Hugo Koblet popped into my head. The Swiss rider, winner of eight national championships, six-days in Chicago and New York, medalist at the Worlds, and winner of the 1950 Giro d’Italia and 1951 Tour de France (where he won five stages), always carried a comb, a damp sponge, a bit of cologne in his jersey pocket during races. Allegedly. He’d cross the line, pull off his goggles, slick back his hair, and present himself. For this, he not only became a spokesperson for an Italian comb company, but was dubbed Le Pedaleur de Charme. Allegedly, an elegant pedaler, and had a way with the ladies, too. Or maybe it was all about the hair.
I love the sobriquet. Seems to mix both high and low aspirations. Seems effortless, too, as I suppose charm should be.
I was thinking of his nickname the other week. I was just riding along, rolling out the opening miles on my Sunday constitutional, when I stopped for the light at 145th and St. Nicholas. Two cyclists were already there ahead of me. I acknowledged them. One gave me a quick look, a second look, and exclaimed, “So this is your real ride!” My surprise registered, I suppose, and he explained, “I’ve seen you riding your daughter to school for years. I live on 112th.”
As the guy noted, that daily ride is completed on another bike. A vintage Gary Fisher Hoo Koo e Koo with slicks and fenders towing a Burley Piccolo. It’s been how I’ve gotten around town with a kid for nearly eight years. I guess a sort-of tandem carrying a kid cruising around the streets stands out. It certainly arouses curiosity, jokes, and praise, though I don’t know if that’s just New Yorkers doing their thing. I’m asked about the rig on a regular basis, perhaps monthly, often when I’m stopped at a light and a cyclist, pedestrian, or driver asks about it. Or makes a joke about hopping on if the passenger isn’t present. Or offers appreciation for the mode.
A few days later, the chain came off the Burley when I was towing it home on a detour through The Bronx. After I stopped at a red light to fix it, a driver pulled up, rolled his window down and just started talking to me about it like we had been interrupted only moments earlier. I was so surprised, I looked at the guy, straining to identify him, which I couldn’t, and feared we had crossed paths before, so I continued the conversation as if we knew each other. Maybe I am losing it. Maybe he was surprised, too.
It reminded me that bike riding is a public act, and we should expect that we’re being observed at all times. And act accordingly. The person we yell at might see us somewhere else sometime soon. In different circumstances. And we might not have the option of pedaling away.
A friend I ride with in Central Park seems to have mastered the art of charm pedaling. Besides being so smooth on two wheels, he also never ever yells at people when they’re riding/walking/acting erratically as he’s about to pass. He has crafted a whooping sound which he utilizes to alert people ahead to his presence and even seems to change the pitch as he passes them. He doesn’t need to yell, he doesn’t seem to break pace. He whoops, picks a safe line, and goes on by. It even seems that he changes the pitch as he passes the person he’s trying to get the attention of—a doppler shift of sorts that I notice when I’m keeping pace with him.
I don’t know if it charms other cyclists, convinces people thinking about riding to ride, or leaves non-cyclists in a good way. But I like it. He makes it seem effortless, natural, simple. I’ve tried to emulate him, but can’t master his art. I believe that if he someone recognizes him in another setting, whether a cyclist or not, the encounter is more likely to be positive.
It’s something I’ve been trying in various guises for years. While it is potentially dangerous when people walk in front of me as I’m riding by, most of the time a collision all that likely. I try to say “thank you” as I roll by, even when the other person is in the wrong. Occasionally, I’m in the wrong, and in those moments, when I’m in the wrong and a crossing pedestrian pauses for me, I make a point of getting in a super-sincere, “thank you.” And they usually respond with “you’re welcome,” or “no problem” or some other friendly reassurance.
There are times when I feel I can’t be charming in order to stay safe. But I hope that I somehow can keep pedaling charm going in a way that works out for me, for cyclists, for others.
Let’s make ourselves look good.