Mike “Gizmo” Johnson and his partner, Christina, were riding their bikes along the Mississippi River in St. Paul last spring after heavy rains caused the river to flood its banks. On Harriet Island they came upon the dilapidated frame of a blue 10-speed Motobecane road bike, seemingly plucked from the river by the rising waters.“It was wedged between two thick tree logs,” Johnson says. “I took some parts that my friend gave me and put them on there.” He restored the bike back to working condition and added it to his fleet, which also includes a Peugeot and a Schwinn that he is steadily improving through DIY repair and restoration. He and Christina have gone on bike trips all over the Twin Cities, including one ride all the way from downtown St. Paul to the Mall of America.
Johnson’s bikes are not new. He doesn’t buy high-end parts for them or compete in road races. Thin and wiry, he prefers jeans and a tank-top over the stereotypical spandex racing gear that “serious” cyclists don. In 2008, he was living in the Dorothy Day homeless shelter in downtown St. Paul when he needed the wheels realigned on his 20-inch Gitane. A friend at the center pointed him to the Sibley Bike Depot, a shop on University Avenue that caters to low-income individuals who can rent bikes, learn bike maintenance, and earn points toward bike ownership by volunteering their services as bike mechanics.
Aside from his athletic physique, Johnson doesn’t fit into any of the stereotypes that contemporary culture—with generous assistance from national and local media—has perpetuated about urban bicyclists. He doesn’t dress or act like a hipster (whatever that is); he carries no messenger bag; he’s never bought a brand-new fixed-gear from a high-end bike retailer. He and Christina have a 3-month-old son, Michael, and a bike trailer for him. They are on the lower rungs of the socioeconomic ladder, and ride bikes not because it’s cool or healthy, but because it’s the most efficient, cost-effective option when cars and public transit are off the table.
The Unseen—or Ignored—Demographic
Just as popular music has its internecine camps—heavy metal, country, indie—cycling has its cliques: the roadies, the trail riders, the messenger wannabes. But there is one such clique that doesn’t cohere the way the others do, and doesn’t get much play from the media. This group includes immigrants who lack the proper documentation to obtain drivers’ licenses; low-income individuals who can’t afford cars; those who’ve had their licenses revoked for DUIs or other offenses; or residents of communities where public transit infrastructure is poor or nonexistent. This group includes cyclists like Mike and Christina, and it has been dubbed—for lack of a better term—the Invisible Cyclists.
“They’re not even seen by those of us who claim to love cycling,” wrote Dan Koeppel in Bicycling magazine in 2005 (reprinted here in the Utne Reader in 2006). “We’ll pick out a sleek Italian racing bike from across an intersection, but a dozen day laborers on Huffys dissolve into the streets.” Since I first heard the term a few years ago, I have wondered who the invisible cyclists of the Twin Cities are, and why we don’t see them. Read more