Archives for posts with tag: trick cycling

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.




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:



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

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: