issue #9 1
Bicycle, a two-wheeled vehicle. Its forerunner was the dandy-horse or hobby-horse, invented by a German civil servant, Baron Drais, in Mannheim in 1818; the rider propelled himself forward by pushing one foot and then the other against the ground. Kirkpatrick Macmillan, a young blacksmith from Dumfries, fixed cranks to the axle of the rear wheel of the dandy-horse, and operated them with his feet by means of two long levers; this enabled him to ride without putting his feet on the ground. A German mechanic fitted pedals to the front wheel of the vehicle, and a Frenchman made the front wheel larger than the rear wheel in order to increase the speed. This was the so-called â€˜bone-shakerâ€™, which was developed into the penny-farthing when the front wheel was enormously enlarged.
© Erika Hanna
Bonesha ker: Real Cycling Except th is isn’t
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‘Ordinary things wear lovely wings,’ wrote the Irish poet Patrick Kavanagh. I’d like to think he had a bicycle in mind when these words came to him. Certainly, Kavanagh rode bicycles. He grew up in Ireland in the early part of the 20th century, when the bicycle was a fundamental tool of rural life, a life Kavanagh keenly and often beautifully observed in his poems. Then, the vast majority of bicycles were sturdy, black, steel-frame roadsters with luggage racks and leather saddles, made by the likes of Raleigh, Rudge-Whitworth and Humber. They were utilitarian machines.
They were built to last. They cost ten pounds. Advances in technology mean that you can now spend £10,000 on a featherweight bicycle made from futuristic materials with electronic gears. Yet for most of us the bicycle remains an ‘ordinary thing’, something we use daily to go about our mundane business. Because it has ‘lovely wings’, though, the bicycle still plays a unique part in our experience and holds a place in our hearts, as the pages of this magazine affirm. Rob Penn Author & journalist www.robpenn.net
Going Underground 4 Chasing Waves 6 Girls on Bikes 10 La Ciclovía 14 Courier Shadowing 20 Digmore 22 'Le Farm' 26 Terry's Bike: A Short Story about a Bicycle 29 'Like a Dollar Store on Wheels' 30 Bike Smut takes on Taboo 32 Disraeli Gears 38 A Tool for Transport 42 My Beautiful Bike 46 Moving Scenes 48 'Velosapiens' 54 Cycling Cymru 56
words... rob penn, mike white, kepa acero, jet mcdonald, andrea bustos, jimmy eLL, rose orlik, mike lusmore, aaron ortiz, rachel jones, mike sweatman, rob bushill, jo bousfield, erik j. wilbur, robin wilkinson, alfie lake drawings... evgenia barinova, kyle smart, erika hanna, jeremy deller, deanna halsall, chandra vali, mark alastair, patch plummer, jesús escudero photos... mike lusmore, iker basterretxea roke, alfie lake, simon duhamel, mike sweatman, harry banks, karen dickinson, brad reber, chris mccraw, anomalilly, katie proctor, robin wilkinson, david pena, ojosdepezko, keith perfetti, alessandro holler, poppy cox, roland bosma
backpats and handclaps
anny mortada, james perrott, andrew riddington, maria popova at brainpickings, rachel coe, andrea diaz ismael
copyrights & disclaimers Boneshaker is a quarterly publication. The articles published reflect the opinions of their respective authors and are not necessarily those of the publishers and editorial team. ©2012 Boneshaker. At present, we are committed to remaining free from advertisements & advertorial. rinted by by Taylor Bros Bristol on FSC ® certified paper P made from sustainable sources, using vegetable based inks. 13-25 Wilder Street, Bristol BS2 8PY / www.taylorbros.uk.com Conceived by james lucas & john coe Compiled, edited and brought to life by jimmy ell, mike white, john coe & sadie campbell Designed and published by john coe / www.coecreative.com Cover image* by evgenia barinova / www.evgeniabarinova.com *(originally created as a wrapping paper for the YCN shop / www.ycnonline.com)
Inside cover illustrations by kyle smart / www.kylesmart.co.uk Digmore rider by mike lusmore / www.mikelusmore.com
Going Underground When Jeremy Deller was asked to redesign the cover of the London Underground map, he submitted this – the same colours and comforting curves of Harry Beck's original map are there, but bent into a bike.The design was rejected, and he submitted an alternative – a portrait of John Hough, Transport for London’s longest serving member of staff, just before he retired.
distance and hurls you into the whirling thicket of life. It allows for serendipity, strangeness and light. Slowly, trip by trip, you learn to feel your way across the city, ducking down back streets or bumping across parks, glimpsing the unexpected. You build your own map, one based not on coloured lines and connecting dots, but on living, growing memory.
Deller’s politics are writ large in his art. He employed battle re-enactors to recreate a clash between police and miners during the 1984 miners' strike in the North of England; he towed the mangled wreckage of a Baghdad car bomb across the American Mid West. His work is about participation, about people and their reactions. So why did Deller offer the Tube a picture of a bicycle?
Jeremy Deller is a Turner Prize winning artist. More of his projects can be found at: www.jeremydeller.org
To create confusion, certainly, but perhaps also to encourage those reaching for a Tube map to think again, to remind them that there are alternatives. It is the modern way, to climb into a metal box and let the box do the moving, while we become cargo. To let ourselves be conveyed like tinned sardines. Sardines with eBooks and pipe dreams and insecurities, maybe, but sardines all the same. The Tube, great though it is (and it really is great), means you shuttle across London in a fartfilled tin can, lost in the dark and seeing nothing of our stinking, staggering, beautiful capital. The same journey by bike gives meaning to
Jeremy Deller with Paul Ryan Portrait of John Hough (Transport for London's longest service member of staff â€“ 45 years of service), 2007 Commissioned by platform art / TFL
Jeremy Deller Rejected Tube Map Cover Illustration, 2007 Offset print, 59 x 84 cm Courtesy of the Artist
Words Kepa Acero / www.kepaacero.com
Photography Iker Basterretxea Roke / www.rokephotography.com
o tell you the truth, neither of us had trained for cycling long distance and we hadn’t yet tested the bike-cart we had built to carry the surfboard. The last time I had ridden a bike was when I was 14 years old and now, suddenly, here I was ready to cycle approximately 1000km in less than one month, stopping here and there along the way to surf. That situation right at the start of the journey made us laugh – at least, until we started to pedal.
what we were going to meet along the way. I could hardly believe I was about to start “El Camino de Santiago” – The Way of St James – a pilgrimage route in northwestern Spain, on a bike with my surfboard in tow! Travelling with me was the photographer Iker Basterretxea (aka 'Roke'). A few years back he and I had discussed the possibility of cycling the Transcantábrico line, which runs along the entire length of Spain's north coast.
A cart, several cameras, our bikes, saddle bags, a tent, a couple of mats and the surfboard, all in a bundle and… that was it! We hit the road in not particularly good cycling shape, but with plenty of enthusiasm about
So why by bike? Both Roke and I have travelled extensively all along the Cantabrian coast and we know many different corners in Galicia, Asturias, Cantabria and the Basque Country, but we always had the feeling that we
didn’t know the places we had visited deeply enough. And for that reason we decided to make this journey by bicycle. “El Camino de Santiago” is a well-travelled route. Pilgrims from all over the world make their way to the city of Santiago de Compostela, most of them by foot, but some also by bike. Each pilgrim has his or her own reason to make the Way – for many it is spiritual, some want to think and reflect on their own lives, others to travel avoiding conventional means of transport such as cars or planes. Our purpose was to chase waves, and to experience people and nature along the way. Travelling by bike was the perfect way to do it all.
Words Jet McDonald / www.jetmcdonald.com Illustration Deanna Halsall / www.deannahalsall.co.uk
Last week I saw an old lady ride past wearing a black feather boa and leopard print leggings. There she went, at her own pace, in skin tight leggings and a boa. Now that, I thought, is cool.
“Everyone old has dreamed of all their lives Bonds and gestures pushed to one side Like an outdated combine harvester, And everyone young going down the long slide...” FROM “HIGH WINDOWS” 1974
The last woman in a boa I thought was that cool was Germaine Greer, author of The Female Eunuch, an iconic tract on woman’s liberation from 1970. Growing up in the eighties, The Female Eunuch passed me by. Like a lot of teenage boys I wasn't sure what to make of my own 'sex', let alone anyone else’s. One solution was to go on incredibly long bike rides on my Claude Butler racing bike. This didn't solve any of the original dilemmas but at least it was an outlet for all that testosterone. And it was then I came across a film of Germaine Greer in a black fur boa in battle with Norman Mailer, the chauvinist war horse of American Literature. Greer had an intellectual ferocity that tripped Norman Mailer and his dish-cloth politics back into the men’s room. Greer was hot, I decided. And she was right on. She didn't burn bras, she twanged them. Back in my eighties home town you either wore chinos, listened to Duran Duran and did the dance moves, or you dressed down for radical politics and street protest. Nowhere did the ambiguous flux of sexuality seem to fit in. I remember walking home at midnight with my racer after my first proper snog when a police car pulled over and asked me what I was doing. In those days it seemed like snogging and cycling, or even walking and not cycling, were illegal. I found solace in the writing of Philip Larkin and then Jeannette Winterson and finally, girls on bikes. Philip Larkin is one of the moles of English poetry. He is not known for his feminism and he publicly spouted right-wing rhetoric. But he had a libertarian chant in his tightly sprung couplets. To hell with stereotypes, tiny-minded values, holding teacups with your fingertips, provincial curtains, dust on the mantelpiece, pulling over boys with bikes for having a snog: everything, perhaps, Larkin felt imprisoned by.
Unfortunately, the UK government had other ideas and embarked on a monolithic campaign about AIDS, just as Larkin was persuading me to go a-roving. Scooby Doo tombstones landed in heaps of dust between the ten o’clock news and the National Anthem. It was as if ‘AIDS’ had been unleashed with four capital letters solely to do battle with those four more profane letters on the walls of the youth club toilet. I desperately wanted to go “down the long slide”, but not into a tombstone. At University I cycled everywhere. To the feminist poetry think-tanks and to the union bars full of sweat and Brylcreem, but the condom machine was always broken. And then I read a short essay by the writer Jeannette Winterson. Winterson didn’t just say ‘to hell with small town thinking’ and ‘to hell with stereotypes’, but ‘to hell with fear’. She pointed out that sex is as necessary as breathing. It is part of the fluid curve of life and nature. Entwine with nature, she said, give way to the sensuous curve, the flow of sex, the unboundaried thrill. Winterson said sex is a smeared rainbow; it is a delicious elusive ride. Hop on, she said, see where it takes you. My girlfriend at university had a three-speed Raleigh. She was pretty easy to catch up with but I didn't dare draw alongside ’til the pedestrian crossing. She hopped off to cross the road and I skipped off to follow and we talked and then we walked and then we rode side by side. I remember she had two dried autumnal leaves above her bed, curled around each other. To my second girlfriend I gave a backie on a silver BMX down the steepest hill in the city. We were both drunk and the brakes didn't work and we burnt our shoes out but it felt amazing, like “everyone young going down the long slide.” I remember when she danced to R ‘n’ B she would smack her bum in time to the offbeat. For some reason that always made me think of the silver BMX carousing down the hill. 13
A ‘ride’ has long been a crude metaphor for sex, a lumpen parallel of cycles and humping... My current girlfriend and I began our first date on a bike path, side by side, freewheeling into town, chatting shyly as the bearings purred within our wheels. Four years later we cycled to India and back, returning down that same bike path, freewheeling home. As I write, the sun has emerged from the English winter. You can feel the heat off the leaves, shrugging off the frost. And the streets are full of “Girls on Bikes”. It's not only that “Boys on Bikes” don't do it for me but that so many dress so badly, all grimacing and lycra, like bad S&M at a pool party. And while there are also girls in lycra there are so many more in ripped jeans, pullovers, tank tops, skirts and t-shirts. I cannot help but respond to their electric zap. As spring wakes up the earth so it wakes up the limbs. And those limbs travel the circle of the seasons so sexily on a bike. For sexuality itself is such a joyous ambiguity in motion. In northern Europe we save our private bodies for the indoors, the fickle winter polices our flesh. But when the sun finally arrives, the hop from indoors to the bike is small, and we allow a more intimate self out in the open. The car does not do this; the car is a room on wheels. The bodiless driver speeds about in four walls and sexual signals are saved for winks in traffic jams. The car can only punish hips and legs, it can only fold them up, make them fearful behind steering column and air bag and hazard light. The car itself is sex. It coughs and burps and beeps like a pimp at a whorehouse. It will not lay itself gently against your hip as you unswing your leg at the end of the unwinding road. A ‘ride’ has long been a crude metaphor for sex, a lumpen parallel of cycles and humping. “I bet he/she is a good ride”. But the reality of a more intimate sex is that we ride each other, an ecstatic escape from gravity, revolving around the heart of ourselves, tumbling into freedom with “everyone young going down the long slide,” on BMXs or granny gears or tandems. 14
‘Daisy Bell’ is one of the most famous songs ever written about bikes. “Daisy, Daisy, give me your answer, do, I'm half crazy all for the love of you. It won't be a stylish marriage I can't afford a carriage, But you'd look sweet upon the seat Of a bicycle built for two.” It suggests abandon but also the binds of marriage and etiquette. Too often we forget its later lines.... “When the road's dark, we can both despise P'licemen and lamps as well...”
Bikes were there at the start of the nineteenth century. The biggest spoon in the gene pool this side of ballroom dancing. Often the only way to get a roll in the long grass was a ride out of town on a ‘safety bicycle’. The ‘bloomers’ of women cyclists were the proto trousers of the suffragettes. No wonder cigar-smoking gents were set against them. “We wear the trousers around here, love.” And as Bella Bathurst suggests in The Bicycle Book there was an Edwardian mistrust of the leather saddle. “The constant friction of the saddle on genitalia must inevitably lead to masturbation, and masturbation must lead to a new race of pop-eyed nymphomaniacs riding around Britain in a state of frenzied arousal.” Half a century later 'IBM 7094' became the first computer to sing. And the song it sang was 'Daisy Bell'. Buried in its binary switches, left and right, good and bad, in its stringent huddle of men with clipboards, I like to think there was a wayward sexuality. A rising sap in the machine. A pulse in the leg. A hot breeze on the mouth. A snog with your eyes closed as the wheels go round and round and round. When my girlfriend read this article she said it could as well be called 'Boys on Bikes' so easily could its themes be applied to both sexes. OK, I said, but bikes are more feminine, their curves echoing the womanly form (as Dennis Gould put it in a previous Boneshaker 'Oh the JOYS-Goddess/Two Wheeled Gypsy Queen'.) No, my girlfriend said, bikes are like boys and girls, angular and rounded. Bikes, she said, are bi. In a world without limits, without brakes, without policemen, without stop signs, the rules fall away to a sensuous unknown. “Rather than words comes the thought of high windows: The sun-comprehending glass, And beyond it, the deep blue air, that shows Nothing, and is nowhere, and is endless.”
Words Andrea Bustos & Alfie Lake Photos Alfie Lake / David Pena (Bogotรก Skyscape)
Colombia is a country of contrasts.
You can find dense, humid jungle and arid, rocky deserts; ostentatious shopping malls within walking distance of ramshackle shanty towns. Its capital, Bogotรก, sitting some 2625 metres above sea level in northwestern South America, has a captivating beauty about it, due in part to the nearby mountain chain which both overwhelms it and brings it tranquility; it is a city enveloped by nature. Though surrounded by verdant hills, the city has more than eight million inhabitants from all kinds of backgrounds, and is home to an apocalyptic chaos. Every day hundreds of buses, taxis, cars and motorbikes wage daily war while trying to negotiate the many haphazard road works (Bogotรก is a city constantly under construction), with the strongest and most streetwise seeming to emerge victorious. Bogotรก is disorganised and noisy; the buses swerve from one lane to another, stopping wherever they choose to pick up passengers, whilst simultaneously fighting for position with the small yellow taxis that swamp the city, all the while blasting their horns, as if the sound alone was enough to move the cars in front.
No surprise then that aside from Las Ciclorutas (Bogotá’s permanent bike paths), cycling in the city is a challenge, demanding unnerving awareness of the constant hazards, from the fume-belching colectivo buses to the crater-like potholes which litter the roads. But it was in this very city that an initiative called 'La Ciclovía' emerged. Conceived more than three decades ago, it has become something of an institution for the city – and has gone on to inspire car-free Sundays and Open Streets initiatives all around the world. Between 7am and 2pm every Sunday, many of the city’s main thoroughfares are partially or entirely closed to motorized vehicles, providing the capital’s residents, los Bogotanos, with an opportunity to enjoy the city in a more organic and peaceful way, where motor vehicles are no longer top dog.
It is inherently inclusive, creating a sense of community and ownership in an otherwise impersonal city for anyone who wishes to participate – cyclists and skateboarders, walkers and runners, lycra-clad speed freaks and ambling families, young and old. There really seems like no better way of making inhabitants of a city, especially one as vast and sprawling as Bogotá, feel like part of a community. In contrast with four-wheeled forms of transport, bikes have the capacity to generate a feeling of inclusion and equality. In a city where a car often means money, status and power and draws a line between rich and poor, the humble bicycle can be a great leveller. It brings together people from all walks of life, and, when coupled with initiatives like La Ciclovía, allows societal barriers and prejudices to be broken down. A ride around La Ciclovía circuit allows you to mix and meet with all manner of characters, such as Alberto, a Bogotano who lived in London for 20 years and for whom La Ciclovía gives a “feeling of progress” to the city; or the younger generation of cyclists like Camilo and Reinaldo, who roam its streets on their fixies and who recognize that La Ciclovía is a tool which “helps to abolish social barriers”, even if only for a few hours a week. As Enrique Peñalosa, mayor of Bogotá from 1998 until 2001 and a huge advocate for cycle paths and La Ciclovía says, "A bikeway is a symbol that shows that a citizen on a $30 bicycle is equally important as a citizen in a $30,000 car."
“Between 7am and 2pm every Sunday, La Ciclovía closes many of the city’s main thoroughfares to motorized vehicles . . . ”
An initiative you would normally expect to see in a European city, its mere presence demonstrates Bogotá's forward-thinking nature. Indeed, many governments and delegates have come to observe La Ciclovía in action, to see how it may be implemented in their own countries.
Instead of being cut off by a sea of glass and metal, residents can enjoy a more genuine contact with the city, experiencing that feeling of freedom which is offered by the humble bike ride – exposing yourself to the elements and feeling the wind, sun, and, more often than not, the rain on your skin (Bogotá is one of the rainiest capitals on the planet). La Ciclovía gives back to the city that feeling of humanity which is often lost during the week and creates a welcoming atmosphere, allowing users to feel part of their urban environment on their own terms. 18
For others, like Marina and Miguel, it offers a place to earn a living, a place of opportunities. Every Sunday, while Marina sells orange juice to the passing crowds, Miguel repairs their
punctures and fixes up their bikes, with these activities offering them both an opportunity to generate extra income at the same time as enjoying being outside in the (relatively) fresh air and watching the many faces of the city pass by. On one of our visits we met Adrian, a young guy who was cycling down Avenida Septima with his dog running happily behind. In his words, La Ciclovía “helps the development of culture in the city, giving it a certain originality and authenticity, as well as creating a space for people to reflect and clear their minds”. In the same way, it allows you to take in the city at your leisure, and to become acquainted with it on a deeper level than just peering out through a steamed-up bus window. Later we met Lina, who works as one of the many Ciclovía 'guardians', there to assist the public and check that everything is running smoothly. To be considered for the job you must be a genuine bike nut; training is demanding, with only 100 of the 600 in Lina’s group making the grade. She mentioned how occasionally car drivers would see it differently, “some of the drivers are very intolerant, they get angry and think of the Ciclovía as an inconvenience for mobility. There are cases of these drivers breaking regulations and driving down the lane intended for Ciclovía users. They are people that almost always think in a selfish way and fail to comprehend the benefit that it brings to the entire community”. At present, La Ciclovía consists of 121km of closed roads and is used by close to two million people (30% of Bogota’s population). On every third Sunday of the month there are different cultural activities dotted along the route, including dance, theatre, puppet shows and music, and there are several points called Recreovías along the way too, where people are encouraged to join in with group aerobics sessions. As you
head into the centre of the city there are flea markets lining the sides of the roads. Of course not everything is perfect. Many participants feel that La Ciclovía lacks planning and vision, is sometimes disorganised and that its design could be improved; a thing of great potential sometimes overshadowed by disorder. However, it’s worth acknowledging that sometimes this chaos brings the feeling of quirkiness and authenticity to La Ciclovía that makes it as unique as it is, celebrating the idiosyncrasies that are common to this city and country alike. In a city and a nation constantly afflicted by contradictions, injustices and a myriad of other bad news, La Ciclovía brings an escape. Even if only for seven hours, one day a week, people can concentrate on the present and allow their minds to wander. The worries of everyday life fade into the background as you become part of a collective whole, enjoying the normally hostile concrete jungle in a more peaceful, two-wheeled way.
Further Reading www.8-80cities.org www.inbogota.com/transporte/ciclovia.htm (in Spanish) Watch a great little film about La Ciclovía www.streetfilms.org/ciclovia You might also consider watching the inspiring short documentary ‘Cities on Speed - Bogotá Change’ made by Upfront Films, available in six parts on YouTube. 19
La Ciclovía: A Brief History The 15th of December 1974 saw the first trial of what we now know as the Ciclovía. It was the first time that the people of Bogotá had thrown themselves into the streets to take possession of a space that had become dominated by motorized traffic. The 'Rally in favour of the bicycle', as it was called in the newspaper El Tiempo, was an initiative between an independent, not-for-profit organisation called Procicla (Pro-Bicycle) and the Department of Transport, who arranged for two of the city's principal roads to be closed to motor vehicles and given over exclusively to bicycles for three hours from nine o’clock in the morning until midday. The event was attended by more than 5000 Bogotanos, who came out to protest against the proliferation of cars, the pollution and the lack of recreational space in the city. Their voices were heard. The following Sunday, the Committee of Arts and Sports along with the police and Mayor held a sports festival in the centre of the city. This event was an opportunity both for those who wanted to cycle and for those who wanted to walk. In 1976, the Mayor of Bogotá took the decision to designate a few roads to be used by cyclists and pedestrians on Sundays and bank holidays as part of future Ciclovía events and in June of the same year, laws were passed which made las Ciclovías official. It was at this time that the idea of permanent cycle routes around the city called CicloRutas also arose. Las Ciclovías continued to be very popular, but it would be another six years before it was permanently established and began to develop further. At the same time, university students were being encouraged to get on their bikes and to become part of large caravanas de ciclistas (cycle caravans) that travelled longer distances around the outskirts of the city. On 2nd August 1981, the first 'National Day of the Bicycle' was celebrated with a huge cycle route throughout the city. La Ciclovía was now taking place regularly on Sundays and bank holidays from 7am until 1pm and consisted of 54km of closed roads which covered all areas of the city. In 1995, a new mayor was elected, Antanas Mockus, whose administration was centred around the concept of Formar Ciudad – literally, 'forming the city'. He was keen to see the Ciclovías develop and wanted to connect more of the impoverished south with the richer north. Mockus worked alongside the Institution of Recreation & Sports to develop the cycle routes into three organised circuits that connected areas of recreation and green spaces with areas of rich cultural and historical value. Thanks to Mockus’ administration, Las Ciclovías kept growing, with more and more roads being closed to make way for bicycles. The distance of closed roads grew from 54km to 81km and it was now operational until 2pm in the afternoon. In 1997, the Ciclovía served 70% of the city's twenty localities, became the principal recreational activity of the country and even had its own jingle, “Bogotá has no sea, but it does have the Ciclovía”. More modern signage was implemented, ‘guardians’ (university students trained in first aid and paid to cycle around the various routes attending to any injuries) were introduced, street vendors selling cold drinks and fruit were allowed to set up shop on agreed pitches and a radio communication network exclusively for the Ciclovías was established, allowing the event to run more smoothly. All the while, there was an emphasis upon keeping the routes clean and free from litter. Source: www.inbogota.com/transporte/ciclovia/historia.htm
Bicycle messengers are everywhere in hurly-burly London. There's always one in front at the lights, always one muttering on a radio as they cruise down the street. They are the most identifiable of workers – they could only be doing one job, unlike the suits and overalls that stream round my office in Soho. A handful of couriers bide time on the John Snow monument in Soho1. There's the one with the brightly coloured Tour de France cap, the one with a stuffed toy on his helmet, the one with neon wheels. They all wear radios, shoulder-slung bags, fingerless gloves. This informal uniform adds to the courier's mystique. The alley cat who knows London like the back of their hand, who doesn't rush like a worker or meander like a tourist. Cue Chandra, my friendly local bike courier, accosted one day as she strolled past my office. Blonde hair in a messy knot, freckles, a face that looks younger than her (thirty) years. She’s got a glove tan on her hands and an excellent line in cut-off shorts, but no helmet – I’m silently tutting, Mum stylee, about the dangers of reckless riding. Chandra generously agreed to let me trail her for a day, so one morning found me pedalling nervously towards the messengers' usual spot in Soho. Even before I arrived, Chandra called to say she had her first job and a mobile meet-up was in order. I found her at the corner of Regent Street.
At 9am it was busy, rammed with suits desperate to cross the road, ignoring the traffic and darting between buses. Unpredictable two-legged obstacles are troublesome at the best of times, but hunting for a road name and a half-remembered courier made me fear the day would end in disaster. It’s okay, I found her, clutching a freshly-collected media tape. Chandra said from a dwindling pool of courier-able items, media tapes are among the most common. Technology has put paid to bicycle deliveries of most documents and contracts – the staples of early courier work – leaving a weird mish-mash of the bulky and the bizarre. Their meat in trade is big, un-emailable items like portfolios, clothing and corporate gifts. As technology improves the media tapes will surely also disappear, leaving couriers with only truly weird and wonderful items in their bags. Among some of the more perplexing items Chandra has couriered: false teeth; urine samples; diamonds; a cheque for several millions; and two cows’ hearts. Not quite sure what I would have done if asked to carry cow hearts, but freak out would’ve been high on the agenda. We set straight off for a second pick-up, this time a suit in Clerkenwell. When you think about it, the internet revolution that's almost put paid to the Royal Mail has also had some pretty dire consequences for couriers. There were several hundred zipping around in the 80s, but just a handful today. I wasn’t worrying about that as I concentrated on keeping up. My main concern beforehand was that I would seriously slow Chandra down, or just plain die. Bike messengers have a terrible reputation for dangerous driving and I was scared I would lose a fight with a bus through haste or inexperience. Happily, it turns out much of couriers' speed is down to smart riding, not just nerves of steel. In fact, the main tip of the day was this: check it's safe, check for police, then do it. That means creative use of one-way streets is in; daredevil overtaking of lorries is out. It was a real thrill. We crossed the city much faster than I ever would, using side streets you never normally notice, running ambers and cutting corners. It tested my fitness too - non-stop back-and-forth with no lazy pedalling gets your heart going. I couldn’t help but feel guilty though. It worries me that every time you run a red or nip between cars, it makes drivers hate bikes a bit more. What if ‘creative’ cycling pisses off cars to the extent that they drive more recklessly or give cyclists less space? That will end in disaster.
handle-less water pump which acts as a memorial to one of the fathers of epidemiology, A who did vital work to find the source of a cholera outbreak in Soho, London in 1854.
No time to dwell on that though. Riding my adrenaline wave, one of the best things about couriering struck me. That feeling of being right in London’s thumping heart, but also outside. You're not on holiday, dallying along looking for the nearest Tube, and you're not working, rushing into the office to hug the computer. With no job in hand, we set off for Soho via Hyde Park. The lack of noise was like being dunked underwater. The screaming traffic is a major downside of inner city couriering, with cars piling up behind you, overtaking too close and honking their horns. Chandra has never had any serious accidents, but plenty of bruises. Some couriers aren't so lucky. Nine have been killed in London since 1989, and the London Courier Emergency Fund was set up partly for this reason. Established in 2007, it
By the time we got back to Soho, it was late afternoon. After a slow day, it looked like there wouldn't be many more jobs coming in. The shadows of the buildings merged, and it got cold. The messengers idled on their corner as I pedalled off home. Judging by the work we did, I'd worry if biking was my only income. The green revolution might put a few more packages in panniers, but it looks likely that just a small core of riders will remain. It seems like there’s no big secret to being a courier. You've got to love it, just like any job, otherwise it's too tough. Chandra and co are just a bunch of people who’ve realised the awesome power of the pedal, and wouldn't do anything else.
helps around 20 riders a year, doling out a minimum £300 on average for those who are injured and unable to work for two weeks or more. Most couriers are classed as self-employed sub-contractors for tax reasons. This means no sick pay, and you’re really in trouble if an accident keeps you off work. The risk of bumps and bruises is higher than for ordinary bikers, and the relatively low wage means some don't have cash to fall back on. This is another major downside of the cycle messenger way of life. On a really good day, couriers can earn upwards of £100. Depending on their feelings towards HMRC, that might be tax free. However, a crap day pays closer to £40. Throw in an uncertain number of shifts per week and lengthy hours spent waiting for a job, and the prospect becomes somewhat less appealing. In fact, Chandra and I did spend several hours idling in Soho. At first I was glad of the break, but then I started thinking about the money we weren't making, and sizing up the cluster of messengers waiting for jobs. This downtime can be fun, and it’s one of the reasons courier culture is so strong. Riders often develop a great community of friends and there was definitely a firm sense of comradeship around the John Snow monument. There was also quite a lot of moaning about the dwindling work. Couriers have their gripes like any workers, plus more time to talk about them. After lunch we set off for another job, this time in Camden. Roaring up the side of Regent's Park in the afternoon sun, I had another 'why do anything else?' moment. No traffic, gorgeous weather and sneaky short cuts make it the best work in the world. This time I delivered the parcel, and felt that sense of ‘otherness’ again. Comfortable in casual clothes and smug as I went back into the sunshine, leaving all that unfinished work and worry to someone else.
In these days of instant gratification, where almost anything is in reach at the click of a button, hard physical work is â€“ for many at least â€“ a somewhat distant notion. But good old-fashioned toil is still very much a reality behind a particular patch of trees
in Bristol, South West England. There, by the side of a busy road, lie a beautifully manicured set of trails, hand-carved to perfection by a group of guys who put their blood, sweat and tears into a place better known as Digmore.
t was in the winter of 2008 that an inspired George King started to build some trails near his home in Bristol. A devoted mountain biker at the time, he managed to scour Google Earth for a plot before persuading a few friends to come and help to lay out a small pump track. His days on the land turned to weeks, weeks to months, and as other people started to appear in this no man’s land the work began to steamroll.
Tom and the rest of the locals spent their days – and sometimes nights – at the pump track. It became a place to ride, to dig and to hang out, and you would often find them entertaining themselves by the fire late into the night with a beer and the products of a barbecue in their hands. With its bevy of tools, shelter, resident mascot Freddie the fox and its unlimited supply of work, it was rare to find the place uninhabited; it really was like a second home to them.
Fast forward a year and Digmore had become a fully fledged set of trails and a clear group of regulars had started to emerge at the site. With calloused hands and aching limbs George, Homer, the two Wills, Adi, Kung,
Digmore wasn’t the sort of place you could just turn up to and grab some air after work, though. For starters, everyone else would probably be digging, and it was so much more than that besides. Thousands of man-
hours had gone into planning, building and shaping this magical place, and it was a constant effort to keep it that way. The people who started here as strangers, shifting dirt from one place to another, became caretakers of a sort and had forged life-long friendships in the process.
again. It was all about spending time with my mates and experiencing that adrenaline rush on two wheels. I realised this was what Digmore really signified – a group of real people who had become great friends over a set of wheels, a spade and a beer, and who just wanted to get out and ride.
Recently, when I heard that George and the locals were leaving the pump track, I was pretty surprised, but its popularity had made it difficult to maintain and they felt like they had no choice but to move on. It made me think back to when I was a kid: I would pick up my bike and head out with friends and just ride, pedalling until it hurt before turning back and heading home
Digmore lives on in a group of mates who love to ride and at a set of woods so hidden I can’t even remember the way. It's also online at digmore.co.uk Mike Lusmore is a photographer and cyclist living in Bristol mikelusmore.com 27
Words Aaron Ortiz
uring a solo bike tour across France* in 2011, I often caught my mind wandering, especially since at the time of the tour, I didn’t speak any French. The following story is a representation of what French farm animals may or may not think about bike tourists spinning past their homes. It’s also the result of having entirely too much down time, at a campsite in the middle of France. The town of Fiems had just settled down from rush hour, a rush hour consisting of all ten people who actually worked until 4:30 p.m. and were now walking home, when Chicken first started to stir from her nest. The leaves of the trees, which hung low over the ground from the day’s rains, gently released the beads of water that had been suspended in the air, back to the earth. The drops of water slid down the firm blades of grass and settled into the dirt. Chicken, adjusting her eyes to the dim light of the cloudy afternoon, moved slowly from the shelter of the barn. She stumbled, half awake, to the center of the barnyard, enjoying the feeling of the soft earth under her feet. She watched curiously, her head moving from left to right, as a car sped by. The road, which was lined with chestnut trees, stretched south past the grey barn, and yawned for over four hundred miles, until it came to an abrupt end at the Mediterranean sea. She spotted feed on the ground in front of her and mindlessly pecked at it. Placing the seed carefully in the center of her beak, her unusually long neck snaked down toward the wet ground, then slowly rose toward the sky as she swallowed. Feeling satisfied, she looked north down the slippery road. Near the bottom of the rain-soaked pavement, pedaling hard up the hill towards the farm, Chicken spotted what she believed to be a man on a bicycle. The grey light of an overcast sky at dusk can often play tricks on sleepy chickens, so she blinked her eyes three times and confirmed that it was indeed a man on a bicycle. He was moving slowly and his blue bike was laden with four mismatched, heavy-looking bags. Chicken, overjoyed at the prospect of company, headed up the normally sleepy road then spotted Rooster, who was busy pecking at some overgrown weeds near the splintered fence post. “Rooster!” the chicken exclaimed as she lowered her head and ran to his place near the split rail fence. “Rooster! Look there at the bottom of the hill! It’s a man!” Rooster looked left down the road, to see a man struggling under the weight of a bicycle. The bulging white bags on the rear of the bicycle gave rooster the impression that they would burst at the seams at any moment. “Rooster, what will you say to the man as he passes?” Chicken asked excitedly.
Rooster took less than a second to respond, “I shall not dignify him with one crow. Man has no place in the wilds, unprotected as he is against the elements. Look at his green jacket that beads off the rain, he has no feathers to protect him like I do.” The rooster walked into the leaky hen house, without so much as a goodbye to his friend Chicken. Chicken, stunned, but sure she was not alone in her excitement, then saw the cow grazing on the grass near the gate. She walked toward him, flapping her wings to relieve the mist from where it had settled: “Cow! Do you see the bike tourist? What shall we say to him?” The cow raised his head from the damp grass and slowly peered down the road. The cyclist working up the steep hill was now standing on the pedals to propel the bike forward. A distant look crossed the cow’s face when he noticed the Brooks leather saddle of the bike. The cow looked back to his friend Chicken, held his gaze for some time and was long in responding, as cows often are when they’re dealing with chickens, “Go away Chicken, I’m still sore from this morning's milking. I shall look long at the man and only see his greed, he could not survive one minute if not for us.” Chicken, not eager to press her luck, turned and walked away. A strong north wind blew across the dirt of what was once a great field for grazing, now worn thin from years of the cow’s constant attention. Chicken, hell-bent on forming a welcoming committee approached the horse cautiously, but still optimistic that she wouldn’t be the only one to welcome the tourist. “Horse, do you see the man that is soon to be upon us riding his bike? What will you say to him as he passes?” The horse shifted his head slightly from a gaze that had been fixated on the half-full water trough, to see the man who was now nearly upon them. “He comes here on a convenience, he has no use for chickens or horses. Do you not see the contraption he sits upon? Always moving from one convenience to the next, forgetting that he and I used to share great adventures together. The steel he sits on has no heartbeat and I fear, neither does the man. I’m sorry Chicken, but I will say nothing to him.” The horse resumed his gaze at the water trough and waited silently. Chicken, convinced the weather had put all of her friends in a foul mood, still remained in high spirits as she approached the dog. The grey whiskers under the dog’s chin betrayed his age. The dog, who at one time in his life could not sit still, now lay on a dusty rug just inside the barn, avoiding the water that was trickling down from the gutter and forming a small puddle in the doorframe. Dogs will often stand on ceremony and this conversation with Chicken was going
*(please note, I harmed no animals during my time in France. Actually, I did yell at a dog, but I think it just hurt his pride).
“Dog, I shall cluck three mighty clucks for all to hear to announce the arrival of the man who is on a grand voyage.”
Chicken ran from the barn as the bike neared the far end of the farm yard. The man tapped his right brake, which let out a shrill cry as the rubber made contact with the wet steel rim, which was still laced with gravel from the day's ride. The man had nearly passed when Chicken let out three mighty clucks that disturbed the otherwise sleepy farmyard, “CLUCK! CLUCK! CLUCK! ” Were it not for the clucks the man would have never had noticed Chicken standing near the fence. He came to a complete stop in front of Chicken. He grunted as his tired muscles, strained from the day’s riding, un-clicked his shoes from their stationary place on the pedals. He set his bike down on the west-facing soggy bank, approached the split rail fence where Chicken still stood, beaming with pride from being the only one brave enough to welcome the man. Man kneeled down, as Chicken stretched out her long youthful neck in anticipation of a “hello” and a pat on the head. to be no exception. He sat up on his front legs, keeping his backside firmly planted on the rug. He stared into the bright, youthful eyes of the chicken, evaluating her before he spoke. “Chicken, I’ve seen you move about asking what others will say to the man as he passes. What Chicken, will you say?” Chicken who had clearly been thinking about an answer to that question for some time, responded, “Dog, I shall cluck three mighty clucks for all to hear to announce the arrival of the man who is on a grand voyage.” Dog watched as Chicken shifted about nervously in front of him. “Are you so naive, you think the man is unaware of the voyage he is on, Chicken?” The dog asked, shifting his own weight from his left leg to his right. Chicken exclaimed, “My clucks will enliven the man’s spirits, dog, he has been riding long and needs our support. I must go; he’s nearly at the fence.” 30
The sound was soft enough to be swept away by a gust of wind: man and Chicken were probably the only ones that actually heard it. The sound was a sharp CRACK. It was over before Chicken felt any pain. Man moved back to his bike and tucked Chicken away in his rear bags to be cleaned and cooked later. The man clicked his shoes back into the pedals, the locking of the steel cleat made a similar sound to the one that ended Chicken’s life. As the sky cleared and the golden light of dusk stretched over the barnyard, the man rode south. The horse stared at the tin trough, the cow continued to graze, and the rooster chatted with a group of hens. As the man crested the horizon and slipped out of sight, into obscurity, the dog let out a long howl from his spot inside the barn. Illustration Mark Alastair / flickr.com/photos/markalastair
* A SHORT STORY ABOUT A BICYCLE *
IKE A L DOLLAR STORE ON WHEELS... K A R I M C H A R L E B OI S - Z A R I F F A
ou know those guys in Asia who carry a hundred caged chickens or a whole fruit and veg shop or a fiftyfoot stack of flip-flops on the back of their bike? There’s something crazy and wonderful about the way they defy gravity, and part of that crazy wonder has rubbed off on Canadian artist Karim Charlebois-Zariffa. When the Russian 4G network provider Yota asked him to create a one-off piece, the only definite demand they made was that it include two blue dots - part of their logo. He took that brief and ran wild, creating the technicolour fantasy you see here. He likens those Asian cargo-bikes to ‘a dollar store on wheels’, and says he also drew inspiration from a trend in Mexico where the kids pimp up their BMXs. Karim took those two ideas, spun them together, built his sculpture and then ‘turned everything upside down, to make everything float!’ It’s in the empty space beneath the tyres that the magic really lies, like those days when bike and body feel symbiotic, the wind carries you along and your wheels hardly seem to touch the ground...
Concept / design Karim Charlebois-Zariffa Photography Simon Duhamel Full credits are available at www.karimzariffa.com 33
Words Rachel Jones
Bike Smut Takes on Taboo More wheels than usual and a spirited din give away the Bike Oven, nestled amongst the Mexican restaurants, auto shops and big box stores that line North Figueroa just east of the river. Bike Smut has arrived in Los Angeles. Riders act as couriers, shuttling to and from the liquor store down the street. Armed with anonymous black-bagged provisions, the audience files into the crowded bike workshop. A gentleman named Christopher takes the $6 suggested donation from the less frugal, hawking condoms, stickers, and pins on the side. Saturday night in Los Angeles is never devoid of diversion, whatever flavour you're looking for. The city of angels is famous for its entertainment culture, but for this evening’s one-night only, incredibly rare screening of Bike Smut: The Orgasm Trail, L.A. must import from the bicycle mecca to the north, Portland. Reverend Phil takes the stage in a fuchsia track suit, a forty of Mickey's in hand and jacket unzipped to the navel. He introduces the show to cheers and jeers, and explains the rules of the game. This year's tour is themed loosely around that childhood computer game of wagons, rivers, bison and dysentery: The Oregon Trail. More important than the theme itself is the show's format – The Orgasm Trail is a chooseyour-own-adventure. In bike porn, choice is essential.
© Still from 'Pedal to Pleasure' by Poppy Cox
Erotic Elegance and Ergonomic Efficiency>>
But how does a crowd of all the rowdy bikers you can fit into a community bike workshop make a group decision? (Hint: not by consensus.) At a typical showing, each segment of films is selected by shouting, but the Los Angeles audience decided to dance their answer. So it goes something like this: Reverend Phil reads a question aloud, for example, Where is the best place to meet a bikesexual partner? And then offers the possible selections, A. A party B. A cafe C. A group ride. The choice with the most folks out of their seats and shaking their booties wins. On this particular evening, the audience's dancing was rewarded with an eccentric collection of films, ranging from a highly-stylized silents with no graphic sexual interaction to stop-motion Lego sex to satirical mayhem. The films are all completely distinct from one another, although many are structured in ways that play with media conventions. The sex and sexualities are sometimes heterosexual but often not. Be it Sarah Palin sex dolls or pirate mania, sometimes we recognize a social figure or phenomenon has made it big when it's pornographized. Other times we aren’t aware of a particular niche until it shows up as a curious tag. ABDLs anyone? (That's Adult Baby Diaper Lovers.) In the days of the internet, participating in sexual subcultures has never been
In 1850 the bicycle was invented, and women and bicycles have been a huge deal since then. Women were not allowed to ride bicycles because it supposedly would turn them on. faster or easier, to the point that discerning the origin of a particular fetish is like the chicken and the egg. Bike Smut is the love-child of Reverend Phil, who launched the annual tour from Portland in 2007, and has since made more than a dozen tours across the US, Canada and now, all of Europe. A travelling film tour that emphasizes community exploration of sexuality, taboo, and of course, the potential of the bicycle. The beauty of Bike Smut is that it asks the big questions – the meaning behind words such as sex, intimacy, fetish, perversion – without distancing itself from the answers. It is doubtful that even the raddest Gender and Women's Studies professor or queer theorist could so efficiently provoke impassioned dialogues of activism, feminism and sexual identities. Bike Smut's mission statement is simple to the point of elegance: Spreading the call for better sex and better transportation, we endorse joyful exploration, shameless flirtation, and radical honesty. The gears are turned by a small team: Reverend Phil, Anne aka Poppy Cox, Christopher, and of course, the cast and crew of each of the bike porn flicks. For Rev Phil, the relationship with bike porn comes back to the relationship between words and their meanings. He dubbed his first event 'the pornography of the bicycle'. The event, in Portland, was intended as a community-oriented platform “to explore the social process of making something highly graphic, probing the ideas of what is bike ? and what is sex ?” “It’s actually much more challenging to define what a bike is versus what is porn,” Rev Phil notes. “Porn is defined by the individual, but you wouldn’t think that about bicycles. [You would think] there would be some sort of unifying idea. When I showed people movies of soap box races (fourwheeled gravity-powered races), they were really upset.” While the nuances of bicycles and sex may be infinite, Rev Phil says that most people feel a bicycle must be human-powered.
“The culture is not so much about the tool, it’s about its engine. Skateboarding might be closer [to a bicycle] than a pocket bike.” Rev Phil is also concerned with the all-or-nothing character of contemporary porn. “There’s no wading into it. You click that button and you’re covered in it. There’s no warming up, you kind of have to be ready to orgasm.” He describes a recent online search for bike porn: “So, a couple is having some kind of interesting kinky sex. The guy clearly got into it, using a chain to choke the girl. He had this moment where he started to hug her, and boom! Cut. The editors didn’t want to show that, and that’s tragic. [But] they broke from their characters and that made it interesting.” Poppy Cox linked up with Rev Phil in 2010 after seeing Bike Smut 4. A veteran burlesque performer, she describes her involvement with sexual performance and bike porn as a response to “lame porn”, which she defines as “porn without joy.” She continues, “It’s not diverse – it uses traditional male erotic response to curate its stories, rather than focusing on a wide range of sexual behavior.” Poppy's undergraduate dissertation found her taking photographs in London's bustling burlesque joints, where she focused her lens on a vibrant scene that celebrated female sexuality. “There was joy there. Women having a good time. Basically what I concluded was that women are better at having fun with their sexuality. Men are really serious – I’ve got this dick and I’ve gotta use it!” Without batting a coquettish eyelash, Poppy links the value she places in joy and female sexuality to the bicycle. “In 1850 the bicycle was invented, and women and bicycles have been a huge deal since then. Women weren’t allowed to ride bicycles because it supposedly would turn them on. 'Saddle sniffers' was a big thing. The bicycle changed the way women dressed - bloomers were invented for the bicycle, women could wear pants.
© Alessandro Holler © Keith Perfetti
© Keith Perfetti
© Roland Bosma © Poppy Cox
© Poppy Cox
making love, riding bicycles, making love while riding bicycles, and making love with bicycles, Bike Smut keeps it human-powered. Poppy points me to the work of Susan B. Anthony, our lady of the American silver dollar and a prominent 19th century civil rights leader who played a pivotal role in introducing women’s suffrage into the USA. Anthony said, “I think the bicycle has done more to emancipate women than anything else in the world. It gives a woman a feeling of freedom and self-reliance. The moment she takes her seat she knows she can't get into harm unless she gets off her bicycle, and away she goes, the picture of free, untrammeled womanhood.” Paraphrasing Anthony, Poppy embellishes, “Women were able to take control of their transportation. Able to explore larger gene pools. Freedom machines!” What stands out in the stories of Poppy Cox and Rev Phil is the search for that je ne sais quoi in porn – something that comes to life with a combination of sexual intimacy, agency, and authenticity – qualities, one could argue, that embody what it is to be an ideal human.
[a fellow Bike Smut organizer] didn’t really want to hang out with me unless I rode a bike too. He got me to ride. I realized I wouldn’t die immediately riding a bike in London, and I also realized that boys on bikes are really hot.” As if the combination of bicycles and sexuality weren't ripe enough for critical thought, religion enters the equation as well. I ask Reverend Phil what pushed him to pursue his title. “The thing about Reverends is that they’re supposed to have a degree of oratory skills, you expect them to say something when shit hits the fan. They often have taken time to consider the pathos of our human experience. There’s a whole lot written about the nature of how a Reverend might fall from grace. They’re supposed to deal with all the devils of humanity, being required to walk the line between chastity of most glorious godly ways and the slime of our human existence. They are the bridge between those different paths. People say, 'You must be corrupted! Can anything be any more corrupted than pornography?' But I say, 'Actually that’s salvation'.”
A brief search online yields no Bike Smut pornos, only information about Bike Smut's work, calls for submissions, and photos from past events. Reverend Phil considers the communal, non-digitized porn experience to be a crucial part of Bike Smut values. “All sorts of things happen. You might get laid. You’re getting turned on, with everyone else. If you watch something you don't like, you can talk about it with people you otherwise wouldn't talk to about what you do like.” Again, human engagement is key.
Speculating on the future of non-motorized transportation, Rev Phil suggests that “Some day we’re going to have such amazing asses that we can just fly. Fly with our ass wings.” Poppy Cox gleefully suggests that the next tour will be Bike Smut 6: Flying With Ass Wings, and the giggles start. All kidding aside though, one thing is certain: making love, riding bicycles, making love while riding bicycles, and making love with bicycles, Bike Smut keeps it human-powered.
One of the more mysterious sides of Bike Smut lies in the nature of the bicycle fetish. To what extent is the bicycle fetish analogous to more commonly acknowledged fetishes, like feet, latex, or lace, and to what extent is the bicycle fetish a more political entity? Does it matter? There won't be a solid answer to this anywhere, but Poppy Cox offers a little insight into her bike-sexual origins. “Christopher
Links www.bikesmut.com www.bikeporntour.blogspot.com www.bikesmut.tumblr.com www.bikeoven.com
Words Mike White & Mike Sweatman Pictures Mike Sweatman
DISRAELI GEARS You know how the title came about - Disraeli Gears - yeah? Eric (Clapton) was talking about getting a racing bicycle. Mick went ‘Oh yeah - Disraeli gears!’ meaning derailleur gears... We all just fell over... We said that’s got to be the album title” D RU M M E R G I N G E R B A K E R R E M E M B E R I N G 1967 , A N D T H E N A M I N G O F T H E S E C O N D A L B U M B Y H I S B A N D , T H E B R I T I S H S U P E RG RO U P, C R E A M .
It is with this quote that Mike Sweatman introduces his fascinating online shrine to one of cycling’s greatest technological advancements - the derailleur gear. At Boneshaker we tend not to fetishize kit or gadgetry. We’re all about the view from the top of the hill, not how fast you got up it. We’re about the sound of the rain, not the technical fabric that keeps it off our backs. But in addition to its scholarly scope and charming conscientiousness, Mike’s Disraeli Gears project is full of humour and human interest. It is, he says, a site that’s “all about rear derailleur gears... it is a little about remembering... and a miniscule part of it is even about the very derailleur gears that Eric Clapton may have been dreaming about back in the Summer of Love.” ‘Death before derailleur’ says the T-shirt of the guy pedaling up behind me. He’s riding a fixed gear bike of course, and it’s a beautiful machine. I give him a smile as he tries to keep up, then lose him on the next hill, thanks to my tourer’s 24-speed advantage. Despite the current fixation with fixies and single-speed bikes, gears can be a wonderful thing. When they first began appearing in the 1930s derailleurs were something of an oddity, their development left to “the (much loved) lunatic fringes of cycling, the cycle tourists, the tandem riders, the plain mad inventors and those racers who just could not resist stretching the rules.” Derailleurs were banned from the Tour de France until 1937, but after that year nobody looked back. Legend has it that derailleurs had such an impact that the last rider in the 1937 Tour averaged the same speed as the winner of the 1936 race. Derailleurs made it possible for ordinary people to cycle further and faster than ever before. They’re a great leveller of the land, making mountains into molehills. Mike Sweatman’s been working in bicycle 40
shops since the mid-1970s, and decided to put together the Disraeli Gears collection to represent some of the derailleurs he’s worked on, sold, heard about or seen at trade shows in that time. Alongside the hundreds of gears catalogued on the site come brief interjections of thoughtful commentary and collections of derailleur-related ephemera: “You cannot collect derailleurs without accidentally collecting a certain number of instruction sheets, catalogues and nefarious other documents. These are strangely fascinating – like letters in a bottle that have been adrift in a sea of garbage in people’s garages for many a decade.”
“The rear derailleur is, in many ways, the definitive bicycle component, it defines the ‘groupset’ and that in turn defines the bike.” But the main draw is the gears themselves, some oddly serpentine, some robotic, some quaintly futuristic. “Some are gears that I had only heard of, vehemently discussed by crusty old geezers in draughty Cyclist Touring Club club rooms, some are models that I personally sold in their hundreds and some are exotic beauties that I dreamed of owning,” says Mike. All are, in their own way, beautiful.
Cyclo Catalogue 362, 1936 "I have a quiet enthusiasm for patent documentation, partly because of the clear and verifiable dates, partly because it credits the (often unheralded) individual designers involved, partly because of the spooky engineer-speak, but largely because of the natty engineering drawings. In an echo of Daniel Rebour, these drawings provide a visual history of the derailleur in a pleasingly consistent and formal style."
Cyclo Standard "The Cyclo Standard was the definitive touring derailleur for many decades. It started life as the French 1923 ‘Le Cyclo’, designed and manufactured by Albert Raimond. The design of the mechanism was said to have been inspired by machine guns that Raimond examined during the First World War." BRAND Cyclo Gear Company COUNTRY UK DATE OF INTRODUCTION 1932
Huret Course Competition "The Huret Course Competition was one of Huret’s typically innovative and cunning designs, in this case a racing model that attached at the drop-out. It was all very direct and simple, used materials that could be obtained immediately after the end of the Second World War and could be manufactured in Huret’s simple workshops." BRAND Huret COUNTRY France DATE OF INTRODUCTION 1946 41
Resilion Crimson Star "The Crimson Star was a cheap, basic and surprisingly effective copy of a Cyclo Benelux pull-chain derailleur. It also has a fantastic name – sharing the honours with the SunTour Love for the best model name of any derailleur (the SunTour Skitter and the Shimano Pecker are just plain silly)." BRAND Resilion COUNTRY UK DATE OF INTRODUCTION 1958
SunTour V GT Luxe red (4902) "In line with their process of continual improvement, SunTour took the SunTour V series and upgraded the parallelogram plates from steel to aluminium - the result is the 1973 SunTour V Luxe series. It is an oft-forgotten fact that the simple, strong, competent SunTour V GT Luxe was the preferred derailleur of many early mountain bikers – though I don’t know if even Gary Fisher, with his legendary sense of ‘style’, could have stomached this particular shade of red on his Repack clunker." BRAND SunTour COUNTRY Japan DATE OF INTRODUCTION
Ofmega Mistral ‘Squadra Azzurra’ "The Mistral has its enthusiastic fans - who claim it is made of a ‘hi-tech polymer’ - not ‘plastic’ (like a despised Simplex). It is a genuine, high quality, precision cycling product, not a beautiful but useless design by the likes of Philippe Starck. This example has been heavily used, but is still in full working order. The blue colour would be perfectly at home in an artfully arranged collection of Alessi kitchen gadgets, but is supposedly a homage to the Squadra Azzurra (blue team) the popular name for the Italian national cycling team." BRAND Ofmega COUNTRY Italy DATE OF INTRODUCTION 42
for more information visit: www.disraeligears.co.uk
Despite the current fixation with fixies and single-speed bikes, gears can be a wonderful thing. Paul Powerglide ‘Rasta’ "The definitive US-made CNC-bike-porn derailleur of the mid 1990’s, the legend is that the Paul Powerglide even got its own centrefold in one of the teeny-bopper mountain bike magazines of the time. Next stop - the Playboy Mansion. The Paul Powerglide looked amazing, the colours, the CNC geometric shapes, the detailing around the adjustable cable outer stop and the adjustment screws – all of this was like water in the desert for mountain bike aficionados drowning in a sea of Shimano (a fine mixture of metaphors). This example is in the iconic ‘Rasta’ colours – red, gold and green – to match your obligatory elephantine wooly hat, ‘legalize it’ T-shirt and Fabulous-Furry-Freak-Brothers VW van." BRAND Paul COUNTRY USA DATE OF INTRODUCTION 1995
SRAM ESP 9.0SL ‘Woody’ "After the disastrous recall of every single one of its first model of derailleur (the SRAM ESP 900), SRAM boldly stuck with it, slightly redesigning the gear and sorting out the manufacturing process – and the SRAM ESP 9.0SL was the result. This example is the famous ‘Woody’ version. Cannondale finished a complete bike in wood-grain finish to perfectly complement it. Plastic disguised as wood - for SRAM it was a style statement, for IKEA it is a multi-billion dollar business." BRAND SRAM COUNTRY USA, manufactured in Taiwan DATE OF INTRODUCTION 1997 43
A TOOL FOR
BY ROB BUSHILL
TRANSPORT I am an ordinary 46-year-old man and a simple truth occupies my mind: we forget what is important, what we have, and how we got here. A long time ago, people lived their whole lives where they were born. Once in a lifetime you might visit the next village or town but at 4mph that would be a long trip. Life was hard, life was simple and travelling was a thing for stories around the fireside, full of mishap and mystery.
People were isolated and insular, restricted in experiences and opportunities to trade by their distance from other settlements. If you did leave home, it was with fear and trepidation; you were a brave seeker of work and a dreamer of freedom. Before the invention of the bicycle, folk were stuck in a small world where families lived close, work was local and life was communal. The stories from ‘long time ago’ are not drawn from the words in a history book, not deciphered from some ancient parchment – these are memories of your mother’s mother, memories of grandparents we might still speak with. These are reminiscences from our time. The bicycle is a world changer. Much as fire transformed the way we eat, the bicycle changed the way we move. Two generations ago the fastest humans could travel was 4mph. It was just the way it was. The only way you could travel faster was to own a horse – something most people could not afford. The bicycle helped people to move four times faster than their feet would let them. Immediately, the limits of their lives were thrown wider than ever before. The world changed again when the bicycle became more sophisticated. In 1887, pneumatic tyres and skirt guards made the bicycle even more attractive, not just for men but for women too, for whom the bicycle became a tool for emancipation. Outraged men were quick to point to the bicycle as a threat to the social order. The cycle, it was argued, would disrupt the delicate balance of the family unit, allowing the woman to travel beyond her previous limits, away from the protective arms of their menfolk. Younger women were empowered to travel further afield too. The bicycle was subversive, a threat, Not only did it allow folk to discover more, it enabled them to move further, with less effort and unchaperoned. Crowding in
IIlustration Jesús Escudero www.jesusescudero.com
WE TRAVELLED TO TOWNS, THEN WE FLEW TO OTHER COUNTRIES, BROUGHT ROCKS BACK FROM THE MOON. THE INVENTION OF THE BICYCLE MARKED THE BEGINNING OF ‘GLOBAL’. inner-city tenements was reduced by allowing workers to commute from more spacious dwellings in the suburbs. Goods and wares were pedalled further afield and small businesses could expand their reach. One hundred years later we are in a world dominated by things for sale, images flashed before us, new stuff everyday that we apparently cannot live without. Walking is a forgotten art for which you need special shoes and a fleece jacket; the word ‘community’ has become lost in a world of spin; local shops have disappeared or become enveloped by a corporate façade. Nextdoor neighbours live ignorant of each other, older people sit lonely at home waiting for a taxi to take them to the shop, kids arrive at school sedentary but safe from the 'threat' of the child-catcher or a bump on the head from a fall.
In a world that constantly changes there is no sitting still. Society moves with the ebb and flow of time. Our grandparents benefited from the bicycle - it enabled them, made lives better. We travelled to towns, then we flew to other countries, brought rocks back from the moon. The invention of the bicycle marked the beginning of ‘global’. In 2012 we see a different world. We casually Skype the other side of the planet for free, fly in a plane made for 800 people without a second thought. Ownership of a car is a rite of passage. In turn the bicycle is relegated to a toy, a weekend plaything, a piece of sporting equipment... from eBay to Amazon, from insurance company categories to government thinking, the bicycle is not now regarded as the giver of freedom and a healthier life, the emancipator
BICYCLES MADE FOR TRANSPORT CROSS THE USUAL DIVIDES BY DINT OF THEIR SIMPLICITY OF FUNCTION. FOLK CAN SEE WHAT IT DOES, THEN FEEL THE JOYOUS FREEDOM IT CAN IMPART. of women; it is no longer a subversive tool or a threat to society. The bicycle has been allowed to become a fashion trinket, a trading concept about colours and upgrades, about next year’s shifter and last year’s cast offs. Travellers and commuters have to adapt machines to cope with everyday life. The bicycle once made your world bigger, it gave freedom, it was transport when there was no alternative. As time goes on we realise that what began with the bicycle and continues with the motor vehicle has left us with a world that’s expanded so far and so fast that we’ve lost sight of our own local world. A world that once included neighbours as friends, football in the street, meeting places, pubs and cafes, post offices and local tradesmen, a community life that has become overshadowed with the fizz of global business. The bicycle is also part of this global quest for profit. The bicycle has been hijacked by the sporting world and the marketing men; it’s now overlooked as a form of transport in favour of the car and the concept of ‘out of town’. Perhaps the absence of the Utility class of bicycle in our bike shops is an acknowledgement of its ability to challenge the global supermarkets. Without bicycles with baskets and racks, the ‘weekly shop’ is a car-related experience. Perhaps it’s just a profit-per-square-metre decision on the cycle shops’ part, but the only bikes supermarkets encourage are not those that will encourage a nation of bike riders. Don’t get me wrong, I used to ride fast; I read the magazines and enjoy the berms and bumps of a sporty excursion, just me and the wind in my hair, but I keep coming back to the simple pleasure that a bicycle built for transport can bring. Just as 60 years ago the car replaced the bicycle, the fact that the bicycle moves you three to 46
four times faster than feet now means that ‘local’ shops are accessible without the use of a car – and the bike is often faster than the car. It enables us to spend our money on the high street, at the corner shop. We can use the bicycle as local transport, for taking the kids to school, for lugging loads. Small businesses, from florists to micro-breweries, from print-shops to courier firms, are beginning to realise that the humble delivery bike has gone full circle, and is now often faster than a van or a truck. It’s certainly cheaper to purchase and run and easier to maintain. In everyone’s life there are moments of epiphany, of revelation. I had one of these in 2007: The Times newspaper, a Q&A section in a supplement. The question posed was ‘how do I carry two children on a bike?’ The answer was a bicycle with a longer rear rack, that can take two child seats. It was such a simple question, and the answer was simple too. It mentioned a specific bicycle - I looked it up and found Mark Forster. Mark had seen the potential of these bicycles and was working hard to put them in front of folk. He is an unsung hero, a visionary. He was importing two brands into the UK from America that were not so wacky-looking as to put people off, yet were so much more useful than a regular bike for everyday riding. These bikes were the start of a new direction, a new business and a new friendship.
We set up Really Useful Bikes in an old farm complex. It was a shared dream, an opportunity to make a difference. It was never going to be a high street business. I share a yard with a fabrication shop, a kart racing team and a motorcycle tuner. It’s perhaps an unlikely setting in which to realise this epiphany, but it’s a good space and a friendly place. Customers of the adjoining businesses come in and look. We chat about motorbikes, engineering, plenty to talk about there... I encourage everyone to take a test ride; it’s the only way to really get the idea across. I’m used to the transformation on the faces of people test-riding but it still gives me a thrill. The nervy, frowning concentration leaving the yard transformed into smiles as they ride back through the gate a minute later is what Really Useful Bikes is all about. Bicycles made for transport cross the usual divides by dint of their simplicity of function. Folk can see what it does, then feel the joyous freedom it can impart. Test rides like this are how I know that a Maxi Cosi-equipped box-bike is the perfect solution for a screaming newborn baby. Babies in a bike sleep every time.
Five years on from my epiphany, utility and cargo bikes are more established, designs are more refined and new models are slowly coming on stream. My main bicycle is a self-built bike that can carry a dozen bags of shopping and yet still swoop gracefully around town. I built it because there was nothing affordable that suited me. It doesn’t have to be exotic to be a favourite ride. It’s not just about new fancy cargo bikes though - from an old mountain bike you can make a ‘sit up and beg’ that’s a handy alternative to an older, pricier, English 3-speed ‘sit up and beg’ bicycle. Your bike just needs to suit you and what you do. It might just be a case that your bicycle is not as comfortable as you would like. Handlebars can be raised with extenders, saddles adjusted, gears fettled or replaced with low maintenance hub gears, greasy chains covered with guards so everyday clothes can be worn on your bike. Purpose-built bikes are generally stronger and more functional, better for shifting bags of compost, small families or your wares to market. It’s an exciting
THE MODERN BICYCLE IS BEING REINVENTED. IN SMALL FACTORIES OVER EUROPE AND BEYOND, BICYCLES ARE BEING BUILT THAT AIM TO PROVIDE PEOPLE WITH PRACTICAL TRANSPORT. time. The modern bicycle is being reinvented. In small factories over Europe and beyond, bicycles are being built that aim to provide people with practical transport. The school run needn’t mean miles of traffic jams. Local deliveries needn’t mean white vans roaring around our streets. ‘Cargo’ bikes are now available in many shapes and sizes: cargo/kids in front, cargo behind, three wheels and two. There are more trailers around too. There are racks to fit your existing bike front and back, baskets that can help lug your shopping or work tools. The truth as I see it is this: once we stayed at home, then we cycled and found new worlds, we reached out to space and beyond. Now the bicycle can bring us back home. For our sanity, the global world we live in needs ‘local’ more than ever, but that local world can be bigger (and easier) with a bicycle as transport. It may not be as radical a change as that seen in the 1880s, but the bicycle as a form of transport is ready to change our society once again. Rob Bushill is an advocate for, lover of and tinkerer with bicycles for transport and owns Really Useful Bikes, promoting cargo bikes in Southwest England. www.reallyusefulbikes.co.uk 47
My Beautiful Bike
Words Jo Bousfield
Photography Harry Banks & Karen Dickinson
Growing old hurts However optimistic and accepting I am of life, my time is running out, and that hurts. Less years ahead than behind. Sinking feeling in stomach, panic behind eyes. No more easy ability to do things without thinking. I need glasses, hearing aids, false breast, blood pressure pills, arm support bandage, and fluorescent findme-quick cover for my mobile phone that otherwise disappears from view like a mouse in my kitchen. When my bike was stolen I didn’t buy another because living in a hilly town I was spending more time pushing than riding. Memories of childhood on a bicycle! Country lanes, wind in hair, laughter, saddle bag of apples and blackberries, floating on air! Later, as a parent, family bike rides, excitement, panniers full of waterproofs and energy bars. Middle age ventures along cycle paths, rides to the cinema, the pub. Then after menopause, breast cancer, divorce, depression, I didn’t have energy anymore for the hills, and sometimes even the flat roads. Aged 60 I was mourning my loss of cycling until someone told me to stop moaning and get an electric. I went to the annual Presteigne Electric Bike Rally. I tried out nine different bikes – racers, foldables, uprighters, heavy, light, tandems, tricycles, cool, and uncool. I giggled and gasped my way around the site in the pouring rain. Happy as a ten-year-old on her birthday, I decided to buy the Ezee Sprint Eco – a situp-and-beg silver bike with an interesting welding style, like ripples of 5p bits. Cycling on this bike is the same as cycling on any bike, round and round and up and down go my legs but at the first hint of a hill I turn the throttle
on the handlebar and my legs are helped with the surge of the little engine in the front wheel which hums quieter than a small milk-float... I have sold my car. I sail round the hills and valleys, my small dog Peggy riding in a basket on the front. With coat flapping and heart singing I make V signs at the passers-by who call out ‘cheat’. I used to enjoy my car with its privacy and music and space to throw my belongings – but when I borrow one now it feels like a vast unwieldy beast that needs feeding all the time. You have to find a parking space and remember where you left it and sit in traffic jams watching cyclists sail through the gaps. That’s me now, sailing through the gaps of inertia, boredom and hopelessness in the face of What’s The Meaning of Life? Breathing the air, smelling the smells, arriving in time and space with birdsong on my shoulders and the comfort of my metal friend. The other night I cycled to supper with friends – three miles up steep hills in blustering weather. It was a mini-trek, battling against the wind with the reward of a cosy welcome and sustenance. Returning home at midnight in soaking rain I felt like a magic being; gliding through a silent town, empty roads laid out before me like my own private carpet.
Growing old is a joy Biking has been returned to me in all its glory – I am fit and well - panniers hold food, laptop, camera. Basket holds dog. I make up existential poems with myself:
Float me up Round the bend Friends and things To my liking
Town and track Woods and hill Biking brings Simple parking
Bike and dog Me and you We are kings When we’re biking
Leave behind Rubbish stuff Me and Peggy We’re out hiking
Ears in wind Nose alert Life on wings Who is barking?
Riding home Golden sky Existence sings When I’m biking 49
Words Mike White Photography Brad Reber, Chris McCraw, Anomalilly, Katie Proctor
Moving house is often considered one of the most stressful, complicated and arduous challenges of adult life. But - counterintuitively perhaps – not if you do it by bike. Over in Portland, Oregon there’s a healthy bike-move scene. Those about to move post the details on a message board, stock up on pizza and beer, and then get packing as normal. When move day comes around, they can expect anything up to three dozen eager helpers to roll up outside ringing their bells, comparing who’s got the best bike trailer and (more often than not) sporting superhero outfits, giant horned helmets and capes.
The deal’s pretty simple: everybody grabs a few items, usually
got a bed on the back of your bike, or a couch, or a cat.
competing to see who can shift the biggest and heaviest stuff –
Everybody’s wearing silly hats or costumes - usually the idea is
sofas, washing machines and wardrobes bring major bike-move
to make the move a themed bike move - so it becomes a fancy
kudos - then they load up their panniers, racks and cargo
dress party too. It takes five minutes to unload at the other end
trailers and roll off in a great happy convoy to the new home.
and then all you have to do is drink beer and eat pizza. It’s so
The unloading at the other end merges seamlessly into the new
much nicer than moving by truck.”
residents’ first house party. It’s a house-move and a housewarming all in one.
You’re probably thinking ‘yeah, but it only works if you’re moving a few blocks away’. Not so. Anything up to 20-
Chris McCraw’s been involved in maybe twenty bike moves.
miles seems to be within the bike movers’ range. The longest
“Portland has probably thirty bike moves a year, so it’s pretty
distance Chris has personally helped with was about ten miles,
easy to find one to tag along with,” he says, when Boneshaker
across the State line, when his roommate moved in from
calls him over a crackly transatlantic line. “I had Portland’s
Vancouver, Washington. “That was pretty good fun,” he says.
largest ever bike move, at which all of my friends encouraged
“There’s only one bridge over the river between Washington
me to sell most of my stuff. They were like ‘how does one
and Oregon that’s not like six miles out of the way, and that
person need forty people to move their stuff?’” Despite his
bridge is exactly 37 inches wide. The guy who built the biggest
friends’ attempts to part Chris from his material trappings, all
trailer built it 36 inches wide so it would just fit between the
his stuff made it in one piece, including “a fridge, my cat, my
uprights of the bridge. One guy had a flat on the bridge, and
keg...although the keg may have been used on the way to the
just had to jack his trailer up and patch the tube in place,
destination. It was on a front loading cargo bike, so he had
because it had like 300lbs of kit on it. But as usual, we all got
access to the tap while we were biking...”
there OK. Last weekend somebody did an 18-miler - they actually had to take the freeway, fully loaded, and go through
For Chris, it’s all about having a laugh. “Moving house is
a tunnel. I can just picture the guy with a double bed balanced
supposed to be really complex and unpleasant, but it’s the
on a trailer, on the freeway, in a tunnel.”
opposite with bike move. The reason I’ve done so many of these is not just because I’m a nice guy. They’re truly fun. You
“Most Portland bike moves are pretty short distances though,”
show up, they give you breakfast, you and your friends chat
says Chris. “It’s not got sprawling suburbia, so if you’re living
while you each load maybe three things in your trailer – that
in town, you can only move about 8-miles before you leave
takes about five minutes - then you go on a fun bike ride
town.” That’s the case in a great many towns, come to think
across town and everybody honks and waves because you’ve
"Everybody honks and waves because you’ve got a bed on the back of your bike, or a couch, or a cat."
“Are you guys moving house by bike?... Yes, yes we are. But mostly we’re having fun.”
There’s an inspiring sense of ‘can-do’ about bike movers. It proves to others how much a bike is capable of. Chris again: “Every time we do it, we come across somebody who’s like ‘Are you guys moving house by bike?’ and we’re all ‘Yes, yes we are. But mostly we’re having fun.’” It’s not really a political thing, just a celebration of the triumph of human power. “That’s definitely a lot of it,” says Chris. “The guy who builds those 36” trailers loves saying to people ‘what do you mean, you can’t do it? Of course you can do it!’ He’ll often show up with his trailer, with another trailer attached to it and then carry a 300lb stove, and a couch and a pile of books and a bed… But it’s more than just ‘Hey look what I can do!’ It’s leading by example too, reminding people that there are lots of things we don’t need cars for that people often think we do.” Katie Proctor, organiser of Portland’s child-friendly Kidical Mass rides, is another experienced bike mover. “I was six months pregnant when we moved house by bike. It went fabulously though – we had probably 20 people show up and we had donuts and coffee at the beginning and lots of pasta and salad at the end – one of the local cargo bike shops even sent a few extra bikes down to carry stuff.” She talks of Bike Move as less an activity, and more a community. “It’s just a great group of people to spend time with. There’s something fulfilling about doing work with other people. And there’s never a whole lot of work, because there’s always lots of people. I make a point of going when I see it’s another family moving, because it’s important to help people realise that having kids
pounds of books and then the bookshelves that they had been on, strapped across the top. It was a heck of a load. But I think the prettiest load we’ve ever carried was a whole load of boxes with a rocking horse strapped on top vertically, so it looked like you could ride it - although that would’ve been very precarious. The books were the biggest load, but the little horse was definitely the cutest.” As to advice for would-be bike movers, both Chris and Katie agree you should pre-ride your route in advance. “Find the flattest possible way”, says Katie. “Go around the hills if you can.” After that, the main thing is to convince the doubters that it’s fun. “The more people that turn up, the better time you’re all going to have. Although it can be cheaper than hiring trucks and movers, you have to remember that it’s not free. Try and lay on a spread that appeals to everyone who shows up - think of yourself not as someone who’s moving house, but as the host of a party.”
doesn’t necessarily keep them from participating in this kind of thing. They don’t need to haul up and get a truck.” Katie helped out when local publishing company (and Boneshaker stockist) Microcosm Publishing moved premises. “That’s probably the heaviest load I’ve shifted – 200 odd
With huge thanks to Chris McCraw, Katie Proctor, Anomalilly, Brad Reber and all the Shift crew who got in touch. www.shift2bikes.com 55
We wear it in denim; it’s in the cut-and-frayed or rolled up legs; it’s in the faded, stretched knees & saddle-torn sit bone seams. We wear it on our skin; our grease marked calves and shins are living palimpsests. Only certain eyes can read the miles behind and in between this language of old roads, muscle tones, and chain ring teeth. These eyes, our eyes, see at a pedaling pace—more akin to the human heartbeat. Our bodies are bodies that act against a distant flurrying backdrop of Chevrolet blue and Celica green. We are more than silhouettes of gesticulating hands, more than bobbing deaf heads behind tinted glass. We know our hips and spines by the tug and dip of pitched pavement. We know our hands around the cork wrapped reigns of a steel steed. We know the ratio of calories to gasoline. & as cohabitants, we know the evening breeze by her slightest change of temper.
Erik J. Wilbur erikjameswilbur.tumblr.com
Illustration Evgenia Barinova www.evgeniabarinova.com
Words & images Robin Wilkinson
Behind us the road wound upwards from the valley floor, snaking past farmhouses that sat gently puffing smoke from the first autumn fires. We stared up into the pine trees that lined the road, watching the rain fall in slow motion onto our upturned faces. Drenched, we shared a piece of flapjack.
"Beth, I don’t know why – I’m soaked, it’s been uphill for the last two miles, and essentially I’m wearing my underwear – but I think I could cycle for ever.”
ince I moved to Wales ten years ago, it has given me many things: an education, my first proper job, a taste for small women with lilting accents. But could my adopted homeland provide me with a new love, a love for touring cycling? This September I set out on a 250-mile trip (along the Sustrans Route 8) from Cardiff in the south to Holyhead in the north to find out. I’ve been a keen commuter cyclist for the past few years, with my bike gaining an increasingly central role in my life. I ride a much-loved 1983 Raleigh Record Sprint, older than me and with as many quirks as you could expect to acquire in that lifetime. With a natty black and gold colour scheme and ovular “aerospace tubing” – replete with space shuttle transfers – it’s the very picture of 80s retro cool: the cycling equivalent of a Casio digital watch. However, as my previous attempt at touring on the Record Sprint had ended ingloriously – a crash, a broken front brake and a hip-full of gravel 24 hours into a scheduled week-long tour – I had borrowed a modern, commuter-tank from a colleague. As we cycled out of Cardiff I certainly enjoyed the contrast with the aggressive, racing posture of my 80s racer – this was less like riding a bike than sailing a Parker Knoll armchair. 59
Within two hours of our departure we were cycling through the sun-dappled Pontygwaith Forest, the River Taff twinkling in a gorge to our left. As quickly as we left Cardiff we entered Merthyr and found ourselves dodging stony-eyed six-year-olds thundering along the path on tiny pit bikes, our rural idyll momentarily shattered. This is surely one of the strengths of cycle touring, you see the whole picture. With none of the sense of dislocation of air travel, where you ride up an escalator, spend three hours in a metal box, ride down another escalator and arrive in a foreign country – you cover every inch of a country, and at a pace to take it all in. You see everything, pretty or not – from rolling pastures to seemingly psychotic mini Ghengis Khans on motorbikes – that makes up a country. It was, though, with a sense of relief that we left the postindustrial gloom of Merthyr and found the path winding along a disused railway line, ever upwards into the Brecon Beacons. Soon we were cycling along a high mountain road – pine forests on one side and slate-grey reservoirs on the other, and everywhere the clouds close enough to touch. The first test for my borrowed bike was a rain-lashed milelong descent into Talybont-upon-Usk, along a steep, stony forest road. We arrived in the village drenched and comically splattered with mud, only to find that a nearby wedding had knocked out the capacity of the three pubs. We found space in a cosy B&B, and as a rainbow heralded the upturn in our fortunes, we were soon showered, clean and tucking into ham, egg and chips and a few pints of the local ale, warmly reminiscing a trip that had only just begun. 60
As the saying goes, 'there’s no such thing as bad weather, just inappropriate clothing'. My drenching in the Beacons had convinced me that the denim shorts I’d packed were hardly appropriate for the Welsh climate, so the first stop the following morning was Brecon, in search of some rain-friendly alternatives. A pair of rugby-players’ Lycra ‘sports compression underwear’ were to serve as my cycling shorts for the rest of the trip. Mercifully quick-drying though these were, I’m not sure that their ability to accurately render every anatomical detail down to the last freckle could cause them to be described as ‘appropriate’. The road out of Brecon was steep, and provided us with a pattern we were to follow on the rest of the trip. When the going got tough, we got off our bikes. When the lactic acid built up in our thighs, instead of digging deep we shrugged, got off and slowly pushed our way, chatting, to the summit. We weren’t in a rush, we were on holiday. It also provided a spectacularly ill-advised place for me to change into my crotch-hugging shorts: a deserted municipal building set back from the road that became rapidly less-deserted as, shorts round my ankles, a bell rang and hordes of giggling schoolchildren ran out. I quickly hitched up my shorts and pedalled off, with as much dignity as a man can muster when fleeing a playground in a thin layer of Lycra. Our B&B that night in Newbridge was a brilliant encapsulation of the eccentricities that await the traveller who enters Britain’s hinterland. It was a pub that also housed a butcher and a lawyer’s office and organised pig racing events. We spent the evening eating their own invention – a cross between sausages and faggots they called 'faglets' – and
“In the morning a frog jumped on my foot as I was brushing my teeth.”
inventing scenarios that used all the pub’s myriad functions. The only other guests were a pair of middle-aged German men who smoked pipes and were driving around the UK in a pair of ancient three-wheeled cars. In the morning a frog jumped on my foot as I was brushing my teeth.The further north we got from Cardiff, the stranger, and more rural, Wales became. The roads through the mountains got steeper and the pine forests got denser. That afternoon saw us winding ever higher into the Cambrian Mountains, past the source of the River Severn and spectacular wooded valleys. The summit was an ominously grey expanse, the only colour a tattered red-dragon flag that whipped its flagpole on the side of a barn. As I relieved myself on this desolate scene I was torn between letting the wind douse my legs, and exposing myself directly to the carriageway. I settled on a messy compromise. The descent into Machynlleth was terrifying and exhilarating. We hurtled down the mountain-side for two miles, dodging potholes and sheep-shit on a single-track road, fierce gusts of wind threatening to throw our heavily pannier-loaded bikes off course. I was never more glad that I was riding a real bike – with real, working brakes and tyres thicker than a pound coin – rather than my usual 80s racer. It was a surreal entrance to the town – the road levelled out and led us through a golf course, in the background the setting sun turned the sky the colour of dusty oranges, whilst a sign proclaimed “Machynlleth – Ancient Capital of Wales”. A pre-dinner walk around town suggested that if Machynlleth was once the “Ancient Capital of Wales” it had perhaps taken its eye off the ball a little since Owain Glyndwr’s day. The main street saw an eccentric mix of shops: a bookshop specialising in hunting and wild game sat opposite a pet-shop that also sold
home-brewing supplies. Who knows, we pondered, perhaps people who like keeping gerbils also love home-made wine? Either way, the headline in the local paper: “Machynlleth store war looms!” created an amusing image: the owner of the bookshop slashing prices on home butchering guides in direct response to the pet-shop owner doing a buy-one-get-one-free deal on hamsters and packs of brewers’ yeast. To give credit to Machynlleth’s historic claims, its beautiful and slightly desolate surrounding certainly made it feel like the heart of Wales. The road north led us back into the Cambrians, and Corris, a village nestled like a jewel among the slate, pines and gurgling mountain streams. The handsome, granite houses were shiny with drizzle; somehow the inky, grey sky only made the village more beautiful. As we slowly cycled through I found myself counting down the years until I could retire here, my life an endless cycle of cups of tea, mountain walks and trips to one of the many pubs that lined the steep, narrow streets. Later that day we hit the west coast. The wind was strong; our attempts at improvising windbreaks for each other with our bikes proved unsuccessful. Heading through Barmouth – a typical British seaside resort with just the right level of decrepitude – I wore sunglasses and a scarf over my mouth in defence against the sand blowing viciously in from the beach; a strange combination of Jackie Onassis and Lawrence of Arabia. The ten mile stretch to Harlech along the coast was a rare, long, flat straight. I spent the ride fantasising about the numerous sheep that dotted the salt marshes lying between the road and the sea, picturing them dripping with mint sauce alongside steaming, buttered new potatoes. 61
“Snowdonia was beautiful. We had hit our stride, and by our relative standards thundered through the heather-speckled mountains...”
Salivating, I asked our B&B owner for a restaurant recommendation, and received a surprising response. “There’s a lovely place,” she said, “but it’s closed on Tuesdays.” It was Tuesday. “You could always try the Caribbean restaurant.” In a town whose dual defining features seemed to be a ruined castle and a crossroads lined with tea-shops this was the last thing I expected. But my jerk-seasoned pork-belly was delicious proof of Wales’ seemingly infinite capacity to surprise. The road out of Harlech was a steep dogleg that soared into the foothills of Snowdonia. To one side the sea glittered capriciously, to the other the hills were lost to mist. Beth assured me that this spot was home to some of the most spectacular view of Wales, a panorama of Snowdon to the North, the Cambrian Mountains to the south, and in the west the Irish Sea. Today we could barely see ten feet in front of us. There was a melancholic beauty to cycling through this mist, though, the moor being rendered like a scene from Hound of the Baskervilles, and silent save for the occasional sound of bicycle tyres juddering over cattle-grids. Snowdonia was beautiful. We had hit our stride, and by our relative standards thundered through the heather-speckled mountains; alongside us a steam train chugged along the valley floor, blowing its whistle and filling the air with coal smoke. By now our bikes were extensions of our bodies; cycling felt as natural as walking. The healthy number of tea-and-cake-breaks factored in our 50-60 miles a day – and the endless lugging of our heavily-laden bikes up and down mountains – meant that we spent the bulk of the day on the road. Our bodies responded to this unknown level of exertion; alien muscles emerged under my Lycra-cladding, and serious in-roads were being made on my office-worker’s paunch. I was finally starting to feel comfortable in my Lycra-sheath. Rather than seeing it as the indecent genital-swaddling I had first taken it to be, it now seemed like a perfectly practical solution to spending the day on a bike being occasionally rained on. I had stopped coyly covering myself up, like a Victorian at the seaside, when I entered cafés. I had started to feel like a cyclist. 62
On day five, our target hove into view. The north coast of Anglesey, and the most northerly tip of Wales, was a ten mile blast over the Menai Straits and across the Isle of Anglesey. By now our hearts were set on completion, so we ignored the scenic routes skirting the perimeter in favour of a fairly featureless slog along the island’s undulating A-roads. Panting, we arrived at a hotel several miles outside the town of Amlwch. A Victorian building that Norman Bates would have been proud of, it overlooked the Irish Sea, awaiting thirsty coach parties. We sat on the decking, faces windblown – it must have been wind, the sun had been an occasional presence on the trip – into permanent smiles. Where next? If we squinted and looked to the west we fancied we could see Ireland. What’s that, two Wales lengths? Or Spain: three, maybe three-and-a-half? Or we could just do Wales again. I’d seen a whole new version of the country I had lived in for ten years, and was fairly confident that if we tried a different route we’d see a whole new version again. Different eccentric B&B owners, a new set of breath-taking views, another picturesque village you never knew existed. Once you hit the B-roads the possibilities seemed endless. Adventure, we’d come to realise, doesn’t only exist in desert gorges and treacherous mountain passes. It exists behind hawthorn bushes and down green country lanes – any time you take to two wheels and explore the land uncrossed by A-roads and motorways. We buttered our scones, stared out over the sea and thought of our next adventure.
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Tens of thousands who could never afford to own, feed and stable a horse, had by this bright invention enjoyed the swiftness of motion which is perhaps the most fascinating feature of material life. FRANCES WILLARD
‘Ordinary things wear lovely wings,’ wrote the Irish poet Patrick Kavanagh. I’d like to think he had a bicycle in mind when these words came...
Published on Apr 1, 2012
‘Ordinary things wear lovely wings,’ wrote the Irish poet Patrick Kavanagh. I’d like to think he had a bicycle in mind when these words came...