The Spokes-Models

Schwinn Went the Strings of My Heart

“Yeah, the basket is totally essential,” said Jessica Torres, a 22-year-old freelance graphic designer with tangled, sand-colored hair who was hanging out in McCarren Park in Williamsburg on Sunday, Sept. 2. Nearby lay her copper Raleigh bicycle with, yes, a steel-colored basket attached under the swooping handlebars. “I like putting my purse and stuff in there, and sometimes I’ll put my roommate’s dog in there,” she said. “He’s a Chihuahua and he looks sooooo cute in there.” (Bells are also popular.)

Every weekend afternoon, the tiny, dirt-filled park seems to turn into a cruising area of sorts, with 20-somethings lounging on the sparse patches of grass and gazing up and down at each other’s bikes. “I think women look sexy on bikes,” Ms. Torres said. “I mean, I feel sexy and really good about myself when I’m riding. And why not wear a cute dress while I’m doing it?”

Certainly, there’s nothing wrong with femme-ing up bike riding. In the late 19th century, critics considered the pastime a threat to women’s physical and mental health, not to mention a hazard to their complexions and hairstyles. In March 1896, Marguerite Lindley, a professor of physical culture in New York, said the bicycle is destructive to “feminine symmetry and poise” and a “disturber of internal organs.”

Although it was considered a somewhat heathen sport by most of America, especially because of its associations with the women’s suffrage movement (Susan B. Anthony said “the bicycle has done more for the emancipation of women than anything else in the world”), it was all the rage among New York’s elite class.

In 1895, they formed The Michaux Club on Broadway near 53rd Street, where handsome, muscle-ripped professional racers taught women the mysteries of wheeling, with riding lessons in the morning, music for indoor riding after lunch and afternoon tea in the clubroom. During warm weekday afternoons, Central Park’s drives heaved with cycling ladies riding equestrian-like in puffy bloomers under elegant Victorian-style dresses.

The buxom Lillian Russell, the most famous Broadway actress and socialite of her day, received a gold-plated, jewel-encrusted bike from her friend “Diamond Jim” Brady, the railroad supply businessman and millionaire, and could often be seen riding up and down Fifth Avenue grasping the mother-of-pearl handlebars in long white gloves. The contraption became a city sensation.

Another resurgence in biking popularity emerged in 1958, when Marilyn Monroe posed with a bicycle as Ms. Russell for a photography series of 20th-century sex symbols for Life magazine.

And then came the 80’s! While the boys popped wheelies during the BMX craze, Spandex-clad ladies pulled their hair into a side ponytail, feeling the burn on their bikes in a fitness frenzy.

It wasn’t until recently, however, that bicycling took a turn back toward the literary aesthetic—think Gwyneth Paltrow as Sylvia Plath tooling around Cambridge in 2003 movie Sylvia, rather than, say, Sigourney Weaver suffering through a spin class. Also in 2003: Julia Roberts in Mona Lisa Smile, cruising in tweedy outfits around the Wellesley campus (Ms. Paltrow and Ms. Roberts have also gone green in real life, of course).

On July 14, 2004, Daily Candy, a fashion and beauty Web site, wrote an article hailing Electra bikes—“the cutest retro two-wheelers around”—as the newest must-have for summer. “We probably got 100 phone calls that same day, 95 percent of them from women,” said Edlin Pitts, manager of A Bicycle Shop on 22nd Street in Chelsea.