Here is a video of a somewhat goofy bike race held in San Francisco last week: the final heat of a “Slow Race”. Who could ride most slowly over 50 yards of grass in field in Golden Gate Park? This “Tour de Fat” was a benefit for the San Francisco Bike Coalition and Ridge Trail group, two local nonprofit groups who advocate alternative transportation solutions to cars. The event drew quite a crowd. In the final race the contestants were also required to down a pint of beer before crossing the finish line, and their efforts were accompanied by a choir singing “Time is on our Side”. (If you think riding slow one handed is easy, try it yourself—grass is recommended). Goofy as it may have been—and recognizing that it was fundamentally a plea for help from within a society running at an unsustainable pace—the event also brought into question some provocative and serious modern design issues: most particularly the concept and value of speed and its relation and relevance to contemporary culture and community.
Speed was once the very emblem of modernity with the fastest trains, jets, and cars being symbols. The classic Porsche Speedster, for example, is a modern design icon. But modern design is responding to lifestyle adjustments and environmental issues, and the automotive design icon of today would probably be the Prius. Excessive carbon emissions, global warming, and the recent escalation of oil prices have led to a re-examination of the very heart of modern culture—the car. Today any form of contemporary design, from architecture to apparel, that does not take into account the environment and sustainability (including a sustainable pace for us humans) is simply not progressive or “modern”. Speed and efficiency for the sake of speed and efficiency are throwbacks to an earlier era.
It is naive to simply advocate a slow-down-and-smell-the-roses attitude in reaction to the direction and obsession with speed worship in our culture. And it is too easy to just rail against the rat race and the go-go-go culture. We cannot pretend to be Amish. Speed saves time and often has true value. We all justifiably prefer faster websites, speedier elevators, and quicker subway trains, and there’s not a whole lot of inherent value in standing and waiting in lines. Going fast will always be a physical and emotional thrill. But there is a reason why more people are taking up yoga than marathon running and why Slow Food is gaining on Fast Food as an attractive diet. The destructive personal and cultural aspects of obsessions with speed and efficiency have become pretty obvious. Stress, obesity, and global warming lead the list.
The “Slow Race”, despite itself, invites comparison with the Tour de France, which ended last Sunday. I love the Tour De France. I get mesmerized watching the flowing, swarming Peloton, the European geography, the colors, the stamina and endurance, the speed, the spectacle. But it has abdicated its status as a meaningful cultural event because of the pervasive drug issues. Many Tour riders have risked health, career, and even jail time—almost anything—to go faster longer: to become icons of speed. The “Slow Race” insists on reinstating the innocence that the Tour lost many years ago. And wherever you have these alterative bike events like Tour de Fat you see a lot of silliness and smiles, people not taking themselves too seriously. Maybe that’s not so goofy.
If you are in the San Francisco Bay Area and want to keep abreast of bike events, become a member of the San Francisco Bike Coalition. Their newsletter alone is worth the modest membership fee.
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