Retro Active: Longing for cycling’s golden era

Is cycling obsessed with its past? Steve Hall looks at why the bicycle is both a rejection of the modern and an embrace of a disappearing set of values.

Image courtesy of Wha'ppen, CC-licensed on Click for profile.“Time wounds all wholes. To exist in Time is to suffer through an endless exile, a successive severing from those precious few moments of feeling at home in the world.”
– Simon Reynolds, Retromania: Pop Culture’s Addiction to Its Own Past

Five exhausted riders, two with greying, bristling handlebar moustaches, one sporting a woolen tricolore jersey and another wrestling with a frame that may be older than he is burst through the Chianti countryside and on into a small town, disturbing the warm morning that rises off the cobblestones. They are racing along the lanes of folklore and tradition, busting a sweat to compete for a title that’s perhaps only half as important as the lunch buffet and the scenery.

To compete in L’Eroica, a race held in October in Italy, your bike has to be made prior to 1987. The sense of period doesn’t end there, it soaks into every aspect of the event – traders sell vintage parts and jerseys, mechanics tinker to keep ancient machines clunking along and the riders themselves gamely adorn themselves in kit that either harks back to their own illustrious past or pays tribute to their fashion heritage in the way only Italians can.

This is a race for racers of yore to come together for a bit of nostalgia. Well, not exactly: cyclists come from far and wide and while there is an abundance of white facial hair, there are plenty whose pedals could have belonged to their forefathers. The experience is one of fine food and wine, friendly competition, hard-worn wheels and a taster of the classic tour experience, before isotonics and optimal wattage.

A different scene altogether: a girl in her twenties in Birmingham, England, is lining up a picture on her iPhone5 of her new Pink Pashley, resplendent with basket, Brooks saddle, vintage decals and parked against the railings next to the old canal. Afterwards she sits down on her blanket, which she’s brought despite the overcast day, to adjust the picture: washed out tones, decaying edges and an amber hue seem to get the desired effect. She doesn’t know that down the M40 in Stratford-upon-Avon, the Pashley bicycle factory has been churning out familiar designs since 1926 – for her, the adoption of the vintage bicycle (not to mention the flat cap and dog in the basket) by Ewan McGregor, Lily Cole, Agyness Deyn and any further number of celebrities gave the country gent and lady look a new cache.

She finishes tinkering with the photo, Instagrams it and watches the responses roll in before packing up the scene and braving the disappointing weather and the car-infested roads on the way home.

Cycling is about home. Writers have tried over and over again to capture the feelings that you get from cycling itself – for some it’s a spiritual state, for others its a sheerly physical thrill. But one of the ideas that run beneath the consciousness of cyclists, whether it’s racers or fashionistas is often unspoken: bicycles are routes to a simpler past.

Simon Reynolds, in his 2011 book about the calcifying effect that pop culture’s past is having on its present seems to argue that today’s artists are in constant thrall to the achievements of the past, not least because the great audience longs for current art to offer some access, however brief or distorted, to familiarity and home.

The parallels between cycling and today’s mp3 charts aren’t obvious, but there’s a similarity in the relationship that cycling today has with it’s past. Without reaching too far into pop-psychology, its a complicated mix of nostalgia, romanticising, fetshising and playfulness – on a personal level it may even be something more.

Fetishes and training wheels

Retro style is a bold proclamation about something that is out-of-date. Flares may not have ever been practical or even done many favours for their wearers, but you’d be crazy to bet against them ever again being touted as a retro fashion trend.

For the wearer, a retro style can say several things; it can confer intimate knowledge of past trends or it can underline total contempt for old opinions; it can express sincere love of something that got forgotten or it can underpin a willingness to ignore time and see the past as a treasure box of ideas to be raided.

The cycle jersey, more than any usual fashion item, has been a rock against the tide of time. Today the peloton’s clothing may be more adorned with advertising and be made of thinner, more breathable fabric than it was, say, 50 years ago, but in the wider world, jerseys have held on to a ‘classic look’ remarkably well. Even the most inexperienced rider can don a jersey and instantly feel a tie to the peloton.

It’s worth noting that, aside from the development in the science of materials, there’s not been much reason for jerseys to change; they have a simple job to do and they do it.

There’s a contrast to be drawn here with the flat-cap wearing, sports coat and tennis racket breed of cyclists. Anyone riding a bike can be considered a cyclist and there are few useful value judgements to be drawn between the various faces and strata, but, for argument’s sake, imagine a shop where all types of cyclists might sit on shelves; Bradley Wiggins and Fabian Cancellara in one aisle, bike polo players in another and round the corner a line of disparate bicycles and riders, single-speeds and choppers, bow-tie wearers and punk kids. Here is cycling as an accessory.

People buy bicycles for all sorts of reasons, but what we’ve seen perhaps more in recent years is a resurgence in customers for bicycles that are designed to be seen on. The relationship between bicycle and rider is different from all those cyclists in the other aisles; these riders want to extract a bit of what cycling symbolises and incorporate it into their own image. Cycling can tap into that retro vibe because it’s an individualistic statement – in many Western societies at least – it’s a way of expressing an appreciation with past styles without worrying too much about function.

Keeping with the comparisons with fashion, ask yourself whether cycling is like jeans or pez dispensers; both have retro qualities, neither is obsolete. Jeans have been part of fashion for over half a decade and though they’ve had ups and downs across various scenes and periods, they have a timeless quality in being both practical and cheap. Pez meanwhile, in case you’ve not come across them, are a handheld sweet (or candy) dispenser with a character’s head, say Scooby Doo, on top. These have been well-loved by several generations of kids as well as, from time to time, popping up in fashion outlets as a kind of flashback accessory for teens and young adults.

Cycling is both: it’s an exploration of the past and a familiar pleasure you can return to, but its also something you slip into for the very same reason people did decades ago.

Hippy Dippy

If cycling is about understanding the past, it’s difficult to extricate that process from motor vehicles. Cycling was invented, developed and subsequently adopted by an extraordinary number of people, but if there’s one vehicle that instead defined the 20th and early 21st century, it would be the motor car. As an aspirational object, a focus of advances in engineering and an integral facet in people’s quotidien existence, the motor car is set apart from the bicycle and as one rose, the other fell.

To love cycling in the 21st century is to love something that automotives can’t offer: a return to simplicity. Hippies may have had the love bus in 60s California, but it was the bicycle that continues to underpin the green movement and stand for the spirit of community and self-reliance.

Image courtesy of hangmy nguyen, CC-licensed on Click for profile.The past that cycling longs for is a simple one, if not entirely free of irony – it doesn’t have cars and fuel and the appeal is centred on the more natural pleasures of getting legs moving and feeling wind in the hair. For the riders of L’Eroica, wise as they are, the setting and the scenery are just as important as the act of riding itself. Here is a time and space where cycling was king and the culture was built on pastoral pleasures; good wine, fine food, fixing your own mechanisms with your own tools and making your way through the paysage under your own steam.

This congregation of riders in the Italian countryside may not have the same overt ideals as green activists, but both are pushing back against the onset of technology and time. In fact, if it’s ‘retro’ to ride a bike, it’s because some modern societies haven’t really got a reason for their existence. Bikes aren’t the cheapest way to get around, they’re not the fastest; they’re sometimes the most practical, but rarely the safest. The past had a different set of values that the bicycle fit more comfortably into and, in a way, cycling can be a tribute to that, if not an attempt to return to it.

Cycling is about home. Whether that home is the personal past of childhood and fondly remembered fashions or a delve into the longing of a collective consciousness for simplicity and pre-modern ideals, it’s a powerful force.

Czech author Milan Kundera, writing in his book The Unbearable Lightness of Being, defined kitsch as ‘the absolute denial of shit’, positing that mass-produced art and design was a way of ignoring the contradictions and individualism that constitute a real experience. For me, cycling slips through the net here; there are kitsch elements to cycling in 2012, but there’s also an eagerness to have an individual, authentic connection with the past and some of the experiences that have gotten lost with the passage of time.

Riding a bike isn’t retro. However, cycling carries its past like a flag and that’s something that riders are communicating with in a mishmash of ways, both heartfelt and faddish. Perhaps cycling’s golden age never really existed in a meaningful sense, but for riders today, as it will be in 50 years time, bicycles are artefacts of experiences that are continually being forgotten and remembered.

Steve Hall

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  1. Fantastic piece – words that every carbon dandy, fixed Ferdinand and Pashley Princess should read!

    Thanks – really enjoyed reading this!

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