You can tell something has captured the public imagination when it gets made into art. For a few decades after its invention in the 1880s the bicycle was an icon of transition, excitement and modernity, in works like Toulouse-Lautrec’s gaudy portraits of Parisian track racing, or HG Wells’s romantic novel The Wheels of Chance.
In mainland Europe that depiction continued, on and off, but in Britain, with a few honourable exceptions, the bike’s image dwindled into a dismal, sorry thing, the vehicle for a morose Philip Larkin visiting a moribund church in Church Going, or John Major’s fusty old maids cycling to evensong. In only a few more enlightened quarters, like Peter Campbell’s illustrations for The London Review of Books, were bikes vivid and exciting.
Today the picture is changing fast. Bikes lend themselves well to sculpture, and the summer’s festivities for the Jubilee and Olympics were a good opportunity for public bike art. Several towns on the Olympic road race route embraced the spirit of the games with some legacy sculptures. Weybridge created a series of bike sculptures along its section of the route, while Woking won an Inspire Mark for its peloton of 50 willow cyclists created by a team of 5,000 school children and the artist Sara Holmes.
The Industri[us] project, a Canning Town urban regeneration initiative, used bike parts in a stunning illuminated collage of spare parts, while out in the countryside, we seem to have adopted the European practice of decorating retired bikes as garden ornaments.
Business is perhaps an even surer sign of public excitement and affection than art, however. Two new central London cafes have used bikes at the centre of their identity with great success. Tapped and Packed, a high-end, artisan tea- and coffeehouse, has a bicycle logo – also printed on their takeaway cups – and an old delivery bike doubling as a sign outside the shop. As well as the Italian coffee and cycling connection and the practicality of the old bike as a portable sign, barista Matt Malby specifically cites the modernity of the cycling trend as the reason for their choice of logo: “Cycling has become popular and modern and we wanted to use that identity,” he says.
Dishoom, modelled on the Persian cafes of Bombay, has no direct connection with cycling, but its neon-painted bikes have become a prominent London landmark, with dozens of online photo tributes. Shamil Thakrar, “founder-wallah” at Dishoom, originally intended to leave the bikes around the area as guerrilla marketing, but the police wouldn’t allow it. “So we kept them outside. People just keep photographing them! They’ve become a bit of an icon for us. It wasn’t really thought through, but they became part of our identity.”
One of the most visible examples of the bike as icon is the ghost bike. Though some argue that these memorials discourage people from cycling at all, there is no doubt that they offer a dignified, if melancholy, statement of cycling identity. A new film project exploring the stories and locations behind ghost bikes across America (with a nod to the UK) premieres later this month.
In many ways Transport for London’s cycle stories campaign, with its “freedom” bike frame, captures the new-felt excitement about cycling very well. It’s just a shame it’s so easy to characterise it as a distraction from the organisation’s lack of practical achievement.
Cyclists are often accused of unrealistic idealism in their campaign for improved conditions. But all transport that becomes popular is idealised first. The car and the plane became the dominant transport technologies of the 20th century on the back of romantic visions of the open road and skies that are arguably far less realistic, given our daily experience of noise, pollution and delay, than any cyclist’s Dutch utopia.
The vision comes first. Cars and planes represented freedom long before most people had a chance to travel in one. Now that cycling in Britain is seen as attractive again, it’s important its appeal is felt as widely as possible. Safe roundabout design and the approved width of cycle paths have to be fought for. But cyclists must capture the public’s imagination in order to gain the breadth of support needed to enact those practical measures.
I believe we are quite close to doing that now. The widespread appeal of the bike as an image suggests there is a bike-shaped space in everyone’s psyche, yearning for the friendly hum of tyres on tarmac, the rush of air on the cheeks, and the companionship of human-paced travel.
guardian.co.uk © Guardian News & Media Limited 2010