C yclists are psyched.
Conditions for bicycling around town may not be great due to recent extreme snowfalls and turbulent cold winds, but there’s a lot to bike forward to. On April 20, there’s the annual Rock to Rock ride from East Rock to West Rock (or West to East, if you’d prefer), an event that shows how easy and fun it can be to whisk from one end of the city to the other. Rock to Rock is just one of many communal biking opportunities organized by Elm City Cycling, which is also currently planning bike tours around cultural landmarks for the 2013 International Festival of Arts & Ideas in June.
A Broken Umbrella Theater, the folks who created The Library Project and other all-original New Haven community-based theater works, will unveil a new show this spring, Freewheelers, concerning the bicycle’s hallowed position in the city’s industrial age of the early 1900s. This will be the troupe’s second bike-themed show, following the kid-friendly Head Over Wheels, for which the exterior of an old factory building in Westville was turned into the storefront of a fictional bike shop.
Real bike shops such as The Devil’s Gear in Pitkin Plaza, at the back end of the 360 State Street building, and College Street Cycles at 252 College Street continue to host and/or promote rides and clinics and other gatherings, their energies unflagged by the inclement weather.
There are so many encouragements for bicycling in New Haven, even in wintertime. New bike racks have sprung up in recent months—there’s one outside United Church on the Green now, and where to place racks is a concern regularly raised on seeclickfix.com.
One bike-friendly event that will run its course before it gets too warm outside, but which is likely to cycle on in our memories for years to come, is the Cycle New Haven exhibit at New Haven Museum, which closes March 31. At Cycle’s opening reception last fall, the gallery was mobbed with area cyclists eager to glimpse a bonafide historical appreciation of what, to the pedal-and-helmet crowd, is not so much a mode of transportation as a way of life.
Cycle New Haven occupies just two rooms on the museum’s second floor—scarcely enough space to maneuver a bike—but it packs a century and a half of history into that space. What’s particularly impressive is how it pedals ’round from antiquated artifacts to the bicycle movement of today.
Cycle crystallizes New Haven’s importance not just as a bike-friendly town but as a trendsetting city in the evolution of the bicycle itself. The inventor Pierre Lallement’s ride from Ansonia to New Haven, and the patent he subsequently received for the first pedal-driven two-wheeled velocipede, is a part of city history, acknowledged with a plaque on the Chapel/Temple corner of New Haven Green. But the exhibit covers much more ground:
• Famous bicycles which were designed and built in Connecticut, including those manufactured by the New Haven Bicycle Works, guaranteed in an advertisement to be “the easiest riding and strongest bicycle made.”
• How cycling became symbolic of increased freedom and mobility for women, and may have hastened women’s suffrage and the increase of women in the workforce. There’s an ad for a “Ladies’ Night” held over a century ago by the New Haven Bicycling Club, and women are shown bicycling alongside gentlemen in engraved illustrations of other club pursuits.
• Bicycling clubs, leagues and other gatherings, whose activities range from competitive sporting activities to good-natured community rides. We see documentation of treasure-hunt-styled races as well as uniformed team events in stadiums.
• The merchandise and other ephemera of local biking: the ”Smart Cycling” paraphernalia passed out at city festivals in recent years; a “Bike to Work” plastic drinking bottle; the number which was once attached to the back of a racer in the Cycle Messenger World Championships.
The exhibit sees T-shirts as critical artifacts which portray a living, breathing biking culture. Fliers from street corners are likewise crucial to how the story of bicycling in New Haven is told. One corner of the exhibit is a flurry of familiar faces—members of Critical Mass, Elm City Cycling and other groups—who are easily recognized as riders you’re likely to see on the streets of the city this very afternoon. Seeing local bike crusaders such as Matthew Feiner, Melinda Tuhus and David Streever (to name but a few of the dozens of local cycling celebs who grace this exhibit) in close proximity to images of cyclists from a century ago gives the whole show a more human, less mechanical dimension. That array of old bikes propped up in the gallery isn’t a dusty museum piece. It’s a cosmic bike rack, waiting for the riders of those bikes to return from the shop or store or coffee shop they’ve just ducked into.
If you yourself are still skittish about biking amid the imposing piles of snow, and despairing of the still ice-covered bikepaths, it’s nice to know there’s a place to go and mentally prepare for the warmer months and cycling pleasures just weeks away.
New Haven Museum’s got your back—and your bike.
Cycle New Haven
New Haven Museum, 114 Whitney Ave., New Haven (map)
Exhibit runs through March 31.
Written and photographed by Christopher Arnott.