3 June 2008

An Extension of Yourself

Bluebike Urbanlicious
Waiting for a friend - with a bike
The funny thing about the beauty of Copenhagen's bike culture is that it's not just about the act of riding your bike. I'm often struck by how our bikes here are extensions of ourselves. We are inseperable mates and they are with us in virtually every situation imaginable.
Waiting in the SunWaiting for a friend - with a bike
The irony is that most of us don't love our bikes or elevate them to the status that pets enjoy by keeping them indoors, oiling them lovingly, collecting them, keeping them clean. They are reduced to mere objects. Mechanical contraptions that are only kept near us because they can transport us, somewhat magically, from A to C via B with the greatest of ease. And yet we can't live without them. Like above, they are a bench on which to rest while waiting for a friend on a city square. I'm quite sure the girl in the photo didn't think, "Wonderful! My faithful bike can be used to sit on while I wait!"

She just sat on it, like a reflex. A given.
Iconic Copenhagen
Waiting for a friend - with a bike
Even though your bike will offer you the sensation of flying and freedom of movement through a bustling capital city and even though you may feel a pang of particular thrill on sunny spring mornings or icy winter afternoons after a day indoors, you rarely attribute it to the anonymous vechicle beneath you. It just is.
Right to Left
Walking through the city - with a bike
On occasion you have to dismount and walk your bike. Across zebra crossings or down pedestrian streets. Checking text messages or smoking a cigarette or carrying a coffee is done while pushing the bike along. You ignore it, basically. It doesn't exist. And yet it is a fifth limb. An extension of yourself. You are one with it.
Waiting For Friend
Waiting for a friend - with a bike
I've heard about this fixed gear fad in other countries and I often hear the same praise about these bikes. That you are in total control of the machine and it is an aesthetic experience to ride them. Fair enough. But all that sounds a bit like a macho wild west cowboy thrilled at breaking a feisty mare. Fine for some.

In a bike culture, however, I don't believe that the bike is considered a creature to be tamed. It is not a creature at all. It is a thing. An object. It can be an objet d'art, gorgeously designed, but it is still an objet. In many ways, the way we regard our bikes is similar to the very basic concepts of the famous Danish design tradition: Simplicity, functionality, informal elegance and a respect for materials and resources.
Jacket On *
Using a bike as a wardrobe or a walk-in closet
Don't get me wrong. I love bikes. I just prefer seeing how people use them and seeing people using them instead of looking at the bike. I'm no militant environmentalist but the sight of 100+ bikes waiting for the bike traffic lights to change in rush hour makes me giddy. Or just the sight of someone leaning on a bike to eat a sausage on their way home:
Bike Casual
Or eating lunch with their bike next to them:

Posting a letter - with a bike
Flea Market Transport3
Shopping at a flea market - with a bike
It is, in some way, the 'culture' in bike culture that thrills me. The bike is a tool of liberation from automotive traffic just as it was a tool of liberation for women and the working classes in Bicycle Culture 1.0 over a century ago. It is a functional and viable transport form in urban centres over a century later in Bicycle Culture 2.0. It's an extension of ourselves and a symbol of environmental change. It's all that and more.

But it is just a bike. I prefer to admire and regard the people who use that bike. They make the difference.


Somanìa said...

sometimes I have to convince myself that my bike is just a bike, an object, could be easily replaced; but my grandpha bike... guau, it has soul, speaks, tells stories of wars and hard work, made a long ship trip from Italy to Argentina. Well still is an object right? ja ja

Anonymous said...

Absolutely lovely photographs of people living, walking, and riding with their bikes! Slices of life.

I think my bike is like a fifth limb, like you say, though I don't take it for granted. The few weeks I couldn't ride because the snow and ice was so thick on the ground that it would have been dangerous, I missed my bike so much and the feeling of cycling through the city and the freedom to go whenever I wanted and do whatever I wanted thanks to my trusty bike.

In our edition of Time Out magazine, we recently had an issue devoted to local cycling. They interviewed about 5 locals who love their bikes so much (and the mag made a joke about them marrying them), though it was mostly messenger types who are constantly repairing and adding to their 5 fixed gear bikes. Still, it was nice to see the coverage and the love for biking.

Colville-Andersen said...

almafuerte: i know what you mean. absolutely. i sit down to eat dinner every night at an original Ellipse table by Piet Hein. A legendary Danish design classic.

I will, once in a while, walk past the table in a certain light and think "shit, that's a fine table". Loads of stories in that table, too. But I don't polish it and caress it before eating dinner each evening.

It is an object. A gorgeous object. But it serves first and foremost a practical function. I eat off of it, as does my family.

My bike is gorgeous and seeing it in a certain light makes think "shit, that's a fine bike".

I'm just trying to explore, with this post, how these things we sometimes fancy are just practical things that serve a functional purpose for normal people.

Giles said...

There's two types of people with bikes. First you've got the sort featured here: people that actually use their bikes. The extension-of-self sort. That can include not just the usage itself, but also the accessorizing which you covered last week. As a racer, accessories for me mean upgrades, and speed is style. For others, it's chic functionality and aesthetic.

Then you've got the collectors--the guy with the $8000 bike hanging in his garage that he got because he thought he'd try biking. Or the random old punctured department-store bike in the basement that's been there since two summers ago. They just have a bike. But not really.

But I definitely see what you mean--bike culture isn't about the act of traveling by bicycle--it's about how the bicycle itself it integrated with daily life.

2whls3spds said...

Bikes to me a like a fine tool, they are a joy to use and there is one for each and every purpose. I have old bikes, newer bikes and brand new bikes. They run the gamut from single speed fixed gear to a 27 speed German Treking bike. About the only thing they have in common is that they all have fenders, racks,lights and I enjoy riding them...;-) I love the relative simplicity and durability of the old Nottingham built Raleighs. Outside of something like a Henrycycles product they are as close to indestructible as you are going to get in the US. I accumulate old bikes, some are "recycled" and go to good homes, others are stripped for parts and recycled at the metal yard.


Anonymous said...

A post about bikes as extensions of the self, yet no reference to Flann O'Brien's 'The Third Policeman' (one of my all time favourite books)? Surely you must be familiar with it? If not, what are you waiting for? ;)

"‘Everything is composed of small particles of itself and they are flying around in concentric circles and arcs and segments and innumerable other geometrical figure too numerous to mention collectively, never standing still or resting but spinning away and darting hither and thither and back again, all the time on the go. These diminutive gentlemen are called atoms. Do you follow me intelligently?’
‘They are lively as twenty leprechauns doing a jig on top of a tombstone.’ [...]
‘Consecutively and consequentially,’ he continued, ‘you can safely infer that you are made of atoms yourself…The gross and net result of it is that people who spend most of their natural live riding iron bicycles over the rocky roadsteads of this parish get their personalities mixed up with the personalities of their bicycles as a result of the interchanging of the atoms of each of them and you would be surprised at the number of people in these parts who nearly are half people and half bicycles.’
I let go a gasp of astonishment that made a sound in the air like a bad puncture.
‘And you would be flabbergasted at the number of bicycles that are half-human almost half-man, half-partaking of humanity.’

Anonymous said...

in Philippines before, bicycles were very famous. But now, we're using motorcycles

Gratistotal said...

The first photo is great, how is your camera???

Anonymous said...

I've been thinking about this post more and was reminded of an acquaintance I have who lives in London. He really loves having a few super expensive bikes. He rides daily and does long excursions so he DOES use SOME of them (I think he has 3 and uses 1 daily, and another 1 very occasionally, and the other is just for bragging purposes and has seen the light of day only a few times).

So he was telling us that he took one of his couple-thousand-pound bikes out one night and I don't know if he didn't bring the right lock or whatever. But he was to meet a friend who was in town from LA. He realized he couldn't properly lock his bike up and was too far from home. He looked around and found ok places to lock his bike up. HE HAD A LOCK but eventually decided against "taking the chance" and just went home. I had to bite my tongue from going off on him that he essentially just put his bike above a FRIEND, someone who is never in town, and their schedules never coincide. I would have been so hurt if I were his friend.

So I think someone like that needs to grasp a little better that, as much as our bikes can be like our children, there needs to be a line drawn somewhere separating object from human!

Ryfka said...

May I just say I LOVE the way you write about bikes. And the photos - they're just breathtaking. I'm a huge fan of your blog and it actually encouraged me to to buy a bike (after some 15-year break). I almost forgot how exhilarating biking can be. Thanks for reminding me.

Ryfka loves you. And your blog. But mostly you and your blog :)

nemo said...

Bicycles are one of the most sensible transportation devices. So much better than noisy, exhaust spewing cars. Very nice photos too

Colville-Andersen said...

thanks, everyone, for contributing with your point of view.

The Third Policeman... £3.99 on amazon and on it's way to me. :-)

Anonymous said...

You've done the right thing!

(Don't spoil it by reading any reviews, or by reading the endnote/afterword first. There's time for that later.)