That Which Rolls: Bicycles and the Future

“If I am asked to explain why I learned the bicycle,” writes Frances E. Willard in her 1895 book How I Learned to Ride the Bicycle, “I should say I did it as an act of grace, if not of actual religion” (p. 73). I grew up riding bicycles, so I often take the fun and freedom they afford for granted. Having seen several adults squeal with childlike glee after riding a bike for the first time in years or the first time ever, I am reminded of my own love for what Alfred Jarry called “that which rolls.” Willard continues,

The cardinal doctrine laid down by my physician was, ‘Live out of doors and take congenial exercise;’ but from the day when, at sixteen years of age, I was enwrapped in the long skirts that impeded every footstep, I have detested walking and felt with a certain noble disdain that the conventions of life had cut me off from what in the freedom of my prairie home had been one of life’s sweetest joys (p. 73-74).

Willard was president of the Women’s Christian Temperance Union and didn’t learn to ride a bicycle until the age of 53. Like most of the things she tackled in her life (e.g., women’s suffrage, politics, education, etc.), she took it as a challenge. As she so boldly puts it, “She who succeeds in gaining the mastery of the bicycle will gain the mastery of life.” Bikes can empower the weakest of spirit and liberate the most muddled of minds.

BikenomicsIn Bikenomics: How Bicycling Can Save the Economy (Microcosm, 2013), Elly Blue argues that they can also fix the recession. Starting with the myth that cyclists don’t pay for roads and motorists do. Car drivers pay for about half of the paved infrastructure in the U.S. The other half comes from everyone, regardless of our choice of vehicle. Blue lives and rides in “bike friendly” Portland, Oregon, where its growing citizenry is able to pay higher rents because they don’t have to own or drive cars. I lived in Portland for a year myself, and it’s a great town to ride in. Out of the cities I’ve lived in since getting rid of my last car in 1998 (e.g., Seattle, WA, San Francisco, CA, San Diego, CA, Flagstaff, AZ, Athens, GA, Austin, TX, Chicago, IL), it’s easily one of the most comfortable. That makes a big difference.

A quick aside: I used scare quotes around the term “bike friendly” above because it’s one of those phrases that gets tossed around during urban mayoral elections and the like by people who don’t ride bikes. I hear it regularly here in Chicago. The friendliness of your city to bicycles is not about how many miles of bike lane your roads contain. It’s about how  your city’s cyclists are treated while on those roads. With that said, Portland is way ahead of most cities in this respect.

Blue concludes Bikenomics with a re-envisioning of the future as seen through increasing trends in bicycle use. From global warming and access during power outages to general health and safety, she makes a strong case for the bicycle as the best choice for getting around. As David Byrne (2009) puts it in his Bicycle Diaries, “Strangely, the recent economic downturn might be a great opportunity. Sustainability, public transport, and bike lanes aren’t scoffed at anymore” (p. 40). Here’s hoping that sentiment continues to spread.

The Bike DeconstructedIf you’re looking for a close-up view of the machine itself, Richard Hallett’s The Bike Deconstructed: A Grand Tour of the Modern Bicycle (Princeton Architectural Press, 2014) breaks it down to the last bolt and bracket. As the former editor of RoadCyclingUK.com, Hallett knows his shifters. I’m learning and will continue to learn from Hallett’s thorough guide being relatively new to anything outside of a BMX set-up. As Isabel Marks (1901) once put it, “to the ardent cyclist no side of the sport is devoid of interest…” (p. 5). If you need to know more about the mechanical minutia of your rig or just love to geek out on gears and gadgets, this book is perfect for both.

As the sticker goes, cars run on money and make us fat; bikes run on fat and save us money. Exercise is essential, and our technologies tend to sway us away from getting enough. “The bicycle…” Frances E. Willard concludes, “will ere long come within the reach of all. Therefore, in obedience to the laws of health, I learned to ride. I also wanted to help women to a wider world, for I hold that the more interests women and men have in common, in thought, word, and deed, the happier will it be for the home” (p. 74). Everything is better with bicycles.

References:

Blue, Elly. (2013). Bikenomics: How Bicycling Can Save the Economy. Portland, OR: Microcosm.

Brotchie, Alastair (2011). Alfred Jarry: A Pataphysical Life. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press.

Byrne, David. (2009). Bicycle Diaries. New York: Viking.

Hallett, Richard. (2014). The Bike Deconstructed: A Grand Tour of the Modern Bicycle. Princeton, NJ: Princeton Architectural Press.

Marks, Isabel. (1901/2013). Fancy Cycling. Oxford, UK: Old House Books.

Willard, Frances, E. (1895/1991). How I Learned to Ride the Bicycle: Reflections of an Influential 19th Century Woman. Sunnyvale, CA: Fair Oaks Publishing.

B-Side Wins Again: Punk Aesthetics

From an early age it was instilled in me that people judge you by how you look, how you dress, how you wear your hair, how you carry yourself. My dad won’t leave the house to do business or see someone without styling and dressing appropriately. We communicate something through every stylistic choice we make. As Umberto Eco (1973) writes, “I speak through my clothes.” To wit, I have seen firsthand many books misjudged by their covers. Still, coming up with this stress on conformity alongside the drive for expression inherent in art, skateboarding, and punk rock, I can’t help but toy with the conflict. In the Summer 1988 issue of Homeboy Magazine, pro BMXer R. L. Osborn wrote,

Homeboy MagazineMy girlfriend doesn’t dig my Megadeth t-shirt. ‘You’re going to shave one side of your head? Holey Levi’s? Throw ’em away. Your hair’s too long. Your hair’s too short. Why does your hair look like a rainbow?’ Everyone feels the heat from friends, family, and whoever else about independent style, yet I can’t help feeling that sometimes envy is covered up with uncool remarks. Hey. let’s be straight about this, it’s your life, your feelings, and your own personal way of expressing yourself and showing the true you (p. 81).

The piece was accompanied by photos of street kids with wacky hair with odd angles and colors, leather jackets with lots of zippers, spikes, chains, and other scary accessories. I was 17 when that issue came out, and though Osborn’s proselytizing wasn’t the first time I’d been exposed to punk aesthetics, it stuck with me. So, when I saw my DIG BMX Magazine colleague Ricky Adam‘s new zine, I immediately thought of R. L.’s words.

Glad to See the Back of You

Ricky Adam’s zine, Glad to See the Back of You (Trajectories, 2013), is full of tattooed attitude. It’s a compendium of punk self-expression mostly in the form of custom jackets with back patches. Glad to See the Back of YouBack patches are largely the domain of bikers or crust punks, the latter of whom fill this zine’s pages. Punk back patches are often cut from old screen-printed t-shirts and hand sewn onto denim or leather jackets or vests along with other patches. The hand-done aspect of them is rarely disguised and gives the look a D.I.Y., provisional feel, and their literal patchwork lends them to subversive bricolage (see Hebdige, 1979). By mixing patches as signs together, punks engage in what Eco (1972) calls “semiotic guerilla warfare.” They express their lack of desire to reunite with the parent culture and celebrate, even parody, the alienation that causes it so much concern (Hebdige, 1979). The crust-punk style takes this alienation to the extreme. Its a war is waged against the established look via its sardonic and scathing rejection thereof (Brummett, 2008; Hebdige, 1979).

Greil Marcus (1989) outlines the complexities of punk’s signification this way:

[A] load of old ideas sensationalized into new feelings almost instantly turned into new clichés, but set forth with such momentum that the whole blew up its equations day by day. For every fake novelty, there was a real one. For every third-hand pose, there was a fourth-hand pose that turned into a real motive (p. 77).

None of this is new, and it might still seem juvenile, but the underlying sentiments haven’t changed. Who cares what’s been co-opted? And who knows what authenticity means anymore? My friend Mark Wieman recently observed how thick and long The Long Tail™ has become. There’s simply no real mainstream anymore, and when it comes to punk and authority, I still feel like my 17-year-old self. I don’t own a pair of dress shoes.

The punk aesthetic of doing it yourself isn’t about doing it like everyone else. It’s about liberating what’s unique about yourself, exposing what makes you you. As Osborn concludes, “Show us who you really are.”

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Ricky Adam’s Glad to See the Back of You is out in a limited run of 300 (mine’s #154), so get yours now.

References:

Adam, Ricky. (2013). Glad to See the Back of You. Leeds, UK: Trajectories.

Brummett, Barry. (2008). A Rhetoric of Style. Carbondale, IL: The University of Southern Illinois Press.

Eco, Umberto (1972). Towards a Semiotic Enquiry into the Television Message. WPCS, 3, University of Birmingham.

Eco, Umberto. (1973). Social Life as  a Sign System. In D. Robey (Ed.), Structuralism: The Wolfson College Lectures, 1972. New York: Oxford University Press, pp. 57-72.

Hebdige, Dick. (1979). Subculture: The Meaning of Style. New York: Routledge.

Marcus, Greil. (1989). Lipstick Traces: A Secret History of the Twentieth Century. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Osborn, R. L. (1988, Summer). Page 65. Homeboy Magazine, 80-81.

Shift Happens: Power to the Pedals

Those disgruntled with our current “technopoly,” as Neil Postman famously called it, often argue for returning to a simpler time. This is, of course, impossible, as even their visions of simpler times include technology. For example, in The Nature of Technology (Free Press, 2009), Brian Arthur envisions a world where all of our modern technologies disappear, yet we’d still be left with some. He writes, “We would still have watermills, and foundries, and oxcarts; and course linens, and hooded cloaks, and sophisticated techniques for building cathedrals. But we would once again be medieval” (p. 10). As ludicrous as such an argument appears, I would like to return to a time that never happened, an alternate universe where bicycles dominated the roads, as well as the construction and spread thereof. I’m not alone in this fantasy. Many of us take to the streets on two wheels instead of four, and movements like Critical Mass try to take them over completely on a regular basis.

Critical Mass Chicago, 2007.

The freedom to make and remake our cities and ourselves is… one of the most precious yet most neglected of our human rights.
— David Harvey

For the uninitiated, Critical Mass is a monthly ride aimed at taking back the streets from cars, demonstrating the presence of bicycles, and reminding everyone that they’re on the road, too. The event is known for blocking thoroughfares, pissing off motorists, and regular arrests. Shift Happens: Critical Mass at 20 (Full Enjoyment, 2012), edited by Chris Carlsson, LisaRuth Elliott, and Adriana Camarena, is a twenty-year, global retrospective of the trials and triumphs of Critical Mass. It’s a monthly revolution that will start its third decade this week. The scope of these essays is as global as the movement, from Budapest to Berkeley and Paris to Ponce, and its birthplace in San Francisco, as well as from my beloved Portland to my current Chicago.

Strangely, the recent economic downturn might be a great opportunity. Sustainability, public transport, and bike lanes aren’t scoffed at anymore. — David Byrne, Bicycle Diaries

For a look at the social forces that created the bicycle as opposed to the ones it has created, it gets no better than The Social Construction of Technological Systems: New Directions in the Sociology and History of Technology (The MIT Press, 2012), edited by by Wiebe E. Bijker, Thomas P. Hughes, and Trevor Pinch. I first encountered this volume — and its use of the bicycle as an astute example of technological change (in Pinch and Bijker’s essay “The Social Construction of Facts and Artifacts: Or How the Sociology of Science and the Sociology of Technology Might Benefit Each Other”) — in Andrew Feenberg‘s “Philosophy of Technology” class at San Diego State. It has since been treated to a much-deserved anniversary edition (the original version hit shelves in 1987). This collection established the approach of the social construction of technology (SCOT) as a viable methodology, and it’s not all about bicycles: eighteenth-century cooking stoves, twentieth-century missile systems, and thirteenth-century galleys get their due. The aforementioned chapter on the social construction of bicycles is still my favorite though.

Also, Bijker’s own Of Bicycles, Bakelites, and Bulbs: Toward a Theory of Sociotechnical Change (The MIT Press, 1997) is another interesting set of explorations and applications of this approach to these themes.

The mere fact of riding a bicycle is not in itself sinful, and if it is the only means of reaching the church on a Sunday, it may be excusable. — 1885 reply to a letter from a young lady

If you’re looking for more focus on the bike itself, rather than its urban and sociological implications, there’s Bicycling Science (The MIT Press, 2004), by David Gordon Wilson, which is now on its third edition (its original having come out in 1982). This book has everything to do with human-powered wheeled vehicles — bicycles in the broadest sense of the term: from the general (e.g., basic concepts of human power, the history of the bicycle, etc.) to the specific (e.g., physics, aerodynamics, bearings, materials, braking, steering, etc.), and the weird and the future of bicycles. If you’re looking for the mechanical minutia of bicycles, Bicycling Science is likely to be the only book you need.

I’m admittedly biased, but I think the bicycle is one of the greatest inventions in the history of technology. I’ve been riding one since the age of four, and they’ve been my primary means of transportation for the past fifteen years. If you don’t ride a bike regularly, give it one shot. Bicycles are fun, and that one ride might be the door to a whole new world. These three books go a long way to covering both the history of that world and its implications in the twenty-first century. On the eve of the twentieth anniversary of Critical Mass, do yourself a favor, and, in the words of Mike Daily, ride first, read later.

References:

Arthur, Brian. (2009). The Nature of Technology: What It Is and How It Evolves. New York: Free Press.

Bijker, Wiebe E. (1997). Of Bicycles, Bakelites, and Bulbs: Toward a Theory of Sociotechnical Change. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press.

Bijker, Wiebe E. , Hughes, Thomas P., & Pinch, Trevor. (2012). The Social Construction of Technological Systems: New Directions in the Sociology and History of Technology. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press.

Byrne, David. (2009). Bicycle Diaries. New York: Viking.

Carlsson, Chris, Elliott, LisaRuth, & Camarena, Adriana (eds.). (2012). Shift Happens: Critical Mass at 20. San Francisco: Full Enjoyment.

Harvey, David. (2008, September/October). The Right to the City. New Left Review, 53.

Wilson, David Gordon. (2004). Bicycling Science. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press.

Woodforde, J. (1970). The Story of the Bicycle. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul.

 

The BMX-Files: A Brief History in Two DVDs

In the June, 1987 issue of FREESTYLIN’ Magazine, underground BMX rider and zine-maker Carl Marquardt described a ramp trick he called a “flakie”: a backflip fakie air. His friend and fellow rider Paul Mackles had offered him $100 if he pulled it. Three years later, Mat Hoffman did the damn thing at a contest in Paris. In his usual methodical style, Mat worked on it in secret in Oklahoma for months beforehand. As he puts it in The Ride of My Life (Harper-Entertainment, 2002), “To make it, I needed at least six feet of air so my head would clear the coping. It was the kind of stunt that required 100 percent conviction each time. I practiced them every day until I had the flip fakie pretty wired, landing high on the transition rather than jarring into the flat bottom Then, I got invited to France.” The photos of Mat’s first public flip-fakie landed on several magazine covers, including the July, 1990 issue of Go: The Rider’s Manual (the publication that combined FREESTYLIN’ with its forebear, BMX Action).

Mat Hoffman burst into the BMX mass mind via the letters page of FREESTYLIN’. Masquerading as the then thirteen-year-old Mat, his mom sent in a picture of him blasting a nine-foot air on his driveway quarterpipe. In his response, editor Andy Jenkins’ described the air as “not normal,” and I think everyone — myself included — knew we were going to see a lot more of this high-flying kid in the coming years. Even so, little did we know…

More than once, Mat Hoffman has been called the “Michael Jordan of BMX.” As Tony Hawk — who could be considered Mat’s equivalent in skateboarding — puts it in The Birth of Big Air (Team Marketing, 2010), “If you know anything about BMX, you know who Mat Hoffman is. And maybe that’s all you know.” This movie illustrates why that’s the case. He’s paid the price for his place in BMX lore — with his body. “There’s not an extremity he hasn’t broken in a violent manner,” says Mat’s orthopedic surgeon, Dr. Carlan Yates. Mat’s basically dedicated his physical form to the advancement of BMX. There have been smoother riders, there have been people who’ve done it longer, there are people finishing things Mat only started, but no one — no one — has pushed the limits of vert riding on a BMX bike more than Mat Hoffman has. No one. Ever.

“Let’s just say it would’ve sucked to have been born a hundred years ago or a hundred years from now because I would’ve missed out on all of this.” — Dennis McCoy

If you have any doubts about the pedigree of BMX as a sport, Joe Kid on a Stingray (Bang Pictures, 2005) will put them to rest. Its twisted and dirty 1970s roots are exposed and explained. Watching grainy footage of Stu Thomson winning races on a Schwinn Stingray is as sketchy as it is sick. Any story of people sitting on the verge of something that has become as big as BMX has is inspiring, and Joe Kid… is no exception.

“Ask anyone, ‘who invented freestyle?’ Bob Haro!” — Ron Wilkerson

From imitating motocross riders to emulating skateboard tricks, BMX evolved from racing to freestyling (all of which is just called “BMX” these days). Bob Haro was bored with racing and started doing tricks between motos. Eventually, his wheelies, endos, and 180s lead to actual sanctioned freestyle shows at the races. Through touring and innovating, Haro, R.L. Osborn, Mike Buff, Pat Romano, and Ron Wilton made trick riding into something to be taken seriously.

“Maybe that’s our problem. Maybe we just never grew up.” — Bob Osborn

It would be remiss to document the history of BMX without mentioning Bob Osborn. Through BMX Action and FREESTYLIN’ (and their aforementioned combined form, Go), Osborn, his son R. L., and his daughter Windy created the look of BMX media and brought the sport to the world. They also acquainted the world with Andy Jenkins, Mark Lewman, and Spike Jones, who have all gone on to create other great things in art, movies, television, skateboarding, and advertising. Trusting the youth is often difficult for adults to do, but Bob did, and the world is much better for it.

In the late 1980s, I was street riding with some friends in Huntsville, Alabama. One of them, Dave Nash, was wearing these Airwalks held together with duct tape. Someone there asked him why he didn’t just get some new shoes, and he responded, “Because I don’t want to spend any more money on this sport.” It was one of the most depressing things I’ve ever heard anyone say. The initial decline of BMX was a scary, strange thing to witness as a kid, but it was actually a positive move. Just as skateboarding had done before it, BMX changed hands from the companies to the riders.

Speaking of, anyone know where Chris Moeller was during the making of this movie? In many ways, S&M Bicycles, along with the efforts of Hoffman, Wilkerson, and the Plywood Hoods, represents the largely unsung part of the bridge from what BMX was in the 1980s to what it is now.

Anyway, big props to Jeff Tremaine, Mark Lewman, Johnny Knoxville, and Mark Eaton for documenting the history of our sport. If you’re a hardcore BMXer of any era, these two movies are your history. If you are bike-curious but know nothing about the sport, these two movies will give you a pretty in-depth crash course.

I don’t know if Mat Hoffman ever collected Paul Mackles’ money for doing Carl Marquardt’s “flakie,” but he was in the same issue of FREESTYLIN’ Magazine, along with another youngster Scotty Freeman, in a piece called “Little Giants.” He was fifteen years old.

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Here’s the official teaser for Joe Kid on a Stingray [runtime: 3:25]:

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Special thanks to Brian Tunney for additional reporting and fact-checking.