[Ed. note: This article was originally published on June 5, 1995.]
A few weeks back, I had an encounter with a Bicycle Boy.
It happened at a book party that was held in a great marble hall on a tree-lined street. While I was surreptitiously stuffing my face with smoked salmon, a writer friend, a guy, rushed up and said, “I’ve just been talking to the most interesting man.”
“Oh yeah? Who?” I asked, glancing around the room with suspicion.
“He used to be an archeologist and now he writes science books…fascinating.”
“Say no more,” I said.
I had already spotted the man in question—he was dressed in what I imagined was the city version of a safari suit—khaki trousers, a cream checked shirt, slightly shabby tweed jacket. His gray-blond hair was raked back from his forehead, exposing a handsome chipped profile. So I was motoring, as much as you can motor in strappy high-heeled sandals, across the room. He was in deep conversation with a middle-aged man, but I quickly took care of the situation. “You,” I said. “Someone just told me you were fascinating. I hope you won’t disappoint me.” I bore him off to an open window where I plied him with cigarettes and cheap red wine. After 20 minutes, I left him to go meet some friends for dinner.
The next morning, he called me while I was still in bed with a hangover. Let’s call him “Horace Eccles.” He talked about romance. It was nice to lie in bed with my head throbbing and a handsome man cooing into my ear. We arranged to meet for dinner.
The trouble began almost immediately. First he called to say he was going to be an hour early. Then he called back to say he wasn’t. Then he called to say he was going to be half an hour late. Then he called and said he was just around the corner. Then he really was 45 minutes late.
And then he turned up on his bicycle.
I didn’t realize this at first. All I noticed was a more than normal dishevelment (for a writer), and a slight breathiness, which I attributed to the fact that he was in my presence. “Where do you want to have dinner?” he asked.
“I’ve already arranged it,” I said. “Elaine’s”
His face twisted. “But I thought we’d just have dinner at some neighborhood place around the corner.”
I gave him one of my looks and said, “I don’t have dinner at neighborhood places around the corner.” For a moment it looked like it was going to be a standoff. Finally, he blurted out, “But I came on my bicycle, you see.”
I turned around and stared at the offending piece of machinery, which was tethered to a lamppost.
“I don’t think so,” I said.
Mr. New Yorker and His Three-Speed
This was not my first encounter with a Manhattan literary-romantic subspecies I’ve come to call the Bicycle Boys. A while back, I was at a dinner with one of the most famous Bicycle Boys, whom we’ll just call Mr. New Yorker. Mr. New Yorker looks like he’s 35 (even though he’s quite a bit older) with floppy brown hair and a devastating smile. When he goes out, he usually has his pick of single women, and not just because the women want to get something published in The New Yorker. He’s smooth and a little sloppy. He sits down next to you and talks to you about politics and asks your opinion. He makes you feel smart. And then, before you know it, he’s gone.
“Hey, where’s Mr. New Yorker?” everyone was asking at 11 o’clock. “He made a phone call,” one woman said, “and then he took off on his bike. He was going to meet someone.”
The image of Mr. New Yorker, stealing through the night in his tweedy jacket, pumping like mad on his three-speed bike (with fenders to keep his pants from getting dirty), haunted me. I pictured him pulling up to an Upper East Side walk up—or maybe a loft building in SoHo—leaning against the buzzer, and then, panting slightly, wheeling his bike up the stairs. A door would open, and he and his inamorata would be giggling as they tried to figure out where to put the bike. Then they’d fall into a sweaty embrace, no doubt ending up on some futon on the floor.
The Bicycle Boy actually has a long literary tradition in New York. The patron saints of Bicycle Boys are white-haired writer George Plimpton, whose bike used to hang upside down above his employees’ heads at the Paris Review offices, and white-haired Newsday columnist Murray Kempton. They’ve been riding for years, and are the inspiration for the next generation of Bicycle Boys, like the aforementioned Mr. New Yorker, the writers Chip Brown and Tom Beller, literary agent Kip Kotzen and scores of young book, magazine and newspaper editors and writers who insist upon traversing Manhattan’s physical and romantic landscape as solitary pedalers.
Bicycle Boys are a particular breed of New York bachelor: Smart, funny, romantic, lean, quite attractive, they are the stuff that grown-up coed dreams are made of. There’s something incredibly, er, charming about a tweedy guy on a bike—especially if he’s wearing goofy glasses. Women tend to feel a mixture of passion and motherly affection. But there’s also a dark side: Most Bicycle Boys are not married and probably never will be, at least not until they give up their bikes.
Why John F. Kennedy Jr. Is Not a Bicycle Boy
“Riding a bike is not necessarily a power move,” said Mr. Eccles. “It’s best done by power people like George Plimpton. Otherwise, you have to hide your bike around the corner and surreptitiously take your trousers out of your socks.”
Bicycle Boys don’t ride their bikes for sport, like those silly guys you see riding around and around the park. They ride partly for transportation and, more importantly, to preserve an eternal literary boyhood. Think of twilight at Oxford, riding over the cobblestones, while a woman waits down by the Cherwell River, wearing a flowing dress, clasping a volume of Yeats. That’s how Bicycle Boys think of themselves as they pedal Manhattan, dodging cabbies and potholes.
While John F. Kennedy Jr. is certainly New York’s most famous and sought-after bike-riding bachelor, his rippled athleticism disqualifies him for Bicycle Boydom. Because a Bicycle Boy would rather bike through midtown in a seersucker suit than in shorts and a chest-hugging tee. And Bicycle Boys spurn those skin-tight bike pants that have cushy foam padding sewn into the butt. Bicycle Boys are not averse to the chastising pain of a hard bike seat—it helps the literature. “I don’t own any spandex pants,” said Mr. New Yorker, who added that he wears long johns in the winter to keep warm.
Which may be one reason bicycle boys, more than their athletic cousins, tend to get physically attacked. The other reason is they ride at any hour (the later the better—more romantic), in any physical condition, anywhere.
“Drunks roar out of their windows at night to send you into a tailspin,” said Mr. Eccles.
One Halloween, Mr. New Yorker was wearing a British bobby’s cape when he rode into a group of 12-year-olds who yanked him off his bike. “I said, ‘I can’t fight all of you at once. I’ll fight one of you.’ They all stepped back, except for the biggest one. I suddenly realized I didn’t want to fight him either.” The whole gang jumped on Mr. New Yorker and began pounding him, until some innocent bystander started screaming and the gang ran away. “I was lucky,” said Mr. New Yorker. “They didn’t take my bike, but they did take some records I had in my basket.” (Note that Mr. New Yorker was carrying “records,” as in vinyl albums—not CD’s—another sign of a true Bicycle Boy.)
Mr. Eccles recalled a similar story. “Two days ago, I was riding through Central Park at 10 at night, when I was surrounded by a ‘wilding’ gang on rollerblades,” he said. “They were almost children. They tried to capture me in a flank maneuver, but I was able to bicycle away even faster.”
But an even bigger danger is sex, as a New York Times reporter we’ll call Chester found out. Chester doesn’t ride his bike as much as he used to because, about a year ago, he had a bad cycling accident after a romantic interlude. He was writing a story on topless dancers when he struck up a friendship with Lola. Maybe Lola fancied herself as Marilyn Monroe to his Arthur Miller. Who knows. All Chester knew was that one evening she called him up and said she was lying around in her bed at Trump Palace, and could he come over. He hopped on his bike and was there in 15 minutes. They went at it for three hours. Then she said he had to leave because she lives with someone and the guy was coming home. Any minute.
Chester ran out of the building and jumped on his bike, but there was a problem. His legs were so shaky from having sex they started cramping up just as he was going down Murray Hill and he crashed over the curb and slid across the pavement. “It really hurt,” he said. “When your skin is scraped off like that, it’s like a first degree burn.” Luckily, his nipple did eventually grow back.
‘A Big Steel Thing Between My Legs’
Riding a bike in Manhattan is indeed perilous sport. If these writers lived out West, maybe they’d carry guns, like something out of Larry McMurtry or Tom McGuane or Cormac McCarthy. But since they live in New York, the Bicycle Boys are more the Clark Kent type. Mild-mannered reporters by day who often have to answer to killer editrixes, they become menaces to society by night. And who can blame them? “You ride through red lights, you ride against traffic. You can be a felon,” said Chester.
“I feel like there’s a big steel thing between my legs throbbing ahead of me,” said one Bicycle Boy, who asked to be unnamed.
“I have my hand on my bike right now,” said Mr. Kotzen, speaking on the phone from his office. “There’s a freedom in being on your bike in the city. You feel like you’re floating above the masses. I’m pretty fearless on my bike, in ways that I can’t be in the rest of my life. I feel like I’m the best on my bike, the most in tune with myself and the city.”
BICYCLE BOYS ARE PARTICULAR ABOUT their bikes—they don’t usually ride souped-up, high-tech mountain bikes. No Shimano XT derailleurs or elastomer suspension forks for them. More typical is Mr. New Yorker, who rides a polite three-speed, with a basket in back, and fenders. The bike should radiate nostalgia. “You have to have a basket for groceries,” said Mr. New Yorker, “your computer and work stuff.”
“My bike is definitely like my dog and my baby,” said Mr. Kotzen. “I kind of take care of it and preen it.”
But often when Bicycle Boys talk about their bikes, it’s hard not to think they are talking about women.
“I love my bike and you can get attached to a bike,” said one B.B., “but the truth is that one bike is very much like another.”
“I had one bike that I went completely over the top with,” said Mr. Kotzen. “It had an aluminum frame and I hand-stripped it and polished it. Quite a bit. And then it got stolen. I was emotionally devastated. I couldn’t get over it until I got a new bike and really made it beautiful.”
Like girlfriends, bikes are always getting stolen in New York. “If you go into a bookstore for 10 minutes, you come out and your bike is gone,” said Mr. Eccles.
This, however, is not necessarily a problem, as Mr. New Yorker pointed out. “The bike pays for itself in three months if you compare it to the subway fare,” he said. “One month, if you take taxis.”
The bike can also be a useful prop when it comes to meeting women. “It’s a good way to start a conversation,” said Chip Brown. “It’s also something to fuss with to alleviate your self-consciousness.”
And apparently it’s a good way to tell whether or not you’re going to get laid. “One time, a woman got mad at me when I proposed riding my bike to her house,” said Mr. Brown. “On the other hand, if a woman says, ‘Bring the bike inside,’ it’s very sexy.”
“Whether or not a woman lets you bring your bike into her house is an indication of how well adjusted she is,” said Mr. Eccles. “If she’s anal-retentive, she won’t want the bike anywhere near her stuff.”
But sometimes a bike is not just a bike—and women seem to know this.
“There is something Peter Pan-ish about it,” said Mr. Kotzen. “That’s part of the reason I don’t take it everywhere anymore.”
“It implies a certain selfishness,” agreed Mr. Eccles. “You can’t give anyone a lift. And there’s a little too much freedom associated with a man who rides a bike.” Mr. Eccles added that, being in his early 50’s, there were about 10 reasons why he wasn’t married, “none of them particularly good ones.”
It can also imply a certain cheapness. One woman, an assistant editor at a glossy men’s magazine, remembered a date she had with a Bicycle Boy she met at a book signing. After chatting her up, the Bicycle Boy made a date to meet her at a nice steakhouse on the Upper West Side. He showed up, late, on his bike (she was waiting outside, nervously smoking cigarettes), then, after they’d sat down and looked at the menu, he said, “Look, do you mind? I’ve just realized I’m really in the mood for pizza. You don’t care do you?” He stood up.
“But don’t we have to…” she said, glancing at the waitress. He grabbed her and hustled her out. “All you had were a few sips of water. I didn’t even touch mine. They can’t charge you for that.”
They went back to her house and ate pizza, and then he made his move. They saw each other a few times after that, but every time, he wanted to come to her house at 10 at night and eat takeout food. She finally ditched him and went out with a banker.
The Crotch Problem
Bicycle Boys often make the mistake of trying to turn their girlfriends into Bicycle Girls. Marguerite, a woman who grew up on Fifth Avenue and now works as an interior designer, actually married a Bicycle Boy. “We both rode bikes,” she said, “so at first it wasn’t a problem. But I noticed something was kind of wrong when he gave me a bicycle seat for my birthday. Then, for Christmas, he gave me a bike rack to put on the car. When we got divorced, he took the bike rack back and kept it for himself. Can you believe that?”
“Boys on bikes? God, no,” said Karen, a novelist. “Can you imagine what a stinky crotch they have? No, thank you. I’ve been mowed down too many times by men on bikes. They’re all kamikaze selfish pricks. If they have sex the way they ride their bikes, thank you, but speed is not important.”
“Women don’t think riding a bike is sexy,” said Mr. Brown. “They think it’s infantile. But at some point, you decide that you can’t go through life giving women a false impression of who you are.”
Candace Bushnell began Sex and the City as a column in The New York Observer in 1994; it subsequently became a book and a series on HBO. She is also the author of Four Blondes, Trading Up and Lipstick Jungle, which is being filmed as a pilot for NBC starring Brooke Shields. Ms. Bushnell is also the host of Sex, Success and Sensibility, a live weekly talk show on Sirius Satellite Radio. She lives in Manhattan with her husband, New York City Ballet principal dancer Charles Askegard.