27 December 2007

Under The City Prt II

Still from Mash SF. Check the cyclist 3/4 of the way up, on the left, coming down. No brakes, no gears, no worries.

This was going to be a simple review of a DVD I recently acquired called Mash SF. Then the Thursday before last, just after 11pm, I found myself lying on the cold ground on a busy street in downtown Portland, with my legs awkwardly wrapped around my bike frame. Seconds earlier, a car driver, desperate to find parking on this ‘First Thursday’ art walk, dangerously cut me off to squeeze into a primo parking space. I didn’t hit the car but in a desperate effort to avoid collision I went flying over my handlebars while my feet lay stubbornly strapped into my toe-clips.

As I lay there trying to get out of my toe-clips, the driver and her passenger got out of their car.

“Wow, are you OK?”

“Ah, yeah.”

“Did we hit you?”

‘No. You just cut me off.”

“Wow, we didn’t even see you.”

“Yeah, no shit, you didn’t.”

Now, normally, I like to offer a little lecture about traffic law, etiquette, car vs bike etc. to people who drive dangerously but this time, I didn’t want anything to do with them and walked away, after making sure my bike and body were both in one piece. I was happy to have a couple of witnesses offer their help and sympathy and not at all surprised that two of Portland’s finest were less than a block away and ignoring the whole thing.

Just days earlier I was busy bragging to my wife, how after years of cycling in city traffic on an almost daily basis, I have become remarkably adept at predicting stupid moves pulled by drivers, pedestrians and, of course, fellow cyclists. Now, I was left deliberating over whether I should to continue to assert my right to the road or surrender and cycle more ‘defensively.’

I don’t really have much to add to the bike versus car debate. I do both. I hate how reliant I am on a car but I still drive and get to experience the frustrations all drivers do. As soon as I get behind the wheel in that metal box, I feel my mentality aggressively morph and it is easy to become incredibly frustrated with bikes and other road users. Then I remind myself, to chill the fuck out and consider the power of the vehicle I’m in. And that’s my bottom line on the matter. One’s care and consideration as a road user should be (at bare minimum) proportionate to the killing power of one’s vehicle of choice. That’s not to say we all shouldn’t take care. But if you choose to drive a machine that is capable of accelerating to lethal speeds, that can crush and kill people and is choking our atmosphere, please consider the implications of your transportation choice when coming into contact with other road users. Again, this is not to shrug of my responsibility to everyone else when I ride skate or walk.

If you drive, please, consider that kids like to play footie or basketball in the street, please consider people do random, unpredictable and dumb things on the same roads you drive on. But more than anything, consider that kids, peds, cyclists, and so on should be able to do all this without risk of death. It is you who will be killing them and not the other way around. The car’s dominance over public space is quite frankly, sickening. But all of this should be painfully obvious.

If you choose to take to the streets in a non-auto manner, as a cyclist, skateboarder or whatever you will inevitably one day hear something in the manner of ‘Get out of the fucking street. You are blocking traffic.’ The American city is so auto-centric, there is no room for anything else on the roads. You’d swear that going into the streets on or in anything but a car is as sacrilegious as burning a flag. My experience is mostly in Portland, a city the prides itself on being ‘progressive’ and ‘bike friendly.’ God help those of you living in less ‘enlightened’ towns and cities.

Yet, the streets and ‘downtown’ don’t have to be limited to consumerism, commerce and transportation. I could go off on an anti-capitalist rant about why things are structured this way but that will make this even more long-winded than it already is. Let’s just say, I am of the belief that the quality of all our lives would be greatly enhanced if more of us choose to seize, claim, re-interpret and re-define public space. Space that was once wild nature but has not had the wildness completely squeezed out of it.

There are enough pointless wars raging on. The war over public space, needn’t be one of them.

Rant over.

So now to the Mash SF film…

Like thousands of others I have been pretty fascinated with the explosion of fixed gear bicycles over the last few years, especially of the brakeless track bike variety. These bikes hit the streets hard at the turn of the century. Was it a punk rock reaction against the unaffordable technology of carbon fiber, multiple gears and sportiness of contemporary road bikes? Maybe. But fixed gears and track bikes undoubtedly became a fashion accessory and many people have written it off as a result. Of course, it is easy to dismiss this ‘culture’ off as a hipstered-out trend. There are lots of people who obviously care a lot about the style of their clothes as well as their bikes riding around very slowly and/or unskillfully. Furthermore, it has become co-opted and commoditized like every youth culture before it but at even more staggering rate, due to the Internet. But it is unfair to write it off based on the fashion and trend aspect, as there are some very profound cultural and political implications to urban track bike riding.

These bikes have a rich and colourful history but were essentially meant for a very specific purpose, ie racing in the sanctuary and safety of the velodrome. The story goes that Jamaican bike messengers in New York, first began using these bikes as they were the bikes they were used to back home, they are relatively inexpensive, easy to maintain, and utilitarian in nature, perfect as a ‘working’ bicycle. Others messengers caught on but until recent years it was mostly an esoteric culture, limited to bike messengers, serious bike nerds and of course people who actually rode them in the velodrome.

While, I love analyzing subcultures and their evolution, I’ll save that for another time. What I will say is that, there are now legitimate ‘crews’ out there, pushing these bikes to the limits within the urban confines but far beyond the confines of fad and fashion. Perhaps the highest profile being the Mash crew from San Francisco. From what I can tell Mash is a loose affiliation of bike messengers, BMXers and skateboarders who have taken it upon themselves to see how far they can push themselves while tackling the 49 hills of The City, without brakes. At first, I was pretty skeptical that the video about track bikes would make for captivating viewing but it is produced much like contemporary skate videos. Each rider gets their own segment where they get to display their individual skills set to a wide variety of tunes. While, the footage of riders doing stationary or slow-moving tricks is impressive it does get a bit old but what never gets old are the segments of people bombing the hills, negotiating traffic and seizing the streets. Obviously it takes some serious fitness and physical skill to tackle San Francisco on a brakeless bike in the way these riders do but perhaps more impressive is the way they ‘read the city,’ tune into the chaos and thread through it with grace and power.

Part of me, wants to dismiss it as bad PR for cyclists. People who ride like this are going to piss off a lot of road users and I don’t want to pay the consequences of a brakeless hipster infilling a car driver with rage for blowing a red light, when I’m the next cyclist that driver comes across. Yet, I can’t help but admire their skill. And I can’t help but think that for all the negative response its going to provoke, this style of riding, like graffiti serves a higher purpose in the way it encourages both participants and viewers to reconsider their interaction with the streets and pubic space.

It is beyond time we broke out of the confines forced upon us by artificial authority, take back public space and make it livable again…

...and this is just one way to do it...

More of this in Foulweather #3... (Yes, yes I know #2 isn't even out yet)