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Undertaking this research on the history of bicycles and cinema has involved looking differently at films. As well as noting those scenes in films and TV programmes where characters are riding bikes, trikes and all sorts of related mobility aids, I’ve found myself continually noticing the fleeting presence of bicycles in the background of street shots or dumped in the corners and hallways of characters’ houses. The bright green American-made mountain bike hanging on the wall of Jerry’s New York apartment in the sitcom Seinfeld is a particularly visible example. Although we never see him cycling, nevertheless the bike is a prop that conveys information about the character – his concern with his health, his slavish attention to urban fashions, and his impulsiveness; like most exercise equipment anybody ever buys that sits unused in a garage or cupboard, it is a mute reminder of failed ambitions to remodel his life.

So, analyzing the significance of bicycles in film involves a different way of looking at filmic space. Scanning the film image for the presence of a bike means paying particular attention to the mise-en-scène of the film – the sets and locations – and what quickly becomes clear is that the cinema is full of bicycles, although they are often far less loaded with meaning than Jerry’s bike. A bicycle is sometimes just a stubbornly distracting flash of colour, shape or movement in the film frame – an element of the visual texture of the image.

 

Inevitably, watching Kathryn Bigelow’s new film Detroit (2017) earlier this week – in preparation for a new course I’m teaching on women directors this autumn – it was a bicycle that caught my eye. In the film’s account of the outbreak of the riots in July 1967, it is the theft of a bicycle that triggers the disorder. The film opens with a police raid on an unlicensed bar; as the occupants are arrested and loaded into black Marias on the street, a crowd gathers and starts protesting. As the police withdraw, the crowd begin to throw bottles and stones at their vehicles, shouting, jeering and laughing, and then one man breaks open the shutters and smashes a shop window across the street, pulling a gold bicycle out of the window display. A few others join him in emptying the window, and the film then shows us buildings being torched, and the city burning, as violence escalates with the national guard and the army being brought in to support the police.

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Although the bicycle is a marginal detail, in the context of a film about the ‘motor city’ (and Motown) it is a reminder of the various inequalities experienced by African-Americans. The film’s prologue explains that after the first world war, African-Americans migrated north in search of industrial jobs and a less segregated society, although they found themselves dealing with unemployment, economic hardship and a different, less overt form of segregation as white Americans evacuated cities for the economic security and racial homogeneity of the suburbs. In this sense, the film is a meditation upon racialized mobility, telling a story of economic migrants who have found themselves stranded in a city with vanishingly few escape routes (and subject to curfew during the riots). The fact that Detroit was home to America’s major automobile plants – General Motors, Packard, Chrysler – and was thus central to a culture that regards automobility as a right and an essential freedom, and car ownership as a sign of adulthood, compounds a bitterly ironic sense of the unequal distribution of mobility. Whereas in a European film, the shiny bicycle might have been a rich symbol of freedom, mobility, and employment, in this film by the most American of directors, it is a sign of the opposite, a reminder of how little agency the angry protestors have.

 

Kathryn Bigelow’s critical reputation is that of a particularly self-aware film-maker. University-educated, with a background in the NYC art scene and a familiarity with cultural and literary theory as well as film history, her films tend to be regarded as critical reflections upon the film genres she works with; not just war films, action films, or science fiction films, but formally innovative interrogations of the ideological structures and value systems embedded in mainstream cinema. In that respect, the fact that the riots begin with a bicycle theft invites us to think about the relationship between Detroit and Vittorio De Sica’s Ladri di Biciclette [Bicycle Thieves] (1948). A key example of post-war Italian neo-realist cinema, Bicycle Thieves has provided a template for low-budget, politically committed film-making around the world, as well as serving as a measure of artistic accomplishment; as Woody Allen observed glumly in a 2015 interview, ‘You always set out to make Citizen Kane or to make The Bicycle Thief and it doesn’t happen’. Although she is a big-budget Hollywood director, Bigelow’s last three films have been an exploration of cinematic realism, blurring the boundaries between historical reconstruction, reportage, documentary and fiction. This trio of narratives about state violence, The Hurt Locker (2009), Zero Dark Thirty (2012) and Detroit, were all written by a former journalist, Mark Boal, while Detroit and The Hurt Locker were lensed by British cinematographer Barry Ackroyd, who previously worked on several major films by Ken Loach. For Detroit, Ackroyd had vintage lenses mounted on the digital cameras used by the crew, to achieve a historically authentic visual quality, as the film intercuts digitally shot footage with stock film and photography from the 1960s. Thus, in Boal and Ackroyd, Bigelow has found collaborators who are similarly preoccupied with questions of accuracy.

 

So, while the stolen bicycle is a minor narrative and visual detail in Bigelow’s long, dense film, it offers us a key to understanding the intentions of the film-makers to produce a film that approaches its brutal material with a similar degree of authenticity, empathy and anger to that displayed by De Sica’s film.

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From professional racers preoccupied with calorie intake and optimizing their power-to-weight ratio to leisure cyclists preparing their picnic for a gentle Sunday morning ride, or planning a route that takes in pubs and cafés, food plays a crucial role in cycling culture. Food is the fuel that drives the engine that powers the bicycle, and as novelist John Waddington puts it, ‘one way of looking at a racing cyclist [is as] a protein machine that converts carbohydrate into heat and energy at an exorbitant rate. Matter to movement. Sweat ‘n’ spirit. Shit ‘n’ dreams.’

 

I didn’t know until this afternoon, when my neighbour Harold brought one round, that there was such a thing as a cycling cake: the ‘Paris-Brest’. It was apparently commissioned from Parisian pâtissier Louis Durand in 1910 to commemorate one of the first long-distance cycle races, the Paris-Brest-Paris. Shaped like a wheel, it is made from glazed choux pastry, filled with buttercream and sprinkled with almonds. And it was delicious.

 

One of the curious features of the food culture around contemporary cycling is the rise of  the ‘energy gel’, little pouches of sugary, salty gloop that you can ejaculate into your mouth while moving, for a quick carbohydrate shot. Coming in a range of sickly flavours, they taste pretty unpleasant, and exemplify the functional concept of food as fuel rather than source of aesthetic pleasure, prompting Chris Boardman, former pro racer and Manchester’s new ‘Cycling and Walking Commissioner’ (who has probably consumed more of these than most of us ever will) to ask last week, ‘Why would you squeeze something of that consistency into your mouth when you could have a sandwich?’

Even more to the point, why have a sandwich when you could pause for a Paris-Brest?

 

Reference:

James Waddington (1999). Bad to the Bone (Sawtry: Dedalus)

There have been many songs written about bicycles since the 19th century, but I hadn’t realised until recently that Hawkwind’s 1972 space-rock classic, ‘Silver Machine’ was one of them. I’d always assumed the song was actually about a motorbike, perhaps because I was introduced to it by a biker friend when I was a student. However, it seems that Robert Calvert wrote the song after reading the speculative essay, ‘How to Construct a Time Machine’, by avant-garde playwright, novelist and obsessive cyclist Alfred Jarry. Calvert noted that the impossible machine described by Jarry was really a bicycle, consisting of flywheels, chain drives, gears and a rigid, ebony frame.

 

Indirectly, Jarry’s short piece identifies a key feature of the bicycle, which is its capacity to alter our experience of time and space, allowing the rider to travel much faster than was possible on foot, effectively shrinking the distance between locations and the time it takes to travel that distance. As he explains, ‘Without the Machine, an observer sees less than half of the true extent of Time, much as men used to regard the Earth as flat.’

Or, as Hawkwind put it, ‘It flies sideways through time.’

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While passing through the Gare du Nord in Paris on Sunday, returning home from a conference at the Sorbonne Nouvelle, I came upon this mobile phone charging station, an apparatus that represents a fascinating intersection and modulation of old communications media or technologies – the bicycle and the telephone (and the railway). Resembling nothing so much as a sculpture by Richard Artschwager, there is an obvious irony in the use of a stationary exercise bicycle to power a mobile phone, resulting in a virtual mobility, but it also makes explicit the central principle of the bicycle as a machine, which is that it is dependent upon human labour. With the stationary bicycle this principle is made explicit, and while this particular machine is presumably intended to encourage users and passers-by to think about environmental politics and the importance of healthy living, it has a darker history.

Its precursors include the dystopian science fiction film, Soylent Green (Fleischer, 1973), in the opening scene of which the protagonists must use a bicycle to generate electricity for their cramped apartment in a future in which over-population, global warming and scarcity of food has plunged society into chaos.

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Charlton Heston and Edward G Robinson in Soylent Green

A more recent real-world iteration is the ‘Pedal Vision’ system introduced in an Arizona prison in 2010 which requires inmates to generate electricity by riding a stationary bike in order to be to allowed to watch TV.

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The Pedal Vision device

This disciplinary technology is a way of encouraging prisoners to exercise, and is also a way of making them accustomed to repetitive manual labour, but of course this device belongs to a penal tradition of hard labour in which exhausting, pointless work is a form of punishment. The pedal vision machine is thus a modern derivation of sadistic devices installed in Victorian prisons such as the treadmill or the crank.  ‘The crank’ was a handle attached to a paddle inside a drum filled with sand. The crank pushed the paddle through the sand and was attached to a counter, and prisoners had to complete a certain number of revolutions – up to 10,000 per day – to earn their meals. Prison officers could tighten the screw on the crank making it harder to turn (hence the slang term for prison guards: screws).

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The Crank

There are various conclusions we might draw from this about the disciplinary nature of contemporary exercise cultures, but at the very least it suggests that utopian concepts of the bicycle as an emancipatory device rest on a selective historical account of the development of the machine.

 

 

I have been involved with co-organizing and running an international, interdisciplinary conference Mobilities Literature Culture, which took place at Lancaster University at the end of last week. It was one of the most interesting and enjoyable research events I’ve participated in, bringing together artists and academics working in a variety of fields from science and technology studies through to mediaeval history, literary theory, tourism studies and continental philosophy. The conference opened with a superb plenary presentation by my friend Kat Jungnickel on Victorian women’s cycling costumes, ‘Secret Cycling Selves: How Victorian women negotiated multiple mobile identities through patented cycle wear’. Focusing on the 1890s and drawing on archival research her paper examined the sometimes elaborately engineered cycling outfits designed and patented by Victorian women to allow them to ride bicycles safely, comfortably and, crucially, with minimal verbal and physical abuse. Riding a bicycle – even one with a step-through frame – in a voluminous walking skirt with petticoats, bustles and corsets was both difficult and dangerous as the metres of fabric could easily get tangled in wheels and chains or snagged on other bikes, vehicles or obstacles. However, for some middle-class women riding in ‘rational’ clothing such as bloomers was too radical a gesture, since rational cycling wear was revealing (exposing the movement of the legs), was regarded as non-feminine, and was also politically confrontational, closely associated as it was with the suffrage movement. The ingenious solution for the designers discussed by Kat was to engineer skirts that could be transformed into practical riding apparel when cycling, and could be converted back to a skirt when the rider dismounted (as if she were a discreet Victorian superhero). For the presentation, Kat wore a Victorian outfit and concluded the presentation by climbing onto a chair to demonstrate the Bygrave ‘Convertible’ skirt (which she manufactured from the original patent with a research team) using hidden cords to gather the ground-length skirt into knee-length festoons that would allow the rider to mount and ride a bicycle easily and with attracting undue attention.

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Action-academic Kat Jungnickel (photographed by Jo Taylor) demonstrating the Bygrave skirt.

Blurring the boundaries between academic presentation and performance art in quite a unique way, the paper also exposed the huge gaps in histories of the bicycle and cycling culture with regard both to women cyclists, and to the central role played by women in developing and manufacturing bicycles and the accompanying technology. The paper was derived from the research project, Bikes and Bloomers, and is the basis for a forthcoming book.

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The conference closed with a preview screening of Edith Walks, the newest film by director Andrew Kötting, a prolific film-maker, writer and visual artist whose films have been preoccupied with landscape, movement, travel, and literary and cultural histories (and who, in the sort of serendipity that structures all of his work, happened to have worked with Kat on one of his early projects, Mapping Perception). Made on the 950th anniversary of the Battle of Hastings, the film is a fragmentary, comic account of a 108-mile walk made by Andrew and five others, from Waltham Abbey where some of King Harold’s body parts are supposedly buried, to St Leonard’s-on-Sea, where there is a weathered seafront statue of a dying Harold in the arms of his ‘hand fast maiden’ ‘Edith Swan-neck’. As Andrew explained in the Q and A afterwards, the film is a visually rich ‘bricolage’ that was largely shot on iphones and is accompanied by a soundtrack that blends location sound, music and samples in a similarly dense collage. Andrew, who is dressed as the ghost of Harold in the film, was accompanied by his close collaborator Iain Sinclair, performance artist Claudia Barton – who was embodying Edith – photographer Anonymous Bosch, and musicians David Aylward and Jem Finer (late of the pogues). The point of the walk, Sinclair explains at the beginning of the film which was shot in the run-up to the EU referendum, is to ‘explore English values’, and the film’s central argument is that history is not consigned to the depths of the past but continually resurfaces in the form of reconfigured narratives and unanchored images; as the writer Alan Moore observes at one point, ‘the past is never put away’. It was an extraordinary film as well as the perfect conclusion to the conference.

Andrew related in the post-screening Q and A with my friend Brian Baker and myself that his approach to film-making and creation was dependent upon ‘happenstance’, and it is clear with a number of his films that he is concerned less with telling stories, than with staging encounters or loosely planned situations and then documenting on film and video the unpredictable ways that these encounters play out. One of the things I have always found powerful about Andrew’s films is that they encourage you to look differently at the landscape around you, to see its strangeness, but also to notice and reflect upon the significance of small details, of connections and repetitions, contingency and coincidence.

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Edith Walks (Kötting, 2017) – Aylward, Barton, Kötting, Finer

As an example, having written a short blog entry about bicycle music last week, I was struck by a brief scene where the motley troupe intercept a couple of cyclists on their walk and begin making music from their bicycles, Finer and Aylward using violin bows to play the spokes, while Barton sings along with them. As Andrew explained, in ‘playing the bicycles’ they were also ‘playing the landscape’

While the bicycle has been a topic for song-writers and musicians since the 19th century, there is a rather more specialized history of music made with bicycles that encompasses avant-garde experimentation and novelty. This well-known clip of a young Frank Zappa appearing on the Steve Allen show in 1963 is a nice example of a performance that sits mid-way between comedy and glorious, atonal noise.

This rarely viewed YouTube video of somebody ‘performing’ John Cage’s 4’33” on a bicycle raises the question of what constitutes music perhaps more radically still than Zappa’s improvised performance.

What made me think about this was coming across a clip on late-night TV a couple of weeks ago of the British synth-pop group Depeche Mode playing the song ‘Blasphemous Rumours’ on Top of the Pops back in 1984. I know the song well, but it wasn’t until watching the clip that I realized the clattering noise in the song was produced by a drumstick held against a spinning bicycle wheel, a technique that Zappa also uses above. Depeche Mode were supposedly influenced by contemporary ‘industrial’ groups such as Einstürzende Neubauten and Test Dept., who built their own percussion instruments and incorporated found objects, motors, and pneumatic drills into their armoury of noise-making machinery. It’s unlikely that Depeche Mode had seen the Zappa clip in a pre-internet period; in any case, many young kids have taped pieces of card to their bicycle frames so that they flick against the spinning spokes, allowing them to pretend they are riding a motorbike. What is striking is not so much the parallels with Zappa’s music, but the fact that the instrument they are using seems to be an appropriation of Marcel Duchamp’s 1913 ‘readymade’ Bicycle Wheel sculpture. Duchamp made the object as a soothing visual distraction to gaze at in his studio, but the band have found a different use for it as a jarring aural distraction, an interruption of the smooth surface of the synthesiser music that complements the song’s weighty themes – teenage suicide and a sadistic God. However, rather than a pretentious or naive dilution of avant-garde experimentation – an accusation that could be levelled at Zappa’s performance – it seems to me to be a technologically creative solution to a search for an expanded repertoire of noises, and it also demonstrates vividly the way that, however ephemeral, ‘modish’, or formally simple it may appear to be, popular culture is always embedded in complex cultural histories and aesthetic traditions.

iur.jpegMarcel Duchamp’s Bicycle Wheel (1951 – 3rd version)

I was fortunate enough this Easter, to be able to see the Law of the Journey, a new show by exiled Chinese activist artist Ai WeiWei, mounted in the National Gallery in Prague. The show brings together some recent epic work that addresses the refugee crisis in a dramatic register including the title piece, a huge inflatable boat carrying dozens of passengers made from the same material suspended above a series of quotations from writing by Franz Kafka, Socrates, Edward Said, Vaclav Havel and others. Like a giant children’s toy, it is a temporary, mobile monument to the thousands of adults and children who’ve drowned in the Mediterranean seeking refuge in Europe in the last decade.

IMG_7279.jpgMy son studying Law of the Journey (Prague National Gallery)

Among the pieces included in the show were also a couple of bicycle-related works. Ai has been making art from bicycles for some time now, and has produced some immense sculptural installations constructed from ‘Forever’ bicycles, the most ubiquitous Chinese brand. Some of these structures, such as those exhibited in Tokyo in 2003, Taipei in 2012, and San Gimigniano and Toronto in 2013, involve anything from several dozen to several thousand identical frames and wheels welded together to form geometrically dense, architectural spaces through which the viewer can walk.

IMG_5412.jpgIMG_5409.jpgOne of Ai’s ‘Forever’ bicycle pieces exhibited at the Royal Academy retrospective, London, 2015

Like much of Ai’s work this has a political register; as well as citing Marcel Duchamp’s 1913 ‘readymade’ Bicycle Wheel sculpture and a tradition of minimalist art, they are a visual crystallization of a society structured by mass production and the homogeneous, industrialized urban environments that many of us live in. As Ai has declared, ‘China is producing for the demands of the market [and] my work very much relates to this blind production of things’ (Bingham 2010: 24). Juliet Bingham recounts that, in his art practice, ‘Ai has often taken objects and rendered them useless’, and, indeed, the bicycle sculptures transform this most useful of objects into something entirely devoid of use-value – into art (Ibid. 25).

More recently, the bicycle sculptures have found an echo in the piles of discarded hire bicycles left on the streets in Shenzhen. Like artless copies of Ai’s intricate assemblages, these tangled heaps are a sign of the changing significance of the bicycle in China where, as elsewhere, car ownership is a desirable indicator of social status.

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The brand name, ‘Forever’, lends this commentary upon the over-production and irrationality of a market economy a chillingly dystopian tone, but in addition to this broadly critical commentary, the later pieces also serve as memorials to Yang Jia, a Beijing resident who was arrested in 2007 for riding an unlicensed bicycle. Having made allegations of police brutality, Yang was executed in 2008 for an attack on a police headquarters and the revenge killing of six police officers. With the trial held behind closed doors, Yang’s became a cause célebre since, for some commentators, Yang’s action was seen as a form of protest against an oppressive regime. Considered in this context, Ai’s works put the bicycle to use as a vehicle for political protest.

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An example of this in the Prague exhibition was an installation in the gallery café entitled With Flowers (2013-2015). The modest exhibit consisted of the artist’s bicycle – significantly perhaps, a Taiwanese ‘Giant’ bike, rather than a Chinese brand –  propped discreetly against a wall, and colourful digital prints of bouquets of flowers with dates, pasted around the room. The piece was created during a two-year period in which Ai was banned from travelling outside China. In protest, he placed his bicycle outside his studio and put a fresh bouquet of flowers in the basket every morning until the travel ban was lifted and his passport was returned. In a very simple way, the association of the bicycle with freedom of movement, takes on a political significance in this work. The second related piece of bicycle-art, displayed in a gallery of ceramic pieces, was a bicycle basket made from porcelain. An improbable object, it transforms the mundane plastic basket and gaudy flowers into delicate, intricate work of art. As subtle as any of his works, the object establishes a link between activism and traditions of decorative art in Europe and China, and it also represents a defiant insistence upon beauty in the face of political repression.

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Bicycle basket with flowers in porcelain (2014) (Prague National Gallery)

Reference:

Juliet Bingham (2010). Ai WeiWei: Sunflower Seeds (London: Tate)

gyIuPd5E.jpg-large.jpegBy far the most striking film I have seen in the last year was the restoration of Abel Gance’s epic 1927 Napoleon. Running at just over five-and-a-half hours (although in early screenings the film apparently ran to around nine hours), it is an example of the level of exuberant formal experimentation and stylistic refinement achieved by European directors before the introduction of synchronised sound film in the late 1920s forced filmmakers to adopt a far less dynamic aesthetic. Given its date, the film has a somewhat troubling political message. It is a stirringly nationalistic account of French history that reveres Napoleon as not just a brilliant military strategist, but a charismatic saviour of the nation who embodies the spirit of the Revolution (and Albert Dieudonne’s fascinating performance as Napoleon is suitably intense). In the present moment when fascism, nationalism and xenophobia are once again on the rise across Europe, and populist demagogues are becoming increasingly powerful, the re-released film takes on a new and disturbing urgency.

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However, the most arresting and celebrated aspect of the film is its frenetic, varied style, which includes multiple exposures, super-fast montage editing, rich tinting, split-screen effects, and an extraordinary final battle sequence that expands to fill three screens, an innovative device that Gance termed ‘polyvision’. It remains breathtakingly spectacular, even when viewed alongside contemporary blockbuster effects movies. Throughout the film the camera is wildly mobile as Gance mounts it on sledges, horses, carts, cars, boats, pulleys and a pendulum, and even, with ironic aptness, a guillotine. This is no stylistically conservative heritage film, offering us picturesque, static views of the past; History, in Gance’s film, is depicted as an interval of dynamic, chaotic exciting instability and violence. At one point, while shooting an uprising in Corsica for the first part of the film, in order to produce a further variation on the mobile shot, the film-makers also used a bicycle as a dolly, with the camera-man sitting astride the bicycle and facing backwards, the camera strapped to the frame for stability while crew members pushed him along the street in front of the rampaging crowd.

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Gance is not alone in experimenting with the thrilling narrative possibilities of camera mobility. Cinema in the 1920s is full of examples of films that explore the medium’s capacity to produce the illusion of physical movement. Gance’s German counterpart, Friedrich Murnau, for example, was preoccupied with achieving what he termed the ‘unchained camera effect’, working with camera operator Karl Freund to develop new techniques that would allow the camera to plunge and soar freely. As historian Lotte Eisner records, this experimentation culminated with his 1924 film The Last Laugh (Der Letzte Mann)  in which ‘the camera was taken from the trolley and put on a crane, or attached to Freund’s chest while he rode a bicycle, and so on’ (Eisner 1973: 75). However, the theme of this current project is the exploration of the historical relationship between the socially and culturally revolutionary technologies of the film camera and the bicycle, and so it couldn’t be more appropriate that they intersect so directly, albeit briefly, in the production of Gance’s singular revolutionary film.

Reference:

Lotte H. Eisner (1973) Murnau (London: Secker and Warburg)

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I came across this bottle of Chilean ‘Bicycle’ wine in a local shop last week, and picked it up out of curiosity since I was surprised, given the forensic scrutiny to which the sport is currently subject with regard to doping, to learn that the Tour de France has an ‘Official Wine’. In some respects this should not be surprising as the Tour has pioneered the commercialisation of sport, and as Robert Penn observes of the first velodrome racers of the late 19th and early 20th century, ‘Cyclists were the highest earners in sport: in fact, modern professional sports marketing effectively began with them’ (Penn 2011: 159). Moreover, alcohol has a close relationship with cycle racing as it has long been common for riders to use alcohol as a performance-enhancing drink, as well as an anaesthetic to help them endure the pain and cold of multi-stage races. For example, the classic documentaries La Course en Tete (Santoni, 1974), Stars and Water Carriers (Leth, 1974) and Vive le Tour (Malle 1962) all include sequences in which thirsty riders raid cafés during the race, stuffing their jerseys with bottles of champagne, wine, beer, or, as former racer Jean Bobet chuckles on the voiceover commentary to Louis Malle’s film, ‘Even water, if there’s nothing better’.

This ritual is no doubt partly a matter of machismo, as road racing is traditionally an exceptionally macho sport, and partly a matter of national cultural traditions (best epitomised by the sequence in Santoni’s film in which Belgian racer Eddy Merckx is shown sharing a glass of red wine with his infant child at the dinner table). However it is also testament to the intimate historical relationship between cycle racing and alcohol (along with other drugs and stimulants ranging from cocaine through to strychnine), an inter-relationship that was behind British rider Tom Simpson’s fatal heart attack near the summit of a baking Mont Ventoux in the 1967 Tour, his death brought on by a combination of amphetamines, alcohol and dehydration.

It has become increasingly evident over the past couple of years that systematic drug-taking is endemic across international sport, but in this respect too, cycle racing appears to have been at the forefront since,  from the beginning of the sport, the combined pressures of professionalisation and impossibly tough races, have invited athletes and their coaches to experiment with substances that will enable the riders to cope. As Jacques Anquetil, winner of five Tours, observed in a column he wrote for the periodical France Dimanche after his retirement, ‘If you want to accuse me of having doped, it’s not difficult. All you have to do is look at my thighs and my buttocks – they’re veritable pin cushions. You have to be an imbecile or a hypocrite to imagine that a professional cyclist who races 235 days a year in all weathers can keep going without stimulants’ (Howard 2011: 240-241)

The fact that it is not French but Chilean wine – albeit from a  vineyard whose name makes punning reference to the wine expert as well as to the dedicated sports fan – is initially surprising, but on second thoughts, it is entirely appropriate given the global nature of contemporary commercial sport.

‘À votre santé!’

 

References

Paul Howard (2011) Sex, Lies and Handlebar Tape: The Remarkable Life of Jacques Anquetil (Edinburgh and London: Mainstream Publishing)

Robert Penn (2011) It’s All About the Bike: The Pursuit of Happiness on Two Wheels (London: Penguin)

 

‘The bicycle is a great good. But it can turn nasty, if ill employed’, writes Samuel Beckett in  Mercier and Camier (1974).

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When attending a sell-out concert in Manchester last week, in which American director John Carpenter, backed by a band that included his son Cody, played theme music from his films as well as music from his last two albums, my friend Brian Baker mentioned that a bicycle turns up in Carpenter’s 1987 horror film, Prince of Darkness. The film tells the story of a group of scientists and research students who are summoned to an abandoned church to spend the weekend studying a glowing green flask that has been discovered in the basement. Rather than stay the night, one of the assistants decides to leave and is cornered in the alley behind the church by a group of homeless people who have been possessed by the satanic power that is now spilling out of the flask and have surrounded the church. One of these shuffling zombies, played by rock star Alice Cooper, picks up a broken bicycle frame and impales the bewildered student on the top tube. They all watch silently as he falls forward and then comes to a halt, bouncing slightly, propped up on the wheel.

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Perhaps because of its association with children, the bicycle only seems to make rare appearances in horror cinema. Exceptions include the British thriller And Soon the Darkness (Fuest, 1970) about a couple of female friends on a cycling holiday in France who are pursued by a killer. However the most well-known example is The Shining (Kubrick, 1980), in which the young Danny pedals furiously around the vast, empty, haunted hotel on his little tricycle. As with the British thriller, the machine leads him into a series of dangerous encounters, culminating with his investigation of room 237, which the hotel caretaker had warned him to stay away from.

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However, the most comically grotesque ‘death-by-bicycle’ scene appears in the science fiction film Turbo Kid (Whissell, Whissell, Simard, 2015). Sharing a nostalgic affection for popular culture of the late 1970s and early ’80s with the TV series Stranger Things (2016) and the film, Super 8 (Abrams, 2011),  one of the pleasures of watching Turbo Kid is identifying the allusions to the films of John Carpenter, David Cronenberg, George Miller, Sam Raimi, Steven Spielberg, Richard Stanley, and Troma studios, as well as later TV series such as Power Rangers.

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Set in a contaminated, post-oil wasteland in which people rely on bikes for transport, the BMX-riding teenage ‘Kid’ models himself on ‘Turbo Rider’, a character in the precious comics he collects. The film-makers clearly took great delight in filming the gruesomely inventive prosthetic effects as hands, limbs and heads are severed and skewered while the patient actors are showered with blood and pelted with viscera and chunks of meat, but perhaps the most gleefully disgusting sequence is an interrogation scene which begins with the victim waking up to find himself tied to a chair. When the canvas hood is taken off his head he looks down with horror to see that his stomach has been sliced open and his intestines, which are spilling out of his body, are attached by a cord to the rear wheel of a bicycle. Of course, he immediately tells the sadistic, one-eyed ‘Zeus’ (played by Michael Ironside, star of Cronenberg’s Scanners (1981)) exactly what he wants to know and asks desperately, ‘You’re gonna help me put these back in, right, please?’ Zeus, clearly disappointed by the speed with which he spills the beans, asks ‘Do you have any idea how long it took to set this up?’ The bewildered victim just stares at him and Zeus chuckles warmly, ‘I’m sure you’ll understand’, signalling to his sidekick to start pedalling.

The use of the bicycle as improvised weapon in these films is an intriguing reminder of the historical association of this technology with violence. One of the most important early precursors of the bicycle, the ‘Laufmaschine’ (running machine) or ‘accelerator’ patented by Karl von Drais in 1818, appears to have been conceived by him as a military vehicle, and he tried to demonstrate its potential by staging races with stagecoaches. As Jim Fitzpatrick argues in The Bicycle in Wartime: an Illustrated History (Star Hill Studio, 2011) thinking about the history of the bicycle in relation to warfare allows us to understand the role of machinery in soldiering and organised violence more generally. And, as he recounts, the history of the weaponisation of the bicycle is extensive, ranging from the use of bicycles as vehicles for transporting troops and military equipment, through the use of the bicycle as weapon (with rifle and machine gun mounts or, occasionally as a concealed pipe bomb). In a broader sense, we might note the symbolic function of the bicycle as the tool of colonisation, with British diplomats and settlers using them to travel around India in the late 19th and early 20th century from hill station to hill station.

More broadly, the pneumatic tyres that propelled the bicycle boom of the 1890s, and made John Dunlop a billionaire, were made from rubber harvested by slaves in the plantations of ‘British Malaya’ among other places and so the history of this machine is saturated with violence. Samuel Beckett’s comically oblique observation from the absurd novel Mercier and Camier is a reminder that, for all the utopian enthusiasms that have circulated around the bicycle throughout its development, there is a darker side to the history of this product of industrial modernity.