On owning a bike

Being and NothingnessTo possess a bicycle is to be able first to look at it, then to touch it. But touching is revealing as insufficient; what is necessary is to be able to get on the bicycle and take a ride. But this gratuitous ride is likewise insufficient; it would be necessary to use the bicycle to go on some errands. And this refers us to longer uses … But these trips themselves disintegrate into a thousand appropriative behavior patterns, each one of which refers to others. Finally, as one could foresee, handing over a bank note is enough to make a bicycle belong to me, but my entire life is needed to realize this possession.

Jean-Paul SartreOn Being and Nothingness (1943)

Having recently handed over more than a few banknotes to make a new (French) bike belong to me, I’m reminded of the hours (years?) of engagement with it that is still required to make it truly mine. As beautiful as it is, it’s the riding, racing, cleaning, assembling, and disassembling of it, not to mention the talking about it and gazing appreciatively at it, that will appropriate it. Of course, this is a simplification of Sarte’s ideas on the symbolic meaning of appropriation and he would argue that appropriation has only symbolic meaning while rid

LaPierre

LaPierre Xelius 800 EFI

ing, cleaning, assembling and disassembling are different things entirely.

Nonetheless, the enjoyment for me is real, whether its symbolic, anticipated or re-visited through memory. It’s tempered partly by regret at the abandonment of the bike that has served me well for the past six years, though true to form, I’ll keep it to keep my legs honest on those wet and dirty days.

Sartre and Simone deBeauvoir were both avid cyclists, as were Albert Camus and the editor Pierre Gallimard. DeBeauvoir writes of a cycling accident when out with Sartre in which she lost a tooth in a downhill crash. In ‘What is Literature? (1947), Sartre reflected on the spectacle of a veiled Mahomaden woman riding a bicycle whom he saw on his 1938 bus journey from Mogador to Sufi. The observation was in the context of his critique of surrealism and paid little obvious attention  to issues of equality raised by both the bicycle and the veil.

The precise mechanism of the bicycle challenges the idle harem dreams which one ascribes to this veiled creature as she passes by but at the same moment what remains of the voluptuous and magical darkness between the painted eyebrows and behind the low forehead challenges, in turn, mechanism; it gives a feeling that behind capitalist standardisation, there is something beyond, which, though chained and conquered, is yet virulent and bewitching. Phantom eroticism, the surrealist impossible, and bourgeois dissatisfaction: in all three cases the real breaks down.

What is Literature? The Situation of the Writer 1947.

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The smell of the road

I loved the smell of the road. The hay and manure, and pollen from the corn, and even the hard smells of pigs. They were like living smells. I know it sounds stupid, but they were smells with muscles. Each morning the smells were crispy and separated from each other, but as I pedalled into the afternoon, the wet heat of the Midwest mixed all the odors together. Both times of the day were wonderful.

Ron McLarty, The Memory of Running (2005)

I came across Ron McLarty’s ‘The Memory of Running’ a few years back and read it virtually in one sitting. It’s a novel that borders on schmaltz the whole way through but manages somehow to stay the right side of the line and is actually very moving. Smithson Ide, an overweight, unlikely cyclist, recounts his recuperative and transformative journey across America on an old steel Raleigh. McLarty, who is as well known as a television character actor as he is as a writer, beautifully captures the sensory experiences associated with cycling and the sense of oneness it can engender with the road and the natural world.

 

After a while you get into a bike trance and don’t have to think too much about pedalling. At least, because I was going so slow, I didn’t, and I could look around at where I was. This was new for me. The whole idea of a place, I mean. And a way from the big interstate road system –which you couldn’t use if you didn’t have an engine—New Jersey was, I suppose, gorgeous. In Rhode Island the words ‘New Jersey’ were interchangeable with ‘dog shit,’ but its amazing to see how many perfect farms and groves and forests there are. And the rivers and streams are great. Around Ralston I walked my bike off the road and sat by the Raritan River. Beautiful. I had a couple of bananas and splashed some of that good water over my face and hair. I had a beard coming up, and the cool water stayed around my stubble, taking away the itch. Every stop has a purpose. I was learning, I suppose, about refreshment.

McLarty also captures the sense of awe and envy we have all felt when coming across a new and beautiful bike, and the emotional tug between the desire for the new and the thing you love.

The Moto bike was another thing altogether. When did this happen? When did bikes become things like this? This was a jet plane of bikes! This was a happy dream of bikes! It was dark blue, and it looked so solid you would think it weighed a hundred pounds, but you could literally pick it off the ground with one finger. The seat was padded with lambswool, and the handlebars curved wide and down and had a soft foam cover. It was a bike that could make me forget my Raleigh (but I would never forget my Raleigh).

‘The Memory of Running’ was first published as an audio book (McLarty reads for audio book recordings) and was described by Stephen King as the best book you can’t read.

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The Zen of maintenance

There are two ways you can get exercise out of a bicycle: you can “overhaul” it, or you can ride it.  On the whole, I am not sure that a man who takes his pleasure overhauling does not have the best of the bargain.  He is independent of the weather and the wind; the state of the roads troubles him not.  Give him a screw-hammer, a bundle of rags, an oil-can, and something to sit down upon, and he is happy for the day.  He has to put up with certain disadvantages, of course; there is no joy without alloy.  He himself always looks like a tinker, and his machine always suggests the idea that, having stolen it, he has tried to disguise it; but as he rarely gets beyond the first milestone with it, this, perhaps, does not much matter.  The mistake some people make is in thinking they can get both forms of sport out of the same machine.  This is impossible; no machine will stand the double strain.  You must make up your mind whether you are going to be an “overhauler” or a rider.  Personally, I prefer to ride, therefore I take care to have near me nothing that can tempt me to overhaul.  When anything happens to my machine I wheel it to the nearest repairing shop.  If I am too far from the town or village to walk, I sit by the roadside and wait till a cart comes along.  My chief danger, I always find, is from the wandering overhauler.  The sight of a broken-down machine is to the overhauler as a wayside corpse to a crow; he swoops down upon it with a friendly yell of triumph.  At first I used to try politeness.  I would say:

“It is nothing; don’t you trouble.  You ride on, and enjoy yourself, I beg it of you as a favour; please go away.”

Jerome K. Jerome, Three Men on Wheels (1900)

Anyone who has ridden knows the curse of the amateur mechanic. H.G. Wells identifies him in my earlier post, but Jerome K. Jerome pretty much nails the type. The thing is though, most of us have shared the pleasure of fine-tuning a well-made bike and savouring the anticipation of actually riding it. Jorgen Leth perfectly captures the feeling in the opening scene of his documentary on Paris-Roubaix, A Sunday in Hell, featured in an earlier post.

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Dream bicycles

 

1896 edition

After your first day of cycling one dream is inevitable. A memory of motion lingers in the muscles of your legs, and round and round they seem to go. You ride through Dreamland on wonderful dream bicycles that change and grow; you ride down steeples and staircases and over precipices; you hover in horrible suspense over inhabited towns, vainly seeking for a brake your hand cannot find, to save you from a headlong fall; you plunge into weltering rivers, and rush helplessly at monstrous obstacles. Anon Mr. Hoopdriver found himself riding out of the darkness of non-existence, pedalling Ezekiel’s Wheels across the Weald of Surrey, jolting over the hills and smashing villages in his course, while the other man in brown cursed and swore at him and shouted to stop his career. 

H.G. Wells, The Wheels of Chance – A Bicycling Idyll (1896)

H.G.Wells not only appreciated the addictive attractions of cycling and muscle memory, he was also alert to the irritations caused by those who didn’t ride but never let that stop them giving advice:

 

2007 edition

Briggs had never been on a cycle in his life, but he felt Hoopdriver’s inexperience and offered such advice as occurred to him. 

“Have the machine thoroughly well oiled,” said Briggs, “carry one or two lemons with you, don’t tear yourself to death the first day, and sit upright. Never lose control of the machine, and always sound the bell on every possible opportunity. You mind those things, and nothing very much can’t happen to you, Hoopdriver—you take my word.”

He would lapse into silence for a minute, save perhaps for a curse or so at his pipe, and then break out with an entirely different set of tips.

“Avoid running over dogs, Hoopdriver, whatever you do. It’s one of the worst things you can do to run over a dog. Never let the machine buckle—there was a man killed only the other day through his wheel buckling—don’t scorch, don’t ride on the foot-path, keep your own side of the road, and if you see a tramline, go round the corner at once, and hurry off into the next county—and always light up before dark. You mind just a few little things like that, Hoopdriver, and nothing much can’t happen to you—you take my word.”

“Right you are!” said Hoopdriver. “Good-night, old man.”

“Good-night,” said Briggs, and there was silence for a space, save for the succulent respiration of the pipe. Hoopdriver rode off into Dreamland on his machine, and was scarcely there before he was pitched back into the world of sense again.—Something—what was it?

“Never oil the steering. It’s fatal,” a voice that came from round a fitful glow of light, was saying. “And clean the chain daily with black-lead. You mind just a few little things like that—”

H.G.Wells, The Wheels of Chance – A Bicycling Idyll (1896)

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Jørgen Leth

Danish poet and filmaker Jørgen Leth could find poetry in the simple act of cleaning a bike. The opening scene of his classic documentary film, A Sunday in Hell (1976), elevates the almost ritualistic preparation of a Benotto bicycle for the 1976 edition of Paris-Roubaix to something approaching a meditation or benediction.

Leth’s other experimental films like the surrealistic The Perfect Human (1967) and his collaboration with fellow Dane, Lars Von Trier, The Five Obstructions may have appealed to the cinema intelligentsia, but his acknowledgment of the beauty to be found in cycling touches a deeper nerve for those who already know it.

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Bicycle Thieves

Vittorio de Sica’s landmark Italian neorealist film Ladri di Biciclette (1948) is, of course, not really about bikes at all. The bicycle operates as a vehicle for the moral and economic dilemmas facing an impoverished postwar Italy trying to redefine itself in the aftermath of the catastrophic events of the war.

Antonio Ricci secures one of the few jobs available in a bleak and war-damaged Rome, provided he has access to a bicycle. Desperate to support his family, he hocks his wedding sheets for a bike, only to have it stolen the next day. The film follows Ricci and his young son Bruno as they engage in a desperate search through the streets of Rome.

The film is beautifully shot in grainy black and white with a poignant documentary feel that comes largely from De Sica’s use of real people off the streets rather than professional actors. The tender love story between father and son on the road brings Fellini’s LaStrada (1954) to mind and there is also a fair bit of Bicycle Thieves in Benigni’s Life Is Beautiful (1997). But Tim Burton’s 1985 tribute Pee Wee Herman’s Big Adventure probably has the most direct filmic references to the Italian classic, most notably the replication of the scene where Ricci is haunted by hundreds of elusive bicycles that seem to mock him as they sail past.

Ladri di Biciclette was adapted from Luigi Bartolini’s 1946 novel of the same name. Bartolini was a writer and visual artist (predominantly engraver) who published more than 70 works in his lifetime.

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A splendid thing

Ernest Hemingway served as an ambulance driver on the Italian-Austrian border during the First World War and was familiar with the role played by bicycle troops on both sides of the conflict, but also with the importance afforded to racing cyclists in Europe. His character Aymo in A Farewell to Arms (1929), is loosely based on Bartolomeo Aymo who finished on the podium in the Giro d’Italia in 1921, 1922. 1923 and 1928. This exchange was obviously well before the arrival of the likes of Lemond, Armstrong and Hincapie on the scene.

“Maybe the war will be over,” Aymo said. We were going up the road as fast as we could. Thefarewell-to-arms-hemingway sun was trying to come through. Beside the road were mulberry trees. Through the trees I could see our two big moving-vans of cars stuck in the field. Piani looked back too.

            “They’ll have to build a road to get them out,” he said.

            “I wish to Christ we had bicycles,” Bonello said.

            “Do they ride bicycles in America?” Aymo asked.

            “They used to.”

            “Here it is a great thing,” Aymo said. “A bicycle is a splendid thing.”

            “I wish to Christ we had bicycles,” Bonello said. “I’m no walker.”

Ernest Hemingway, A Farewell to Arms (1929)

After the war, Hemingway developed an interest in European cycling, particularly the Paris six day races and the Grand Tours. Late in The Sun Also Rises (1926), Jake Barnes gets caught up with the Tour de Pays Basque in San Sebastian.

Later when it began to get dark, I walked around the harbor and out along the promenade,

Sun Also Rises and finally back to the hotel for supper. There was a bicycle-race on, the Tour du Pays Basque, and the riders were stopping that night in San Sebastian.

In the dining-room, at one side, there was a long table of bicycle-riders, eating with their trainers and managers. They were all French and Belgians, and paid close attention to their meal, but they were having a good time. At the head of the table were two good-looking French girls, with much Rue du Faubourg Montmartre chic. I could not make out whom they belonged to. They all spoke in slang at the long table and there were many private jokes and some jokes at the far end that were not repeated when the girls asked to hear them.

The next morning at five o’clock the race resumed with the last lap, San Sebastian-Bilbao. The bicycle- riders drank much wine, and were burned and browned by the sun. They did not take the race seriously except among them-selves. They had raced among themselves so often that it did not make much difference who won. Especially in a foreign country. The money could be arranged.

The man who had a matter of two minutes lead in the race had an attack of boils, which were very painful. He sat on the small of his back. His neck was very red and the blond hairs were sunburned. The other riders joked him about his boils. He tapped on the table with his fork.

‘Listen,’ he said, ‘tomorrow my nose is so tight on the handle- bars that the only thing touches those boils is a lovely breeze.’

One of the girls looked at him down the table, and he grinned and turned red. The Spaniards, they said, did not know how to pedal.

hemingway1

Hemingway (left)

I had coffee out on the terrasse with the team manager of one of the big bicycle manufacturers. He said it had been a very pleasant race, and would have been worth watching if Bottecchia had not abandoned it at Pamplona. The dust had been bad, but in Spain the roads were better than in France. Bicycle road-racing was the only sport in the world, he said. Had I ever followed the Tour de France? Only in the papers. The Tour de France was the greatest sporting event in the world. Following and organizing the road races had made him know France. Few people know France. All spring and all summer and all fall he spent on the road with bicycle road-racers. Look at the number of motor-cars now that followed the riders from town to town in a road race. It was a rich country and more sportif every year. It would be the most sportif country in the world. It was bicycle road-racing did it.

That and football. He knew France. La France Sportive. He knew road-racing. We had a cognac. After all, though, it wasn’t bad to get back to Paris. There is only one Paname. In all the world, that is. Paris is the town the most sportif in the world. Did I know the Chope de Negre? Did I not. I would see him there some time. I certainly would. We would drink another fine together. We certainly would. They started at six o’clock less a quarter in the morning. Would I be up for the depart? I would certainly try to. Would I like him to call me? It was very interesting. I would leave a call at the desk. He would not mind calling me. I could not let him take the trouble. I would leave a call at the desk. We said good-bye until the next morning.

In the morning when I awoke the bicycle-riders and their following cars had been on the road for three hours. I had coffee and the papers in bed and then dressed and took my bathing-suit down to the beach.

Ernest Hemingway, The Sun Also Rises (1926)

The Bottecchia referred to is Italian professional Ottavio Bottecchia who turned professional in 1923 when Hemingway first visited Spain. In 1924 he was the first Italian to win the Tour de France

ottavio1

Ottavio Bottechia

 when he dominated the race and won four stages. Bottecchia started his own bicycle company and continued to place in major races but got caught up in Italian politics and

ottavio2

Bottechia on the col d'Izoard (1924)

was found by the side of the road in a pool of blood in 1927. His anti-fascist leanings suggest a possible involvement by Mussolini’s blackshirts.

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