Mentioned to me by my neighbours, who are cycling enthusiasts, this sketch from the third episode of Monty Python’s Flying Circus, which was first broadcast by the BBC in October 1969, still has some satirical bite. When mainstream cinema is dominated by pretentious, spectacular, reactionary and largely humourless American superhero comic book adaptations, the idea of a heroic ordinary repairman is as funny as ever.

I remember just such a bicycle repairman, a Mr Ives, who wore a boiler suit and sported brylcreemed hair, and worked from his garage on the estate on which I grew up in the 1970s. While bicycle shops still offer repair services, this figure of the oil-stained, flat-capped mechanic is a poignant sign of a period when British roads were far more empty and bicycles were used more widely by adults and children for getting to and from work, school and the shops.

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Science fiction is a very loose generic category of film and literature but a defining component of much science fiction is the narrative presence of a futuristic, anachronistic or impossible technological object, a narrative MacGuffin that provides a rationale and motive power for what takes place within the story.  Perhaps for this reason, as a product of 19th-century technology the bicycle does not feature heavily in science fiction film and literature since, on the face of it,  it is not an obvious signifier of the future (although the utopian discourses surrounding the bicycle’s revolutionary potential suggest it as an obvious focus for speculative accounts of decelerated, post-oil futures). Blade Runner (Scott, 1984), which includes a brief shot of a peloton of children skimming through the dark, rain-drenched streets is a rare exception in mainstream cinema. In that context, the bicycle has a dual significance both as a symbol of a catastrophic future in which the roads are choked with traffic, and the environment wrecked by industrial pollution, and also as a symbol of an ‘orientalised’ future in which the West is culturally and economically transformed by globalisation. A bicycle also makes the briefest of appearances in Soylent Green (Fleischer, 1973), the apocalyptic adaptation of Richard Matheson’s 1954 novel, I Am Legend, where the protagonists have rigged up a stationary bicycle to generate electricity. Perhaps the most famous image of the bicycle in science fiction cinema is that of the young boy Elliott taking flight on his Kuwahara BMX bike carrying the eponymous alien in his basket in E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial (Spielberg, 1982). In  Spielberg’s fantasy film, however, the bicycle is not so much a signifier of futuristic technology as the means by which the magical powers of ET  is demonstrated, and it it is an important symbol of childhood fantasies of freedom and independence (and of course, in US cinema, the bicycle is almost invariably treated as a child’s vehicle).

Motorbikes in various forms are a slightly more visible presence within SF cinema from the speeder bikes of the Star Wars films or the light cycles of Tron (Limburger, 1982) (designed by visual futurist Syd Mead, also the design consultant on Blade Runner who recently railed against the ‘eco-elitism’ and ‘specious folly of Los Angeles bicycle advocates), through to the streamlined sport bikes streaking around Neo-Tokyo in the animated manga adaptation Akira (Otomo, 1988), or the steam-powered mono-wheel in the steampunk anime Steamboy (Otomo, 2004) (above). However, as is revealed by the growing popularity of the e-bike and recent reports about ‘mechanical doping’ – the concealment of miniature motors inside racing bikes – the distinction between motorcycle and bicycle is increasingly unclear.

A fascinating edition of the beautifully designed feminist cycling ‘zine, Taking the Lane, compiled a number of short SF pieces under the title Bikes in Space: A Feminist Science Fiction Anthology.  Published in 2013, Bikes in Space makes a significant contribution to the modest field of bicycle-related SF and has been followed by two further volumes, but what has set me thinking thinking about this topic recently was reading The Star Diaries (1971) by Polish writer Stanislav Lem. An anthology of stories written over a period of 20 years and broadly based on Gulliver’s Travels, it consists of often absurd and satirical accounts of journeys through space among which the protagonist Ijon Tichy encounters two bizarre mutations of the bicycle and includes illustrations of them in his journals (drawn by Lem himself). The first of these, in the 20th voyage, is  ‘the chronocycle’, a machine that allows the rider to travel through time and provides the premise for an increasingly convoluted and farcical story about attempts to refashion and improve of the earth’s history.

chronocycle.jpegThe second, encountered in the 25th voyage, is the ‘procyte’, a humanoid creature that has evolved with a large wheel fused to its legs.

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What is striking about these two versions of the bicycle is that they encapsulate key aspects of the experience of cycling. On the one hand, the bicycle is a prosthetic extension of the body, allowing us to travel much faster and farther than we can on foot. When we ride a bike we become a procyte, a cybernetic fusion of human and machine. On the other hand, the bicycle is a time machine, compressing distances and accelerating movement. Moreover in its early years the bicycle was a marvel of new industrial technologies, a sign of a future of privatised, individual mobility, a sign of a technologically transformed society, but as it was superseded by the automobile and the motorbike it came increasingly to signify the past, evoking a slower, pre-industrial, non-urban past. The appeal of cycle touring in the late 19th and early 20th centuries was the opportunity it afforded town and city-dwellers to travel to the countryside and immerse themselves in a rural environment apparently unaffected by the frantic progress of modern life, moving from one temporality to another. Bicycles allowed the rider variously to travel forwards and backwards in time. As my friend Brian Baker has written in the rich essay ‘Man-Machine’, the mechanism of the titular time machine in H.G. Wells’s 1895 novel is described in a way that makes clear that it is in fact a bicycle’, and so, ironically, there is nothing new in Lem’s chronocycle. However, what is interesting about Lem’s absurd contraptions is the economy with which they capture the subjective experience of cycling, reiterating the point that for all its mundanity, cycling is both a strangely mechanical activity – the repetitive operation of a machine – and also an activity rich with identifications and fantasy in which cycling from a town into the surrounding fields can involve an imaginary passage from the present to the past.

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This is a blog post I wrote for CeMore, Lancaster University’s Centre for Mobilities Research, on the relationship between early cinema and the bicycle, technologies that came into view almost simultaneously in the late 19th century.

 

One of the most fascinating aspects of this research project on the history of cycling and cinema is the sheer variety of films I am encountering, ranging from feature films and documentaries through to public information, propaganda and road safety films.

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This film, Riding Abreast (Jones, 1940) is available to watch on the BFI’s online streaming site, and is an example of the richness of this material. Riding Abreast is a short silent film produced for the campaigning charity, the Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents (which was established during the first world war in response to the proliferation of road accidents during air-raid blackouts) to warn children to stay close to the edge of the road while cycling. ‘Riding abreast is selfish and unfair, as well as dangerous’, the inter-titles instruct the viewer. ‘Ride in single file whenever road or traffic conditions require it, and never more than two abreast’. It tells the story of three girls, Jill, Mary and Brenda, who head out on their bikes into the country-side at the beginning of the summer holidays. Like a polite gang of biker girls, the three of them insist on riding across the full width of the road, ignoring the angry or concerned responses of other cyclists and drivers.

Screen Shot 2016-01-25 at 11.09.57.pngInevitably, Mary (whose red cardigan foreshadows danger) is hit by a car and thrown into the ditch.

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Mary survives, but head and foot injuries mean she is laid up in bed for most of the summer, bored and frustrated while her friends go horse-riding and picnicking without her. It is a pedantic and condescending film that labours its central message. After Mary is run over and taken home by the driver who hit her, another driver shows her two friends a copy of the highway code, and later, when Mary is reading in her sickbed, her mother also gives her a copy of the highway code to peruse.

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However, despite the crudity of its central message, it is also a rather beautiful film. Shot on low-resolution kodachrome film stock  the film has the warm, fuzzy quality of home-movie footage. The fading colours and blurred images resemble a cinematic memory-image. The images we see in the film also capture a deeply nostalgic image of Britain as a safe, spacious, innocent and pastoral environment. In its visualisation of earnest, unassuming, middle-class Britishness it is the audio-visual equivalent of a Ladybird book, the first of which appeared in the same year.

Screen Shot 2016-01-25 at 10.53.13.pngScreen Shot 2016-01-25 at 11.41.15.pngScreen Shot 2016-01-25 at 10.57.48.png Given that the film was produced during the second world war, the nationalistic function of this depiction of Britain, and of children under threat, has a disturbing ambiguity. On the one hand this is a celebratory image of Britain as a country of small villages and simple pleasures, heath-land, hedgerows and almost traffic-free roads where children are free to roam and ramble by themselves. On the other hand, the film also offers a counter-image of Britain as a danger zone with death and injury waiting around the corner for anybody who is careless, selfish, and who ignores the clearly spelt-out rules. Whether or not this was an intentional subtext, it is difficult not to read the film in hindsight as an allegorical account of a nation at war. In addition, it is also a striking example of the persistence of the stereotype of the selfish and irresponsible cyclist. The figure of the reckless cyclist – the ‘cycling cad’ or ‘scorcher’ – emerged in the 19th century and endures through to the present, and it is a measure of how persuasive this stereotype is, that even young girls cycling on virtually empty country lanes can be cast in the role of the anti-social ‘scorcher’, implicitly threatening the stability of the nation.

Riding Abreast, is a comparatively unusual example of a film showing young women cycling together. In this respect, the warning it offers about responsible cycling is highly gendered, as is emphasised by the suggestive title. While on the one hand the film is an expression of paternalistic concern over the dangers faced by children cycling on the road, at the same time, the film is an expression of alarm at the ‘dangerous’ phenomenon of the independent female cyclist, selfishly and unfairly taking up space as she travels through the countryside. It is therefore tempting to read the film against the grain – and the absence of a soundtrack means that the film invites a broader range of interpretations – and to re-imagine it as an invitation to women to cycle confidently and disobediently, occupying public space, ‘taking the lane‘ (to cite the title of the American feminist cycling zine), rather than squeezing themselves into the gutter; to reappropriate it as a very rare celebration of women ‘riding abreast’.

 

This breathtaking video featuring the Scottish street trials rider Danny MacAskill was posted on youtube yesterday and has already been viewed over 1.5 million times. It uses aerial shots (using drones), fluid tracking or steadicam shots and point-of-view shots from the rider’s perspective (using a GoPro camera with a distorting wide-angle lens effect that emphasises the stomach-churning impression of depth) to produce a spectacular, vertiginous film that is sometimes hard to watch.

It is a promotional film advertising the GoPro camera, and it compounds the well-established and close relationship between cycling, cameras and tourism. As early as the 1890s, cyclists were invited to buy the compact ‘Bicycle Kodak’, which could be mounted on the handlebars, or the ‘Cycle Poco Camera’, which was was ‘especially designed and intended as a wheeling companion, or for tourist’s use’ according to newspaper adverts, and in this sense there is a direct link from Poco to GoPro.

This video is also a striking example of the way that cycling produces a different relationship to the physical environment since the cyclist – however skilful or cautious she is – has to think differently from a pedestrian or a car-driver about how to navigate towns, cities and road systems. Cycling forces us to see space differently. For example, the cyclist is much more aware of gradients and the effort involved in moving her body through space, and in most cases will try to follow routes that avoid hills. As a result, as Jon Day puts it, ‘Urban cyclists live in Euclidean cities, hidden to the others, cities made up of inclines and angles, curves and cambers. Almost unconsciously cycling uncovers the deeper and older structures of a landscape than car or train travel can’ (Day 2015: 16). Perhaps more than any of Macaskill’s other films, Cascadia is a perfect illustration of cycling’s spatial and visual reconfiguration of the urban landscape.

The short film has a neat narrative frame – it describes Macaskill’s unorthodox trip down the hill from his apartment to the beach – and it concludes with him taking a dramatic, somersaulting dive into the sea. This final stunt is a reminder that, despite the technically sophisticated camerawork and the specialised bike, Macaskill rides in a tradition of end-of-the pier attractions. See, for example, this actuality footage from 1906 of (the rather less skilful) ‘Professor Reddish’ shot by pioneering Brighton film-maker James Williamson:

 

Reference:

Jon Day. 2015. Cyclogeography: Journeys of a London Bicycle Courier (London: Notting Hill Editions).

Bicycles play an important role as the intimate mediating machinery of childhood. They offer children physical, emotional and symbolic independence, and are also a means of social interaction – of play, competition and performance. For example, it is striking how intense many people’s memories are of being taught to ride a bicycle by their parents, which suggests it is a paradoxical moment for us; learning to ride a bike is a moment of close physical and emotional contact, and of traumatic separation, and so the meaning of the bicycle is similarly ambiguous, symbolising both freedom and isolation.

This song, ‘Riding Bikes’, released last year by the American rock band Shellac, captures the childhood experience of childhood friendship mediated through bicycles in a typically succinct and sparse fashion. The singer and guitarist, Steve Albini, explains the song in the following way:

“Riding Bikes” is in the context of children or adolescents riding bikes, where it’s a mindset and an activity put together. Like, you and your friends go riding bikes and that implies a certain degree of intimacy or closeness with your friends. You’re not just riding bikes, you’re having adventures, you’re breaking things, you’re stealing things, you’re causing minor vandalism — all that sort of stuff.

 

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Fausto Coppi (1967)

Fausto Coppi

was a fantastic human being

most at ease when alone

 

Invincible in the mountains, he

was a fantastic human being

 

Took leave of this world prematurely,

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A poem about the great Italian cyclist by Jorgen Leth, the Danish experimental film director whose work includes three remarkable films about sport cycling, A Sunday in Hell (1976 – about the Paris-Roubaix race), Stars and Water Carriers (1974 – about the Giro d’Italia), and The Impossible Hour (1975 – documenting an attempt on the hour record). Somewhat improbably, for a director of art cinema, Leth has a subsidiary career as a commentator on Danish TV coverage of the Tour de France.

The photograph at the top is probably the most famous image of Coppi (who is the visual model for ‘Champion’, the stoic protagonist of the French animated feature Les Triplettes de Belleville (Chomet, 2003), and who died of malaria at the age of 40), apparently passing back a water bottle to his arch-rival, Gino Bartali, during the 1952 Tour de France in a gesture of condescending generosity or pity (although Bartali insisted he was handing it to Coppi).

John Foot’s history of Italian cycling, Pedalare! Pedalare! (Bloomsbury, 2012) discusses Coppi’s career in fascinating depth.

 

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I have no idea what the original source is for this image of prolific Hollywood action star Vin Diesel (Mark Sinclair). Of course, the joke is that the perfectly named Diesel is most closely associated with the hyper-kinetic and spectacular Fast and Furious series of films that fetishise cars – in particular American muscle cars and expensively modded street racers. Diesel is in the news today due to the announcement that he is planning a series of spin-off films from the original seven films.

The juxtaposition of this star, who is the embodiment of transnational cinematic masculinity, with a girl’s bicycle is intrinsically comic, but this image also belongs to a tradition of publicity photographs of American film actors posing on bicycles. Often showing actors cycling around sets or studio backlots, these apparently casual, off-guard shots demonstrate a crucial component of the paradoxical ‘star system’ that emerged in the 1920s in the US and which insists on the one hand that stars are people ‘just like us’ – approachable and ready points of identification – while on the other reminding us continually that their lives of wealth, celebrity and self-indulgence couldn’t be more different from ours. In this respect, especially when ridden by an awkward and self-conscious star, the bicycle signifies ‘ordinariness’. It is a demotic vehicle.

Steven Rea’s 2012 book, Hollywood Rides a Bike: Cycling with the Stars is a fascinating and comprehensive visual history of photographs of actors, film-makers  and other media celebrities posing with bikes.

A new video for ‘MUCH’, a typically dense, angular track, by the brilliant LA rapper, Busdriver. A low-budget, simulated single-shot video (with the cuts disguised when the camera moves into dark stairwells), it opens and closes with Busdriver riding a kid’s bike. There is a small genre of music videos featuring singers on bicycles, and this has a tangential relationship to these, but by contrast with the celebration of conspicuous consumption in many contemporary music videos, the absence of speedboats, cars and luxurious houses is especially striking. Although we see him throwing banknotes onto a fire at one point, the sight of him riding a little girl’s battered bike that is far too small for him is the perfect rejoinder to the machismo, self-importance and profligacy of many celebrities.

Hip hop videos featuring cycling are not so much a sub-genre as perhaps, a micro-genre. This video by Australian duo Hugo and Treats, which blends poetry with rap and combines treated samples from tapping and scratching the bicycle frame and wheels with samples from (of course) Queen’s ‘Bicycle Race’, is surely the most thematically single-minded example.

From the same year, this video by Austrian rapper Skero is a more explicit parody of hip hop video conventions, the extraordinary array of custom-built and modified bikes substituted for the lowriders, luxury jeeps and sports cars that typically feature in these videos.

A recent video featuring young Austrian street trials rider, Fabio Wibmer. Aping the short films made by Danny MacAskill, this promotional film for the Osttirol region of Austria (and for a range of other products) belongs to a tradition of trick cycling that extends back through the early films of trick cyclists made by Lumière and Edison to circus and music-hall or vaudeville performers. It is a good example of what might be termed the ‘digital cinema of attractions’.

This film employs some of the conventions employed in MacAskill’s films: a narrative frame; smooth, mobile camerawork; largely empty and unpopulated spaces; absence of dialogue; and a credits sequence (derived from Jackie Chan’s films) that includes out-takes of failed attempts at the stunts, demonstrating the authenticity and the physical difficulty of the apparently impossible tricks that Wibmer pulls off.

This is even more evident in the ‘making of’ documentary: