The city also hosts major annual events such as the Philadelphia International Cycling Championship Race, the largest single-day professional race in North America – actually two races, one for men, one for women – famous for its circuit up the daunting incline of the Manayunk Wall. There is the third annual Bike Philly mass ride, a family-friendly roll winding through Center City on car-free streets, set for September 13. Then there’s the Kensington Kinetic Sculpture Derby, a proudly eccentric festival of moveable, mechanized art. And there’s the annual Bike Part Art Show, a fundraiser for the community-based Neighborhood Bike Works, which operates out of a church on the Penn campus, teaches kids from West Philadelphia to rebuild and restore bikes and organizes a team of teen riders.
Other local bike-centric projects include the Pedal Co-op that transports compost to local gardens and recyclables to the city’s single-stream recycling center with its bike-pulled trailers, and R.E.Load Bags – started by Philly bike messengers Roland Burns (the R) and Ellie Lum (the E) – which is now one of the foremost messenger bag fabricators in the country. Its distinctive line of single and double strap bags and accessories have helped fuel the whole messenger chic fashion movement (Urban Outfitters, the Philadelphia-based clothing chain, is a prime co-opter). Carrie Collins – who started with R.E.Load Bags, and still sews for them occasionally – sells U-lock holsters, utility belts, bags and other cycling accessories from her beautiful shop, Fabric Horse, in Northern Liberties. Like Mertes, Collins arrived in Philadelphia – from the University of Ohio, Cincinnati – and was transformed by the cycling culture that greeted her.
“I rode as a kid,” says Collins, 29, who rides a single speed Colnago outfitted with basket and riser bars, and who also just rebuilt a gorgeous Seventies-era Holdsworth Mistral road bike. “My family would ride to get ice cream after dinner in the summertime, through the country roads of northern Ohio or I would ride my Huffy around the neighborhood. And I had a mountain bike that I brought to Cincinnati, and I would ride it to work and to school, but I still had a car…. Cycling was just not something that a lot of people did in Cincinnati when I was there.”
But when Collins moved to Philadelphia in 2003, she sold her car. “My bike was stolen the first month, so then I got a 10-speed at a thrift store and converted it to a single speed. And then eventually to a fixed gear, and then I became more and more obsessed with bicycles and just the idea and the whole culture and the beauty of the DIY-ness of it all.
Now I have several bikes and a moped, and a company based around cycling.”
If there are downsides to cycling in Philadelphia, theft has to be at the top of the list. Broken U-locks, twisted like pretzels around parking meters and street signs, are a common sight in Center City as are cannibalized frames, or a single wheel locked to a post – the rest of the bike gone. There are no reliable statistics on theft as the police department says it has more important crimes to track, but it’s hard to talk to anyone who cycles around town that hasn’t had a bike stolen over the years.