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!’



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.


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.

A short song by Lancaster band, The Lovely Eggs, about a chance encounter between flared trousers, alcohol and a bicycle, which seems to be a polite response to the comically nihilistic 1976 Ramones song, ‘Now I wanna sniff some glue’. This song was apparently prompted by jealousy over a friend who had paid leave from work after breaking their collar bone in a fall, but I think it is also a love song, a song about wanting to be swept off one’s feet and bowled over.


Bicycle film festivals are a phenomenon of the current cycling boom, presenting new bicycle-themed films to audiences, as well as collating older films. As well as various one-off events, such as the cycling-related programme of the 2014 Sheffield International Documentary Film Festival that coincided with the first two Yorkshire-based stages of the 2014 Tour de France, there are regular events such as the European ‘International Cycling Film Festival’ and the ‘Bicycle Film Festival’. In July I attended two days of the ‘Bicycle Film Festival’ in Brighton, although, appropriately enough, this is a mobile festival that also visits the Netherlands, Italy, Mexico and Australia later this year.


The programme brought together a very eclectic group of short films and, as one would expect from a festival that is inspired by an enthusiasm for bicycles and cycling cultures, the films were largely celebratory, and were sometimes underpinned by an idealistic, optimistic ‘bicycle politics’ or activism, such as Cranks (Kyo-Min Jung, Tom Michelow, 2016), a film about a volunteer bike-repair workshop in Brighton conceived as a critical response to ‘throwaway culture’, or Cycling Circle (Jean-Marc Joseph, 2015) a film about an entrepreneur setting up a small-scale bicycle messenger business in Lebanon, a country that is intensively car-dependent. While the majority of the films screened were documentaries, there was a wild Estonian animation, Velodrool (Sander Joon, 2015) about cigarette-obsessed racing cyclists, an Australian black comedy, Bear (Nash Edgerton, 2015), about a boorish bloke who plays a misjudged practical joke on his girlfriend’s birthday as she is cycling through the bush, and I want to ride my bicycle (James Chamberlain, 2016), a brief comedy about a man who goes on holiday to Centre Parcs with his bicycle, ‘Denise’, and is shown talking about his feelings for her and lounging in the sauna with it. Absurd though it was, the film captures the intimate, fetishistic relationship some cyclists have with their bikes, a point that was made clear by the fact several audience members had brought their folding bikes with them into the auditorium and were sitting next to them watching the films.


There were several examples of the extreme sports documentary including In Search of the Storm (Shaktiraj Jadeja, 2015), an Indian film about three friends who set out to ride ‘fat bikes’ through the Himalayas in the winter to reach the border with Tibet. This type of film, variations of which feature kayaking, horse-riding, skiing, mountain running, and climbing, has a number of well-established generic conventions: spectacular landscapes, a blend of professional cinematography and low-resolution footage shot by the participants, narratives that are based around journeys, and talking-head interviews with the protagonists who emphasise repeatedly how difficult and extreme the arbitrary challenge they’ve set themselves is, and also how the challenge represents some sort of metaphor: these narcissistic extreme athletes are continually ‘finding themselves’ on their travels, becoming more psychologically and emotionally complete as a result of successfully negotiating an unclimbed alpine peak or navigating an unexplored river.

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The film that left a particularly sour taste was Ethiopia Epic, which, like many extreme sports documentaries, was essentially a promotional film for the sponsor. This short film – far from ‘epic’ – showed European and Canadian professional mountain bikers tearing around the Semien mountains in Ethiopia. One of the riders having explained how unique the challenge is, the film then shows them riding their bikes over rocky peaks and then riding past farmers and villagers, pulling wheelies and jumping off ramps, and even racing through a building in the centre of a hill-side village of basic wooden shacks topped with corrugated metal roofs. The film epitomizes a culture of poverty tourism in which the crowds of smiling children dressed in filthy, patched and faded clothing are part of the colourful backdrop to this physically challenging and unique holiday. As one rider reflects to camera, ‘Man, you can’t get that experience anywhere, and we had to do this work to get up there and have this sort of in-depth experience with the culture that we wouldn’t have otherwise.’ For these riders, the world is a source of intense, consumable experiences, and it seems the spectacle of extreme poverty adds intensity to the experience of travelling at speed through unfamiliar and dramatic landscapes. It demonstrates, inadvertently, how extreme sports culture is a reiteration of an extractive colonial worldview that sees the world as its playground. It is there to be exploited, albeit under an alibi of cultural engagement and self-improvement.

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This worldview was shared to some extent by the keynote film of the festival, Lucas Brunelle goes to Chernobyl (Brunelle, 2015). Brunelle, a former racer and courier, has produced some stunning films using a helmet-cam rig to shoot hyper-kinetic point-of-view footage of the terrifying experience of riding through urban traffic, particularly during illegal ‘alleycat’ races. In this film, partly prompted by the director’s Ukrainian family heritage, Brunelle meets a group of people in Kiev and, after being dropped in a forest at night, they wade across a river into the exclusion zone around Chernobyl and then hike cross-country, carrying their bikes over their shoulders before reaching the city, where they camp in abandoned buildings. They cycle around the empty city before returning to Kiev where they have a party to celebrate the trip. The film inevitably recalls Tarkovsky’s Stalker (1979), and, indeed, one brief shot shows a cyclist passing a concrete bus shelter graffitied with the word, ‘STALKER’, suggesting that Brunelle may be aware of this parallel, but the contemplative stillness of Tarkovsky’s film is replaced here with a constantly mobile camera and choppy editing, slow-motion passages providing only occasional relief. It is a frustrating film as there is virtually no information offered about the place and its history, or the identity of Brunelle’s companions and how he knows them, and the reliance upon the mobile camera means that we are also not able to see much of the place. Having made his way to this location – without explaining why it was necessary to do it in this ‘extreme’ way when organized tours are available – all he needed to do was film the space. Static shots and still photographs of this abandoned city would be fascinating enough. Instead the film culminates with the ‘Tour of Chernobyl’ as they ride together through the city and an abandoned funfair, accompanied by music, Brunelle high-fiving one of his companions. Having capered around this vast memorial to the dead and those still dying from the effects of the reactor explosion, they come across ‘the infamous claw’, a highly radioactive hydraulic grab that was apparently used to clear rubble from the reactor, whereupon Brunelle dons rubber gloves and films himself fixing a vinyl sticker to it bearing his signature logo. In voiceover at the end of the film Brunelle reflects that, having visited over 60 countries, this was his most moving trip, however the film reinforces the impression that, like the cyclists in Ethiopia Epic, he sees the world indiscriminately as a series of more or less exotic, exciting spaces through which he can ride his bike.


Far more interesting and moving were two historical accounts of road racing. Milk Race: On and On (Stephen Green, 2016) compiled 16mm footage of the Tour of Britain (sponsored by the Milk Marketing Board) shot in the 1960s, accompanied by commentary from two of the successful riders who featured in the clips, Les West and Roger Pratt. It was a fascinating window into a period when cycle racing was still the province of enthusiastic amateurs. Davis and Connie (Ben Ingham, 2014), is a documentary about another two retired (US) racers, Davis Phinney and Connie Carpenter, who also raced in a period before professional cycling became a corporatised sport; Carpenter’s last race was the road race in the 1984 Olympics – scandalously, the first women’s cycling event to be held at the Olympics. It is a touching portrait of an apparently equal relationship – Davis recalls being starstruck when he first met Connie, who was older and far more successful than he was – and it takes a melancholy turn as it is revealed that Davis is suffering from Parkinson’s disease. There is an irony in one of the fastest racing cyclists in the world being afflicted by a disease that slows him down radically, but he draws a surprising parallel between the calm experience of being in the ‘vortex of speed and noise’ of the peloton when ‘everything is slowed down’ and the experience of Parkinson’s in which everyday tasks become more difficult and focused and, consequently, take on a heightened intensity.

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The most inspiring film of the two-day festival, however, was also one of the more modest films. Mama Agatha (Fadi Hindash, 2015), is a documentary study of a Ghanaian woman, Agatha Frimpong, who runs a course in Amsterdam to teach other immigrant women to cycle. Her students are mostly middle aged and older from a variety of countries including Suriname, Pakistan and China, and have a deep affection for their polyglot teacher, ‘Mama Agatha’. Agatha has helped hundreds of women to learn to ride and the film follows the progress of some of her pupils from learning to straddle their bikes precariously in a gym, learning to negotiate vehicles in an underground car-park and, finally, venturing onto the road in groups. At the ‘graduation ceremony’ when they tearfully receive their cycling proficiency certificates in front of their families it is clear how profoundly important it is to these women to be mobilised in this way. In other words, the film makes a powerful argument for the bicycle’s potential as an empowering machine, giving these women who are marginalised by age, gender and ethnicity, a greater agency and independence.


The bicycle has generated a vast amount of writing, ranging from technical manuals, journalism and sports reporting though to autobiographies, plays, and novels.  In one of the richest works of cycling literature, Need for the Bike, French experimental writer Paul Fournel reflects upon one aspect of the relationship between cycling and literature, observing that:

‘There are a lot of walker-poets, who write their verses to the rhythm of their feet: the Rédas, the Roubauds. Cyclist-poets are less numerous, it seems, but that’s due to inattentiveness, since the bike is a good place to work for a writer. First, he can sit down; then he’s surrounded by windy silence, which airs out the brain and is favourable to meditation; finally he produces with his legs a fair number of different rhythms, which are so much music to verse and prose’ (Fournel 2003: 127).

Interviewed for Jon Day’s Cyclogoegraphy, which blends an autobiographical account of Day’s experience of working as a bicycle messenger in London with philosophical reflections on the meanings of cycling, Fournel also suggests,  ‘The bicycle is a literary vehicle, a good place to think’ (Day 2015: 94).

This is a lovely pun, and, of course, it is one that a number of writers on cycling have used, but while the bicycle is a good place to think and work for writers, it does not always inspire great work – or great graphic design. William Saroyan’s 1952 memoir is one of the better contributions to the genre. A playwright and novelist, Saroyan attributed his skills as a writer to cycling: ‘My bikes were always rebuilt second-hand bikes. They were lean, hard, tough, swift, and designed for usage. I rode them with speed and style. I found out a great deal about style from riding them. Style in writing, I mean. Style in everything’ (Saroyan 1952: 11). The first-edition dust jacket of Saroyan’s book is suitably stylish. Inevitably, almost every book on cycling features a bicycle on the cover, but this is one of the most beautifully simple designs, incorporating tiny drawings of bicycles into the polka-dot pattern, the doodled frames looking like letters as much as depictions of bicycles.

The 1975 UK paperback cover of Ralph Hurne’s 1973 novel about cycle racing, by contrast, is one of the crudest covers I’ve come across. In the 1970s, Hollywood producer Carl Foreman (who had produced High Noon (Zinnemann, 1952) and Bridge on the River Kwai (Lean, 1957)) bought the rights to adapt the novel as a feature film that would be directed by Michael Cimino and would star cycling fan Dustin Hoffman, before Hoffman fired Cimino and hired Danish director, Jorgen Leth. The project eventually went nowhere when Cannon Pictures went bust in the early 1980s (although Hoffman latterly made a cameo appearance in the Lance Armstrong biopic, The Program (Frears, 2015)). It is pure pulp fiction and, although it has apparently acquired a certain cult status among cycling fans, is poorly written and gratingly misogynistic – a relic of nastier, pre-PC culture in which the foul, lecherous protagonist, a veteran cycle racer who ends up coming out of retirement to race in the Tour de France,  repeatedly refers to women as ‘it’. In both cases, it seems, you can judge the book pretty successfully by looking at the cover.


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

Paul Fournel (2003) Need for the Bike. Lincoln and London: University of Nebraska Press

Ralph Hurne (1975), The Yellow Jersey. London: Pan Books

William Saroyan (1952). The Bicycle Rider of Beverly Hills. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons.

See Feargal McKay’s scathing review of Hurne’s The Yellow Jersey and a brief account of the history of the uncompleted film adaptation:

Among the many films about bicycles and cycling, films about bicycle messengers constitute a significant sub-genre. Delivering messages was one of the first uses velocipedes were put to in the 19th century and throughout the history of the bicycle, which is itself a communication medium, it  has been used to deliver messages. The first bicycle messengers appear in cinema in the early 1900s, typically functioning as a narrative expedient, as with this early Keystone comedy, Bombs! (Griffin, 1916), featuring the comedian Al St. John (whose skills as a trick cyclist in vaudeville theatre had led to his employment as a screen performer a couple of year earlier).

St John makes a brief appearance as an insolent bicycle messenger, cycling up the steps of a building and into the office of the newly elected mayor and stealing a cigar from one of the office workers before unwittingly delivering a parcel bomb. Even this early on, the image of the bicycle messenger as maverick is already in place.

The bicycle messenger begins to move into the foreground in the 1980s (as bicycle messengers begin to appear more prominently in TV dramas literature, and autobiographical writing) and the film Quicksilver (Donnelly, 1986), which features Kevin Bacon, whose previous film Footloose (Ross, 1984) had made him a star,  establishes the template for most of the subsequent films about bicycle messengers in terms of plot, characterisation, cinematography, and a mise-en-scene of loading bays, alleys, underpasses, lifts, reception desks and diners. It tells the story of a stockbroker who quits his job after making a catastrophic loss and becomes a cycle courier.

However, one of the most comprehensive surveys of global bicycle-messenger culture is this feature-length documentary The Godmachine (Steffen, 2007), which has just been posted on youtube.

Made by a New Zealand-based film-maker, the film is built around interviews with couriers working in different cities and, alongside an advocacy of bicycle-use in cities, it gives a nuanced account of the attractions of this profession and the global culture that has emerged around it. It is partly celebratory, as is suggested by the title, which is derived from the mystical reflections of Auckland-based courier Mike Nailer, who regards cycling as ‘the creation of energy’, but is also attentive to the hardships of this punishing job. A New York messenger, Kevin, describes the messenger community as a ‘family’ but also reflects that he doesn’t know many people who have stuck with the job for more than ten years. ‘I’ve seen over the years, like, ten, fifteen guys die. Messengers, you know? I’ve seen girls get wracked up. […] It’s kinda like this – like a big machine you know, and people get grinded up in it every once in a while.’ It is a telling comment that recalls the famous opening scene of the British New wave film, Saturday Night and Sunday Morning (Reisz, 1960) in which the protagonist Arthur Seaton (Albert Finney) (who operates a lathe in the Raleigh bicycle factory) relates his maxim: ‘Don’t let the bastards grind you down.’ Kevin’s observation challenges assumptions that the shift from industrial production to a ‘knowledge economy’ or ‘information economy’ results in emancipation, equality and the end of work.  The figures of the cycle couriers populating these films remind us of the vast army of workers doing poorly paid, physically dangerous, sometimes deadly work in order to keep the modern city moving.



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.


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 Harry Harrison’s 1966 novel, Make Room! Make Room!, 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.


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’.