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Cycling Back Around

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This is the summer you realize you need it again.

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What's happening is, the American conception of the bicycle-as-toy and the bicycle-as-sports-equipment is being infiltrated by the European notion of the bicycle-as-transportation and the Asian notion of the bicycle-as-cargo-hauler.

The idea has dawned that, guess what, contrary to biker dogma of the 1970s and 1980s, you don't have to break your back with drop-down handlebars and obsess over ever-lighter space-age frames. The totemic two-wheeler is no longer the Specialized Roubaix Elite Triple with the carbon frame and the 30-speed Shimano drivetrain for $1,949.99, last seen tearing down Beach Drive on weekends, bearing lawyers and lobbyists in full spandex peloton plumage. And good riddance to the 1980s' and 1990s' craze for tank-treaded, double-suspension mountain bikes. The only time you ever found yourself "off-road," dude, was on the C&O Canal towpath.

Hybrids came along, of course, a compromise between road bikes and mountain bikes. Now hybrids have been refined and gussied into "commuter bikes," made by such companies as Jamis, Breezer and others, costing a few hundred bucks up to $1,000.

The handlebars are set higher than the seats, so you sit upright and comfortable. What a concept. The reign of the purists is over, and all the accessories they forbade are permitted again. There are baskets in front and racks in back. There are chain guards so you don't get grease on your slacks, and skirt guards so you don't catch your dress. Kickstands are no longer a heresy punishable by sneering. Fenders are back, along with mudflaps, so you don't get a splatter trail up your back on rainy days. On some of the models, front and rear lights come installed.

Basically, it's the 1969 Schwinn Racer, with more gears.

The bike industry's fresh supply of new-old bikes is being supplemented by the tectonic forces of Craigslist and eBay unearthing vast midden heaps of old-old Schwinns, Raleighs, Huffys, Peugeots, Sears Roebuck Free Spirits and so on. They have the advantage of being cheap and retro-hip.

"There's a whole new clientele" choosing these bikes, Charlie McCormick, founder of City Bikes, says of this summer in Bicycle Washington. "People who haven't been riding for years and years are going back to it. It's all right to show up at a barbecue on a bike. You're not marginalized. It's cool."

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A bicycle is a minimalist sculpture, an object that is also a concept, sparely rendered in a few lines and curves. The old ones have a certain special elegance. Never discount the aesthetic motive when it comes to biking -- even commuter biking.

"My friends call it the Cadillac of bikes," Bryce Pardo says of his green and white 1969 Schwinn Racer. It is locked to a parking sign on the sidewalk of K Street, where he works with an international exchange program. He commutes from Capitol Hill in his dark slacks, button-down shirts and work shoes.


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