This blog is currently on hiatus as I channel my writing energies in other directions. You can see more about my work at http://sarahmccphd.com. Thanks for visiting and happy riding!
The talk will address the pleasure of riding and how we can use enjoyment as a powerful tool for bike advocacy. “Why do you like to bike?” is an apparently simple question that may hold the key to growing both the numbers and consistency of bicyclists.
It is a real honor to help kick off this organization’s third year under the theme, livability, community, and culture. These three keywords are candy for a cultural scholar such as myself. Given the work Bike SD has done to be a successful, inclusive, and innovative organization, I only hope I can provide inspiration to keep up the great work!
If you are in San Diego, join us in delving into the details of why we find such pleasure in pedal power. If you are not, watch here for an updated post on the talk, with perhaps a bit more academic-y take on the whole thing than would be appropriate for a celebration replete with food truck morsels and Modern Times-brewed libations.
What fascinates me about bicycling is the way that people form communities around this particular two-wheeled object. The social formations centered on the bike are many, from roadies to downhill bombers to weekend beach cruisers, to midnight rides on the city streets. And then there’s just the daily commuters who want to get to work.
My co-collaborator Adonia Lugo and I invite you to think about these things in an approachable-scholarly way in a forthcoming book on Bicicultures. Do you have something to say that brings together critical/cultural theory and bicycling practices? We invite you to put in a submission!
Want to know the latest on my research? Learn when the book or new articles are coming out? Hear about speaking events?
I’m so excited that my research on the origins and growth of mountain biking is generating such excitement. As of this writing, the film created by University of California’s Fig. 1 about my project has over 4,000 views on YouTube. It moved from The Kids Should See This to Laughing Squid to who knows where, and was picked up by Time magazine.
It feels very odd (and exciting!) to have worked on a project in the relative isolation of academia, and all the sudden have your work (still in progress!) be launched into the world. Articles and a book on this project are still to come. Follow this blog for regular updates, or join my e-newsletter.
Video work is amazing and impressive. It’s something I wish I could do better. Thankfully, wonderful people such as Zak Long at the University of California Office of the President do a great job at making films. Zak made a film about my research that I am thoroughly impressed by. Happy viewing!
Just over a year ago, I co-hosted the Bicicultures Roadshow with Adonia Lugo. The sessions are still view-able online. Reflecting recently upon the event, I wanted to share a few thoughts prompted by Chris Carlsson’s talk, drafted long ago but not published until today.
I watched the first talk, titled, “General Intellect’s Cavalry: The Bicycling Movement on the Front Lines of the Culture War” by Chris Carlsson of Shaping San Francisco. His tribute to do-it-yourself bike shops struck me as particularly potent as I prepare to leave my own beloved community bike repair space, the Davis Bike Collective.
The DIY bike shop is one of these places that starts with waste, the waste stream of modern society. They see all these bikes… There are parts laying around. So people all over the country have formed these DIY bike shops. They usually start with nobody getting paid—they’re all volunteer.
This is precisely how the Davis Bike Church began (which later became the Davis Bike Collective through an unfortunate naming accident in which I may have had a role). A group of wistful would-be bike mechanics turned a bike junkyard into a fully functional do-it-yourself bike repair place.
Say some fat geyser like me shows up with my bike. I say, oh man, I heard you are a bike shop. Fix my bike. They say, we don’t fix bikes here. What are you taking about? We’ll show you to fix your bike. Come on in.
This ethic of teaching people to fix their own bikes and sharing skills has remained central to the mission and purpose of the Davis Bike Collective, an ethos I respect greatly. There are many good quality bike shops in town who can fix bikes. We wanted to do something different.
And right there the whole logic of capitalist business is short-circuited. Because instead of them providing a service that I’m buying, they’re insisting on sharing technological skills and the apparatus of technological repair that they have accumulated from the waste stream. So it’s a deeply radical moment when that happens.
It took me a long time to appreciate how radical the simple act of teaching someone to true their wonky wheel could be. I kept thinking, “We’re just fixing bikes and having fun. What’s so crazy about that?” But when the university put its power to bear against us, working to shut us down, I began to question if what we were doing was in some way exceptional, and perhaps exceptionally threatening to the powers that be.
And then I find, who am I standing next to? There’s a 12 year old Latino kid on one side, a 14 year old African American kid on the other side, and they’re working on their bikes…We are very segregated in this society, and we do not cross those boundaries…
Once we moved off campus into our own digs and became an independent nonprofit, I began to better appreciate the possibilities of the community bike repair space. I remember volunteering in the shop once. On one side of me was a university professor. On the other side was a woman whose bicycle was the closest thing she could call home. Also sharing the shop space that day was the future mayor of Davis and a high school kid. The close intermingling of the often invisible social and economic strata of Davis intermix in the shop in ways seldom seen in our privileged enclave.
In this moment, I can talk to them because it’s about brakes, or putting on spokes, or painting your bike some weird color…There’s a new relationship that starts to emerge…That’s an awesome moment because there’s suddenly the beginning of relationships that we have systematically disrupted and rendered kaput over the past forty years.
I’ve spent less time at the Davis Bike Collective as my research and writing overtook my life. And yet, I must remember that it was this strange project and the feeling that something special was happening hear that drew me to bicycles in the first place. It’s a site of potential. The radical possibilities spoken of by Chris Carlsson are far from guaranteed in the DIY bike space. These spaces can “sell out,” become assimilated, or otherwise find themselves integrated within the gaping maw of value exchange. But they retain the ability to dance on the edge of what is possible and what sort of relations and world we want to live in.
Thank you, my fellow ‘bike ministers’ for teaching me.
I invite you to read my latest blog on the UC Humanities Forum on the role of humility and humor in academic conversation, performed brilliantly by eminent scholars Donna Haraway and Marilyn Strathern at the latest UC Davis Sawyer Seminar.
I missed this year’s North American Handbuilt Bike Show (NAHBS), but thanks to Bike Rumor and other blog sites, we got a peek at some of the showings from the floor. One particular image attracted the attention of my intern, Brian. This bicycle won “Best Mountain Bike.” Congrats, Retrotec, on making a sweet ride and winning the prize.
Brian has been working hard at straightening up the Mountain Biking History & Culture Archive, and looking at quite a few clunker images, such as the one below of Joe Breeze’s clunker.
The stylistic similarities are striking, even if they are in many other ways very different bicycles. Perhaps all I’m really dazzled by is the sloping top tube arching elegantly down to the rear dropouts. It hearkens back to the streamline design of the original Schwinns, which mimicked the aerodynamics of motorcycles and airplanes. (Check out Christina Cogdell’s briliant Eugenic Design for more cultural analysis of streamline aesthetics) Perhaps there is a structural reason for this new design, but given the company name and streamline similarities, I can’t help but think about the ways we build nostalgia back into bicycles.
Ever since cars took over the roads built for bicycles, bikes have represented a simpler time, when a person could only move as fast as their legs would allow. The original clunkers were kids’ bikes reinvented for a new purpose that was also highly infused with nostalgia. Riding these bikes reminded folks of when they were kids. Cruising around on the old beaters reminded riders of the sense of freedom and adventure they experienced while riding as a youth.
Retrotec’s bike is a brilliant blending of nostalgia and cutting edge technology. The bicycle boasts the latest in components, including a LH Thomson dropper post (according to Bike Rumor one of only two or three in the world at the time of NAHBS). The welding and design mines the past and the present to create a bicycle that makes people smile. And I bet it rides like a dream (though it looks a little large for my small frame). As always with mountain biking, it’s the aesthetics of pleasure that wins out.
I cannot tame my writing. I create outline after outline, yet the words always leak out the edges and send out tendrils in new directions that raise more questions. I try to introduce a short anecdote to demonstrate what I am saying, but then that story starts talking a blue streak and leads into a whole other place, unexpected and organizationally confusing. And yet I cannot let go of these tangents. They reveal more and the unexpected places they take me unfold the world as a beautifully complex place.
But there must be structure. An argument. An overriding theoretical intervention. It cannot be implied, and some things must be spelled out. There must be a narrative.
So I try again. Cut and paste together another structure. Just focus on stitching the edges together. Think of it as breadcrumb trails, dropping in words where they are needed to lead the reader along the path. But this implied that I know the way, when in reality there are so many interesting junctions, and how do I decide which way to turn? Decide I must, for if not, the readers run wild and sometimes miss the most interesting vantage point. Sometimes it is necessary to say, “Look, look here!” Acknowledge the lovely side trails, but we cannot investigate these whole woods in a single day.
Trudge and tarry, trudge and tarry. This is one way to proceed along the trail. Rather than trudging, can I dance, or skip, or otherwise make my merry way? Maybe, perhaps at times. But if there is one thing I have learned from my years of long distance running is that the trudge has its virtues too. Trudges require endurance, and a willingness to push through some rather uncomfortable moments. This pace tends to be slower, but also opens up the vistas of a journey slowly, one solid step at at time. Trudging can also lead to wild places. In fact, a solid steady trudge is more likely to lead to those places worth going, and yet few may find on their breathless dancing way, for they grew weary long ago what with all the energy of skipping along. But the trudgers, they can tarry in places of dancer’s dreams.
Perhaps I need to balance between the slow march and the exuberant dance. Enjoy the exultation of surprising lines of flight, but remember to slow down and come back to the reassuring slow shuffle of prosaic prose. Because I am not on this journey alone. I carry other people’s stories. I am scouting paths along which others will follow. If my route is too rough or unexpected, my readers may get lost, and then what kind of guide am I?
Remember the best ride leaders. They create a route that leads to lovely and sometimes unexpected places. Long, arduous climbs are rewarded with secret caches of just-right sitting places with gorgeous views. On the way down, options are discussed, but ultimately the leader picks and takes us down descents suitable for the audience. The more adept can fly with glee, while others stumble gingerly, still learning. A good ending to rides can sometimes be the trickiest part. Too technical isn’t always good, since people may be tired and make dangerous mistakes. Nobody likes a boring road slog to get back to where they began, and going back over the hills again can be daunting. So finding the right cool-down flow back is key. Take the riders somewhere that keeps them on their toes in a relaxed, leisurely way. A way that allows for sure but easy breathing.
My recent blog post on the UC Humanities forum about the difficulties of facing the end of a journey.