On a warm and cloudless day in May, a group of bicyclists gathers under the towering palm trees at Oakland's Jack London Square.
But unlike folks who slip into sleek and colorful racing gear to zoom down Bay Area streets, these pedalers wear tweed, and lots of it, as they set out for some stylish, slow-paced fun.
Organized twice a year -- the next ride takes place in the fall -- by a handful of bike enthusiasts who maintain San Francisco Tweed, or sftweed.com, the SF Tweed Ride is one of many such popular urban group rides that take place in cities as varied as Oakland and Osaka, Japan.
As much a way to mingle as an opportunity to get out and pedal, tweed rides, named for the touch of woolen fabric cyclists don or decorate their bikes with, are a chic tip of the hat to the commuter cycling movement, which is made up of people who use bicycles for everyday transportation.
"It's a more playful, courteous, critical mass with a mixture of fun, dapper costumery," says Colin Fahrion, co-organizer of SF Tweed. The San Francisco resident is an avid cyclist whose zippy road bike is his main form of transportation. Today, Fahrion is decked out in a snazzy vest and brown bowler hat and is cruising on an old, upright European-style commuter bicycle.
Fahrion says SF Tweed was formed two years ago in response to the London Tweed Run, an annual event that evokes a bygone era when sharply-dressed ladies and gentlemen proudly rode their bikes.
That ride draws hundreds of tweed-clad cyclists, and is a rather formal affair with people in period clothing riding vintage and neo-vintage bikes. Robert and Kelly Haines were there in April.
"It was pretty phenomenal," the San Francisco couple say, describing the 500 or so jaunty riders who cycled through the center of London.
For the Bay Area ride, the Haineses proudly wear their London Tweed Run armbands as they meander through downtown Oakland on their bikes. Kelly is dressed in a smart day suit and straw hat, and daintily navigates a green American-made 1960s one-speed. Robert puffs on a tobacco pipe as he pedals an elegant ebony 1969 English Triumph Roadster. The couple found both bikes on Craigslist.
"The idea is to get people into cycling in a way they typically don't," says organizer Fahrion, who stresses that you don't have to be a vintage clothing or vintage bike enthusiast to participate. There are no hard rules as to what type of bike you should ride. Guidelines on what to wear are loose -- you can get away with just a hint of tweed.
Sometimes, Fahrion says, the duds get really creative and costumey, like the tweed beetle jacket, complete with extra arms and antennae, that a friend of his made to wear on a ride. Bikes themselves are frequently decorated: A handlebar-mustached Randal Alan Smith, of San Francisco, steers a cruiser that looks encrusted with silver glitter.
But leave the bluejeans at home.
"We like dressing up," says Zoe Leverant, resting in the shade during a stop at Preservation Park. Leverant is decked out in a form-fitting shift that does not impede the gracefully acrobatic bicycle mount and dismount for which she later snags first place in a quirky contest held during the ride. A beaded black velvet hat with a poof of netting is perched atop her red curls, whose color complements her red Japanese Shogun road bike, which she customized herself.
Leverant met her companion, Nat Futterman, at last year's ride. The couple say they enjoy the pleasantry of SF Tweed's outings. Last fall, the couple say, "intersection diplomats" politely held signs as people pedalled through crosswalks.
"It's less advocacy and more foppishness," Leverant explains.
However, tweed riders aren't just concerned with looking good. Jennifer Stanley, who's on her second tweed ride, says her commuter bike is her main mode of transportation. It helps her keep in shape and she uses it to get to work at the Public Works Agency in Oakland, where she is bicycle and pedestrian facilities coordinator.
Stanley also is concerned about her impact on the environment.
"I do care about my particular footprint," she says.
But at the end of the day, it's all about the simple pleasure of going out for a spin.
"The experience of riding a bicycle engages the sense like no other means of transport," says Tweed rider Robert Haines. "I think that there's something very magical about moving silently, smoothly and almost effortlessly at a speed that's faster than walking; it produces a very childlike sense of wonder."
Bay Area Ride Info
May is National Bike Month, and Thursday is Bike to Work Day. Here's a brief list of fun group rides, resources and classes:
Geared 4 Kids: This child-centered monthly ride, open to all cyclists, started in April and runs to October. The next ride is Sunday at Mosswood Park, Oakland. Info at www.geared4kids.org.
Sacramento Tweed: Riders are encouraged to wear light fabrics for what's sure to be a warm Seersucker Ride on June 5. Info at www.sactotweed.blogspot.com.
San Francisco Bike Party: Meets at 8 p.m. first Fridays for organized rides. Info at http://sfbikeparty.wordpress.com.
San Jose Bike Party: Meets at 8 p.m. third Fridays for organized rides. Info at www.sjbikeparty.org.
East Bay Bike Party: This group, which meets monthly on second Fridays, will hold its anniversary ride at 8 p.m. Friday in Oakland. Info at http://eastbaybikeparty.wordpress.com.
The Tweed Report: This list is a beautifully illustrated resource of tweed rides happening around the world. Info at http://ridingpretty.blogspot.com.
East Bay Bicycle Coalition: The nonprofit group holds bicycle safety classes, a good idea especially if you're planning on participating on an urban ride. Info at www.ebbc.org/safety.
-- Source: David Coldiron, guest blogger, www.cyclelicio.us