"Every time I see an adult on a bicycle, I no longer despair for the future of the human race." - H.G. Wells
It’s hard not to like bicycles. For design junkies they fall into that rare class of functional objects which includes paper clips, scissors, and pencils - objects whose elegant simplicity is very hard to improve upon. For kids they provide the first of taste of freedom and mobility. In many developing countries bicycles are the primary mode of transportation and a means of livelihood. (Four times as many bicycles are manufactured than cars every year). For athletes they provide a competitive challenge, speed, and spectacle like no other sport. In cities, bikes allow messengers to deliver packages more efficiently than any other means. Boys like them. Girls like them. Italian senior citizens like them. They are fun. Some are really pretty. They all reduce pollution. The list goes on. Someone who doesn’t like bikes is immediately suspect, like someone who claims to not like French fries.
I went to the North American Hand-built Bike Show (NAHBS) in Portland, Oregon a few weeks ago to see the current state of bike design in the US. The UK, France, Italy, and Japan have talented bike builders and lengthy traditions, but the US holds its own internationally and is known especially for innovation in new technologies and materials. The show featured many legendary bicycle builders and some talented young Turks.
Numerous blogs have covered the NAHBS show in depth, and there are many Flicker portfolios by bike aficionados such as VeloNews. I walked the show and took photos of the design of components, parts and the bold use of color. Click here for examples. Handmade bikes are a particularly sexy marriage of art and engineering, so it may be fitting that the Lifetime Achievement award went to the Italian, Dario Pegoretti.
But, for me, the most provocative experience at the show was an event that took place one night at a bar: Roller Racing (video clip at top). About two hundred young bikers and their friends packed into a sweaty disco/gym/beer hall to see who could peddle the fastest over 500 meters in a simulated bike racing experience. I can’t remember the last time I was around so many people having such a blast in a competition. There were about twenty heats. The guy who won was a walk-on from the audience named Chas who stripped down to his pink briefs. It’s not often that I show flesh and booty in this newsletter, but this was an event without any gender bias, utterly egalitarian, and as far from sexually exploitive as you can get. The woman parading around between heats in a glitzy bikini was not an objectified decoration, but rather a cyclo cross bike racer herself. Click here for more roller racing.
There were all kinds of curious, quirky and erotic elements: guys with shaved legs wearing pink lycra, women dressed in casual jeans and jerseys hooting, hollering, and guzzling beer, goofy stuffed animals, eclectic tattoos, cultish hats, pink and black tones everywhere. People from the audience jumped in between professional heats to compete. Everybody there was a bike rider. The event was sponsored by Rapha, the chic British bike apparel company that seems to do everything with high-performance elegance. The overall feel of the night - the energy, the unselfconsciousness - reminded me of the first Jimi Hendrix concert I went to as kid - raucously physical, intelligent and fun.
I stated above that bikes were about two things: art and engineering. But maybe bikes are first about community. It may sound corny, but it’s true - and that’s what made this event so enjoyable and so optimistic. People collect and form all manner of groups around bikes - from Hells Angels to Aids Riders. Google ‘bike groups’ in your city and you will find a broad eclectic list. In San Francisco we have everything from specialized Lesbian groups like Different Spokes to broadly inclusive organizations like Oakland’s Yellow Jackets, anarchist groups like Critical Mass and family recreational groups like Back Roads.
So maybe it’s the paradox of bikes that makes them so special. They are, at the same time, both quintessentially individualistic and the magnetic forces that draw people together. I think H.G. Wells was onto something.
If you want to see a cool documentary of an edgy, talented biking community, get Mash SF, a film by Mike Martin and Gabe Mumford. It profiles a dozen unique fixie riders in San Francisco working over the city with individual style and fearlessness. You can't get the DVD on Amazon, but it's available at independent bike shops around the country which are in themselves community centers.
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