Women Bike PHL
Biking as Lifestyle
Katie Van Vliet
Katie Van Vliet works at Moore College. She is an artist and has been biking in Philadelphia for eight years.
What’s your bike history?
Growing up in the Poconos, I didn’t use bicycling for much other than fun. I used hand-me-down BMX bicycles to get to friends’ houses. I did learn to ride a bike on a banana-seat bike that my father lovingly built for me when I was 4 or 5. He passed away last year but when he was a teenager he was an apprentice at a bicycle shop in Scotch Plains, NJ. He eventually moved on to cycles with engines, but passed on this love of vintage bicycles to me and my brother (who also bikes daily in Philadelphia). I started biking in Philly in college. I went to Moore College of Art & Design, and I spent a year in the dorms and after the year was over I realized I wanted to live in the city. I moved to West Philly and had a two mile commute, so I started using my bicycle. The first day I rode I felt so liberated, like, “this is so freeing…so fast, and I feel like I’m getting exercise.” I rode a lousy mountain bike for two years before saving up to buy this beautiful vintage mixte road bike, with double crossbars on the top tube. I bought it at Via Bicycles in South Philly and as soon as I saw it I knew it was mine. That bike was built by a company called Flandria. I love things with history, so after I researched the bike I found out it was from Belgium, but has French and British parts and was a dominant force in professional cycling in the 60’s and 70’s. It’s a really beautiful bicycle. I retired it last year; it just cost too much to get the crankset rebuilt every single year because I’m a really aggressive rider.
Can you tell me a little bit more about your commute now?
Most of my commute is on Spring Garden St, where there’s a bike lane. I’m coming from Fishtown, and one of my least favorite streets to ride on is Girard Ave (I’ve crashed on the trolley tracks twice), so I try to bypass it and take Master Street and 4th Street instead. 4th Street between Girard and Spring Garden dips into a valley so there’s a hill both ways. And on my way home I just have to climb 20th Street to get to Spring Garden, but it’s very easy. Most of the time I don’t bother to change gears.
You’ve retired your old bike, what do you ride these days?
I have a new ladies’ mixte road bike by Torker. It’s the same build as the other one but a little bit modernized. I have the Flandria in my basement-can’t bear to get rid of it. I converted the Flandria to a single speed and this one is a 10-speed. I use two gears, and that’s it. They are there if I ever decide to do a longer ride. The Torker needed a little bit of bling so I upgraded to a sparkly gold saddle by Soma Ensho.
Did you buy it in a bike shop in Philly?
I bought it at the Bike Stable on Frankford Ave. It’s close to my house and the mechanics who work there are really great; they are knowledgeable and have taken on challenges, like when I brought them the Flandria and asked them to take all the gears off and make it into a single speed. They were able to investigate the parts from different countries and find solutions. I’ve also worked with the Bicycle Stable during the Kensington Kinetic Sculpture Derby; I like philanthropic businesses that support art events in the neighborhood.
Do you do longer rides for pleasure or do you mostly do utilitarian cycling?
Mostly utilitarian cycling. Once (and just once) my husband and I went on a day ride up the Wissahickon. I would love to, I want to do a “bike and barge” tour through the Netherlands. That’s kind of why I bought this bike, hedging, “someday I’ll do it now that I have the right bicycle.”
Do you fix your flats yourself?
Nope. I am happy to pay someone who can do it better than me to do it. I understand the idea of how to change a tube, but I don’t have the tools to do it and I don’t have the desire to do it when I’m usually close to a bike shop. I’m sure if I go on a long trip with my husband I will learn. I haven’t gotten a flat in years, my tires have kevlar in them. Before I got those tires I had a flat every 3 months. My father taught me how to change a tube and how to true a tire a while back, but I don’t do it regularly enough to remember.
Do you ride in all kinds of weather?
I’ll ride in the winter for sure, the cold doesn’t bother me. I’ll have frozen cheeks but be sweating anyway by the end of my ride. I don’t like the rain or when it’s actively snowy or icy on the street. I’ll ride to work knowing that it might rain later in the day and I might get wet riding home, but if it’s raining in the morning I’ll take the El.
Do you have a system for riding to work? Do you ride in your regular clothes, do you change?
I ride in my regular clothes. Over the past eight years I’ve carefully tailored my wardrobe to be bike-friendly. I work at an arts college so it’s easy to dress down; today I’m wearing jeans and there’s paint on my jeans and that’s ok. But I’ll bike in dresses and heels if I want to wear them that day. I keep a blazer in the closet in case I suddenly get called into a meeting or something and need to be a little bit fancier.
Is there anything else you’d like to talk about with regard to bicycling?
I got hit by a car door last week cruising up to a red light. A man got out of a cab without looking, and he opened his door into my leg, instead of into my handlebars, which means I was right next to the car when he opened the door. But it happens. It’s like a fender-bender, and no one really gets hurt and nobody’s property really gets damaged. I’m horribly bruised, but it didn’t stop me from riding. And I guess that’s the point that I want to make, is that when you’re a kid you learn how to fall down. Because of that hyper-awareness a bicyclist learns, you can manage a hazardous situation to minimize being hurt. It’s not a risk-free endeavor, but neither is driving and it shouldn’t be so scary as to deter people.
You’ve been biking for a fairly long time, and biking in Philadelphia has changed in the last eight or nine years. As a commuter, how have you experienced the change?
More lanes are always nice. When I started biking I was in college so I was probably more willing to take risks, which means I was comfortable biking in center city traffic faster than someone who might have started riding later in life. There are definitely more bikers out now than there were eight years ago when I started. Some drivers are more aware of bikers’ rights to take lanes, and how we make complex turns, and I think the city’s efforts to educate all road users contributes to that change. I also see far more older riders now, which is great!
I think in a lot of situations where you’re looking to start a new habit or make a lifestyle change it helps to have a support network or community. Was there anything in place like that for you, or did you manage to find a community after you started biking?
I wasn’t involved with the bicycling community until after college. When I bought my house in East Kensington (in 2008) I began volunteering to organize the Trenton Ave Arts Festival, which partners with the Kensington Kinetic Sculpture Derby. I don’t run the TAAF anymore, but the events have grown so much since their beginnings. This year’s derby and festival was last weekend and over 10,000 people came. It was really cool to be part of that community, seeing artists and bicyclists coming together and merging and creating these crazy kinetic sculptures.
I work at Moore now, and have converted a few students who do work-study in my department to cycling. They can see that it’s an affordable and fast way to get around; imperative when they have so much else going on between work, studio, class, sleep, etc.
I think bicycling has until recently been sort of categorized as a fringe activity connected to a more artistic, bohemian community. As an artist, how do you see those connections changing and evolving as cycling becomes more mainstream?
It’s obvious that artists and bicycles go hand-in-hand. Artists are typically frugal and environmentally conscious, and biking to get around is a great solution for both. I used to pack all of my artwork for shows on my bicycle- pack up weird rigs and backpacks attached to backpacks with frames in them bungee-corded to each other. Artists are creative problem solvers and bicycles are a way to solve a problem creatively when you don’t have funds or the means or the time to do the more typical solution of moving things around.
I’m not sure if that answered your question, but I think that everyone should bike, so the more bicyclists riding to work wearing suits the better…
Do you see bicycling incorporated into the next few phases of your life, and how do you intend to continue to make a priority?
Bicycling is definitely a priority, it’s definitely who I am, and I think if I stopped biking I might gain 15 pounds immediately. I am a newly married person, we own our house in Fishtown and we’re going to be there for a long time, so bicycling will continue to be an efficient way to get around. My husband currently works in Delaware, so he has the car during the week, so I have to use a bicycle to get around if I want to be independent. If he comes back to work in the city I’ll still be riding my bicycle to get to work or to go to wherever I’m going.
On your first time bike commuting you mentioned this feeling of liberation. I think people who bike get very attached to that very quickly, and even addicted to it. How do you think we can best showcase that feeling, and show people who are hesitant to bike that overcoming all the real or perceived obstacles can be worth it?
When you see a guy like that, riding with his cello on his back [a cyclist with a cello rode by during the interview], then you can see that it can be part of a lifestyle that’s not just about biking around and hopping up on the sidewalk and defying the rules. It can be about getting where you’re going and doing that in a way that makes sense for you. It’s nice to be able to get through a traffic jam, but it sucks when you’re going through it and you suddenly get doored. So I understand that people are hesitant, but the pros outweigh the cons. Biking daily has made me a better driver too; I’m cautious of my surroundings, and can anticipate what vulnerable road users, like bikers, pedestrians, skate boarders, and motorcyclists, are going to do next, because I’ve been there.
I think you also didn’t used to be able to sit in a cafe in Philadelphia and see people biking down the street with a cello on their backs quite as much five years ago.
No, I don’t think so either, and when you’re in a car you don’t see that. That mentality of being in a closed bubble and not seeing what’s going on around you, that’s true in a car and it’s true on a bus and it’s true on the subway. I really love the hyper-awareness of being on the bicycle. When I’m riding I see every single car and I’m looking at the drivers and I’m looking at their headlights and I see the pedestrians and the dogs, because you have to anticipate timing of how people are going to move and at what speed.
It’s a way to get to know the city that you don’t get to know it when you drive through.
I know every single pothole on North 3rd Street. I love that I can be at work at 20th and Race and need to pick up something from one of my artists who lives at 9th and Kater, and I can go to her house, get her piece of artwork and bring it back to the store in less than 40 minutes. And having to go across town to run an errand in less than your lunch hour is really wonderful. I take routes through neighborhoods on my bike that I wouldn’t be comfortable walking through. I literally do see more of the city because I bike.
Interview by Claudia Setubal