The Human Velocipede

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“In the early part of January 1869, I was at Spencer’s gymnasium on Old Street, when a foreign-looking packing case was brought in… A slender young man, whom I soon came to know as Mr. Turner of Paris, followed the packing case and superintended its opening; the gymnasium was cleared, Mr. Turner took off his coat, grasped the handles of the machine and, with a short run, to my intense surprise, vaulted onto it and, putting his feet on the treadles, made a circuit of the room.”

– John Mayall, describing London’s first bicycle


I decided it was about time that I joined 8, 999, 999 other people in this city by going for a bike ride. I considered buying a fixed gear racing bike and having it sent over from Tianjin, until the gf pointed out that bike theft here is almost as popular as steamed dumplings and pointing at foreigners.

Although my favourite way to experience urban drift will always be on foot, the sheer vastness of this place often counts against it. The metro is obviously useful for getting around but it cuts Beijing up into little subterranean pieces, and I never get a sense of where bits of the city are in relation to other bits of the city. Buses are a way to cut the Jing up with more of a view, but it still doesn’t give me the same sense of ‘knowing’ as walking does, feeling the connection between pavement and boot heel.

Beijing, like any decent city, is bicycle friendly. The only problem being that pretty much everyone using a vehicle here is a total asshat, a fact that unfortunately extends to cyclists.

In the early twentieth century, Alfred Jarry (acclaimed playwright, cyclist, and douche) used to drink a bottle of absinthe, paint himself green, and cycle around Paris with a riding crop, swatting at stray dogs and irate pedestrians. The paint and the whip may have disappeared, but Jarry’s attitude seems to have distilled itself into the soul of many modern cyclists.

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Several bike rental apps have sprung up around the Jing, allowing people to feel the wind on their face and escape the crowded hell of public transport. With the simple tap of a serial number or the scanning of a QR code one can cycle the Jing for as cheap as ¥0.5 per half hour, thanks to companies with names like ‘Blue GoGo’, ‘MoBike’ and ‘Ofo’.* Admittedly, some of these apps have given rise to predictable behavior:  bikes tossed in the river, serial numbers filed off, bikes stolen/chained up/spray painted a different colour.

Back in Vancouver, I read an interesting little book called Cyclogeography by Jon Day, a former London bicycle courier. The book does for cycling what Haruki Murakami does for jogging in What I Talk About When I Talk About Running or what Geoff Thompson does for bashing people’s heads together in his martial arts memoir Watch My Back.

The book, an obvious but irresistible pun on the word ‘psychogeography’, weaves together several non-fiction narratives about European bicycle tournaments, cycling history and autobiographical tales of internal maps of London’s backside, the ‘unspaces’ that very few ever bother to look at (alleys, loading bays, fire exits, etc.)

I enjoyed Day’s descriptions of illegal ‘alleycat’ races and of watching the London riots from the relative safety of a bike saddle, as well as his phrase ‘Cartesian Centaurs’, describing the kind of people who are drawn to riding. I’m not one of them. I’m not a natural cyclist. I spent most of the nineties on a mountain bike in the Albertan wilderness, but the last vehicle I owned  was a cheap Aldi p.o.s. that my dad was giving away (or, as he is so fond of saying, ‘practically’ giving away). Shortly after I inherited it, the bike was stolen from a friend’s shed. I’ve been walking ever since.

I don’t quite agree with Iain Sinclair’s philosophy that cyclists can’t enjoy the environment around them as much as walkers because riders are so preoccupied with simply staying alive, but I do agree that cycling is not as meditative as sipping a coffee on the subway or taking one step after another in a decent pair of boots. There is, however, an undeniable thrill that comes with riding up and down disabled ramps, weaving through gridlocked traffic and shouting ‘bellend’ at people who don’t understand you, all whilst brandishing an imaginary riding crop.


*(my hope that they will eventually homogenize into ‘GoGo MoFo’ is, at this point, a mere pipe dream)

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