In my previous post, I gave an explanation of the creep of negativism that accompanies “critique” as a genre. I then described two of the things I love the most in the world, explaining them thus, “…today I set aside the negative side of critique and focus on the other side of qualitative study: positivity. Here is an examination of some things that I love. This love is not necessarily untempered or unbounded, but it is certainly without irony.”
“Get a bicycle. You will not regret it. If you live.” -Mark Twain
Bicycles merit inclusion to this list of Things a Critic Actually Likes for many reasons.
Often overshadowed by the automobile, the bicycle was as revolutionary to town planning when introduced as the auto was. The bicycle has long been overshadowed by the automobile, but were the car a superior technology, the bicycle would have been a 19th century technological oddity, seen only in museums and dusty midwestern barns. The bicycle has lasted because of its beautiful simplicity, its fitness to purpose, and the sheer enjoyability of riding. The bicycle transforms transportation into a healthful activity. That can’t be said for any motorized transport.
The maintenance and repair of a bicycle requires few or no specialized tools, makes the infrastructure necessary for their repair both diffused and portable, and the cost of maintenance very low. They are a low technology and high performance tool. If you analyze the bicycle purely upon its “fitness” as a solution to the problems of transit and repair – not even accounting for the reduced environmental impact – it scores very highly – much higher than modern automobiles.
As a machine typology, it has a literally timeless design. The basic two symmetrically wheeled, body composed of two triangles, handlebars, and a chain drive look and function have been with the bicycle since the introduction of the “safety cycle” in the late 1880’s. Throug a simple and delimited dialogue between its elements and the human body, there is no improvement that can be made to the overall typology without making a completely different machine. But within the details of construction and operation, there is almost infinite flexibility for customization and reconfiguration. It can be customized for personalization (custom colors, logos, saddles), powertrain efficiency (gears, weight reduction), comfort (fenders, geometry, saddle and handlebar types), safety (brakes), etc.
The small number of elements and their reliative simplicity means that each element has a high individual functional and aesthetic significance – and this adds up to high symbolic meaning. Thus, each can become an expression of the rider’s values through its enaction of those values.
I dwell on the straightforward and easily decoded way that each element displays and enacts the rider’s value systems for two reasons. First, because even owning and riding of a bicycle is an expression of a certain set of personal values; and secondly, because the cost of entry to the bike buying legions is so low, it allows an expression of values vis-a-vis the mere mechanical extension of a person’s capabilities and psyche. In other words, it is a rare culture constructed by inclusion, rather than exclusion.
Another key element is the rider’s reading of the city: bicycle navigation requires both reading of the map for things like physical distances, and decoding of the map for territorial clues – the grade of hills, etc – based on what the marks on the page mean. The terrain becomes re-engaged, the city becomes a series of obstacles and paths of choice. The rider’s relationship to the map and terrain – and to the whole city – becomes both functional and ludic.
Bicycles also enact political values. One of my primary motivations in riding is to lessen my dependence on fossil fuels. The vulnerable status of the bicyclist on the streets of the city also mean that by riding at all, one is taking a stance on who has a right to use the city, refusing the 20th century narrative of city planning based solely around automotive transit, and retaking the streets – one lane at a time – for non-motorized transit.
I am not even going to touch the rich history and current culture of bicycling, from dandies on penny farthings to the latest EPO doped carbon-fiber-everything riding Tour de France competitors. I’m not going anywhere near the rolling works of art that are Japanese track bikes, or the tank-built, comfortable workhorses that are Dutch bikes. Or the Belgian national identity and its ties to road racing, or the modern bicycle cultures that have sprung up in pretty much every city in the world, so wide in their scope that they defy classification as “subcultures.” I haven’t even touched a comparison of any specific piece of hardware, or made paean to specific construction methods or how knowing that the maintenance of one’s transportation is within your abilities leads to incredible self-confidence.
I haven’t touched any of this, and I don’t have to. Because mechanically, socio-culturally, economically, urbanistically, and politically bicycles open such a wide field for anyone to make their own, bring into their own world view and forge a culture pedal stroke after pedal stroke, all while enjoying themselves so thoroughly that the future rider can – and will – discover all of these things for themselves. And for that, this critic loves bicycles, how they work on all these levels, and what they represent.
Next Up: Things A Critic Actually Likes – Part 3: The BBC, and Early Modernist and Constructivist Architecture.