike Stoker was not so bold, he did work the crowd.
With the current number of bike shops at 11, many of the entrenched operators, like Bob Zaratzian, owner of Bicycle Bob’s, has doubts about their longevity. However, he recalled how established bike shop owners said the same thing about him when he opened for business 27 years ago. Bruce Davis, owner of Hazard’s, which first opened its doors in 1910, expressed concern whether the Santa Barbara market can sustain all the shops. But he loves the upsurge in two-wheeled activity and all the flavors it comes in. He pointed to a sign that’s hung in his shop for years that reads, “If you ride a bike, you’re cool.”
Bicycle Film Fest Schedule
FRIDAY, SEPTEMBER 17
Kickoff Party — Drink specials and stationary-bike sprints. 6-10pm, Elsie’s Tavern, 117 W. De la Guerra St.
SATURDAY, SEPTEMBER 18
Bike Swap — Goods from well-known makers of bicycles, parts, and accessories. 9am-1pm, S.B. Junior High, 117 E. Cota St.
Program 1, Bicycle Dreams, begins at 1pm (104 min.)
• Bicycle Dreams — True story of the 3,000-mile Race Across America.
Program 2, Riding the Long White Cloud, begins at 3pm (70 min.)
• Constant Movement — Taxi-bike riders who live and work in Cuba.
• BMX at Burnside — Look at Portland’s notorious Burnside Skate Park.
• Macramento — Biking in Sacramento on an off-road.
• RIH — Behind the legendary company that has specialized in Dutch racing bikes for decades.
• Riding the Long White Cloud — Seven pro skaters cycle New Zealand’s North Island.
Program 3, The Birth of Big Air, begins at 5pm (70 min.)
• Lucas Brunelle: Line of Sight — Lucas Brunelle travels around the world documenting alleycat races.
• A New Challenge — Two guys face off in a bi-unicycle challenge.
• Erik Elstran’s Dragon Shredit! — How a modern dragon could spend his time stunt cycling, if he weren’t so concerned with dueling knights and such.
• The Birth of Big Air — Tribute to BMX legend Mat Hoffman.
Program 4, Where Are You Go, begins at 7pm (90 min.)
• Anima d’Acciaio (Soul of Steel) — Story of legendary Italian frame builder Giovanni Pelizzoli.
• Where Are You Go — Follows the Tour d’Afrique, the world’s longest bicycle race.
Program 5, Urban Bike Shorts, begins at 9pm (90 min.)
• We’ve Got It on Tape — Bike polo in action.
• Tokyo Jitensha — Speed cycling through Tokyo.
• On Time — Follows a bicycle courier through the streets of New York City.
• Belle Epoch — Italian Giuliano Calore rides his bike up a mountain using no hands, while playing four different musical instruments.
• Day Labor — Short about bike messengers.
• Grime Presents — Look at street riders Mike Schmitt and WONKA.
• Wolfpack Hustle: The All City Team Race 3 — One hundred and eighty riders race from the city to the beach.
• Tokyo to Osaka — Fixed-gear cyclists’ 400-mile journey through Japan.
• Erik Elstran’s Dragon Shredit! — How a modern dragon could spend his time stunt cycling, if he wasn’t so concerned with dueling knights and such.
• Lucas Brunelle: Line of Sight — Lucas Brunelle travels around the world documenting alleycat races.
All films show at the Marjorie Luke Theater, 721 E. Cota. Cost: $10 per film; $32 day pass.
SUNDAY, SEPTEMBER 19
Bikes Rock Party and BBQ — 3-6pm, Mercury Lounge, 5871 Hollister Ave., Goleta.
For more information and to buy tickets, visit bicyclefilmfestival.com. Bicycle Valet Parking provided at film screenings by Santa Barbara Bicycle Coalition and Bici Centro.