There has never been a city so jaded about personal transportation as Los Angeles, a place where Lamborghinis clot valet stands, customized Harleys are as common as Camrys, and the streets thrum with more ’64 Impalas — the cars that bounce in Dr. Dre videos — than they probably did when LBJ was president. Porsche Carreras, exotic supercars in the rest of the country, are sometimes referred to as Beverly Hills Fords.
But a Flying Pigeon, the iconic Mao-era bicycle famous from photographs of 1970s Beijing, can still turn heads. And there have been circus parades that attract less attention than the flock of 40 heavy, single-speed Flying Pigeons, which slowly makes its way from Highland Park to Alhambra on one of the monthly Sunday morning dim sum expeditions organized by Josef and Adam Bray-Ali, the brothers who own the Flying Pigeon bike shop on North Figueroa.
“On the dim sum runs,” Josef says, “we run into snickering Chinese people who tell us that their grandparents used to ride Flying Pigeons, and older people who probably think we’re communists, who yell that they left China to get away from those bikes.”
Josef, who spent years analyzing policy for a state assemblyman, is a longtime citizen of Bicycle Nation. He started the bike-repair cooperative Bicycle Oven in his garage a few years ago; bought boxes of cheap wine, trays of pan dulce, and put notices on the Internet that there was a standing party on Tuesday nights, where, by the way, you could come fix your bikes for free. When he’s not at the shop or hanging out at Bicycle Oven, now in a storefront two doors south of the shop, he’s probably lobbying a city transportation subcommittee for expanded bike lanes or poring over a 600-page MTA proposal for loopholes that might favor bikes. When his car broke down a couple of years ago, right before the birth of his son, he took the money he’d saved to replace it and instead purchased a $3,000 Dutch cargo bicycle, and installed a baby seat in the wooden freight box himself. There are probably kittens with bigger carbon footprints than Josef Bray-Ali.
“I’m not a hippie,” he says, “but none of my friends own TVs.”
Josef wanted to open a store selling Dutch bicycles, the expensive, beautifully finished commuting machines ubiquitous in Holland. Adam, whose day job is as a systems administrator for a global consulting firm, thought that they should sell the similarly styled Flying Pigeons instead, bicycles that sell for about a third of what the Dutch bikes cost. (Under Mao, the price was set at about four times the average monthly income.) He managed to land a containerload through Chinese connections his firm had.
The dim sum rides are to their Flying Pigeon store what surfing competitions are to Quiksilver or NASCAR sponsorship is to Pennzoil: a way to emphasize the virtues of the brand, which is designed as dignified transportation, not as a fitness tool. (Destinations change every month, although King Hua in Alhambra is one of the favorites.)
“The pace of our dim sum rides is agonizingly slow for people looking for a workout,” Josef says, grunting as he tries to stretch an inner tube onto a bicycle wheel. “Other bike stores are hurting right now because they’re selling luxury consumables. The bikes we sell are closer to washing machines or stoves. We get more customers downgrading from Priuses than we do people who own mountain bikes. Most of our sales are to women: musicians, makeup artists, set designers and teachers. It’s a little like riding a beach cruiser, a heavy, single-gear bike — but unlike a beach cruiser, it’s not associated with general douchiness.”
Josef finally snaps the inner tube into place. “The Flying Pigeon embodies both the best and the worst of China. The bike embodies a lot of history, looks great and is supremely utilitarian. It is the iconic communist-era bike. But the Flying Pigeon factory in Tianjin also has incredibly low standards. Most of the bikes are good, but one out of 11 or so, we just have to throw away. It’s a remnant of the communist system, I think. If you ended up with a lemon back then, the shop that sold it to you would probably accept the return, then tell you that you could have another one in four or five years when your turn came up.’’