The New York Times wheels out a bogus-trend story about fashionable women on bicycles.

Media criticism.
Sept. 30 2010 5:32 PM

Biker Chicks

The New York Times wheels out a bogus-trend story about fashionable women on bicycles.

The New York Times. Click image to expand.

Should we exclude the fashion, home, and food sections of the New York Times from our exercises in bogus-trend-spotting because so much of what passes as fashion, home, and food journalism is bogus to begin with? Or should we, like the Old Testament God, unleash our fury on these counterfeit pieces, rip out their entrails with our bare hands, and feed them to wild dogs?

The Times thrusts this moral question on us today with the top story in its "Thursday Styles" section: "Heels on Wheels: These daring young women, in their stylish attire, are turning heads as they roll by." (On the Web, the headline is "Bicycle Chic Gains Speed.")

The story's thin premise holds that a growing number of females garbed in fashionable threads and shoes are now taking to New York's streets on their geeky, retro bicycles. The piece reports:

[Topaz Page-Green] is one in an increasingly visible band of chic New Yorkers whooshing along the green-painted bike lanes that have proliferated in Manhattan, from the Brooklyn Bridge to the Hudson and from TriBeCa to Harlem, clutching BlackBerrys and clad not in spandex but in fluttery skirts, capes and kitten heels.

Roadways are the new runways for these style-obsessed cyclists, their bikes no mere conveyance but a racy adjunct to their look. More than a few are infusing what used to be an athletic, or purely practical, pursuit with eye-catching glamour and sex appeal. …

Women, mostly young, have given the image of cyclists "an extreme makeover," said George Bliss, who owns Hudson Urban Bikes on Charles Street in the West Village.

"Increasingly visible band … more than a few … given the image of cyclists 'an extreme makeover' "—the article speaks more bogosity a few sentences later when it reports that designer Lela Rose "and her cycling cohorts began appearing in Manhattan in significant numbers a couple of years ago, influenced perhaps by a handful of early adopters, including local celebrities like Chloë Sevigny and Naomi Watts." [Emphasis added.] Significant numbers equal what? The Times ain't sayin'.

The story tries to make a big deal out of findings from the New York City Department of Planning (pdf) that the ratio of male bicyclists to female bicyclists in the city has "dropped yearly since 2003." While that's true, the change in ratio isn't a stunner. In 2003, the male-to-female ratio for on-street bicycle lanes was 6.57. In 2008, it was 4.92. And, remember, those statistics compare all men to all women, not just stylish female riders, so this statistical juxtaposition is meaningless. It could very well be that the number of voguish woman on bikes is basically unchanged since 2003.

But that's not all that's wrong with the Times story. It bears a strong resemblance to a Sept. 4, 2007, feature in the New York Observer titled "The Spokes-Models," which reports:

Meet the beautiful bicycle girls of New York, a breed that bears little resemblance to the hard-charging, Spandex-short-wearing species of 20 years ago.

Today's girls—and one always thinks of them as girls, even if they're well into their 40's—are more meandering, their long legs flashing along the pot-holed alleys of SoHo and the boutique-lined bike lanes of the West Village. Eco-conscious and ethereal, they wear flowing frocks and gigantic sunglasses but never helmets.

Other similarities: Both name Chloë Sevigny and Naomi Watts as movie actresses who love to bike the New York streets. (The Times piece calls Sevigny and Watts "early adopters.") Both quote bike dealer George Bliss. In the Observer, Bliss says, "Women are our best customers." In the Times, "They are my best customers." Both quote that bike-riding designer from Tribeca, Lela Rose, and both describe how Rose's offspring and her Norwich terrier, Stitch, sometimes catch bike rides with her.

If only the Times had borrowed the Observer's scruples, too. The weekly smartly avoids bogosity in its piece by offering cultural observations without feeling compelled to clothe it in "trend" language. As the Observer notes, there's nothing at all unprecedented about chic New York babes on bikes. Broadway actress Lillian Russell (1861-1922) "could often be seen riding up and down Fifth Avenue grasping the mother-of-pearl handlebars in long white gloves," the weekly reports.

Although I spot no plagiarism in the Times piece, justice demands that its writer treat the Observer'swriter to a pedicab ride through Central Park, an expensive lunch, and maybe a make-over at a Fifth Avenue salon. It's just wrong to repeat so many elements from another publication's story without crediting it or adding anything substantive.

*****

Next up from the Times: Women take to the streets flashing their style in convertibles! Have you seen a bogus trend that needs a beating? Send your tips to slate.pressbox@gmail.com and give my Twitter feed a spin. (E-mail may be quoted by name in "The Fray," Slate's readers' forum; in a future article; or elsewhere unless the writer stipulates otherwise. Permanent disclosure: Slate is owned by the Washington Post Co.)

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Jack Shafer was Slate's editor at large. You can follow him on Twitter or email him at Shafer.Reuters@gmail.com.

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