As the Tour de France rolls mesmerisingly onwards, it’s the perfect time to reconsider that most revolutionary of machines, the bicycle.
All the Utopias ever devised by political theorists, ideologues and radical thinkers aren’t a patch on the one dreamed up by Baron Karl von Drais. His original Laufmaschine quickly evolved into the bicycle, which in turn gave birth to the Victorian notion that the bicycle (or much more exciting sounding Velocipede) could revolutionise the modern world and society – rather than simply reduce the time it takes to get to the shops.
Branching out into the movement for women’s suffrage and “rational dress” it all seems rather quaint today, but it strikes me that the Utopian overtones of cycling are currently enjoying a renaissance in the Baltic states.
In previous years, I’ve commented on how few cyclists there seem to be in the Baltics. But whether its the economic troubles or just a sort of coming-of-age, this year bicycles seem to be everywhere, particularly in Riga.
In April, a well-recceived Danish ehibition at the Latvian Museum of Foreign Art extolled the joys of Copenhagen’s “Velo culture”. It begged an obvious question: if Copenhagen can be a cycling capital, why not Riga?
One of the most impressive books I’ve seen in recent months was a history of Latvian cycle workshops. Not an obviously thrilling subject, admittedly, but the love with which it had been written, the intriguing old photos and perhaps more than anything the fact that each copy had clearly been put together by hand (volumes seemed to be printed direct onto a batch of blank notebooks with stickers attached to front and back) made it seem like something special.
Unexpectedly, there are a fair number of cycle routes in the city, though usually these have not been renovated since they were incorporated into the Utopias of Soviet-era housing projects. A few more have been added since, but they tend not to connect with each other and there is an almost total lack of signage.
On a recent ride, I literally rode in circles through the Imanta housing estate while following a bizarre matrix of broad but directionless cycling paths.
It will be interesting to see how far into the autumn the cyclists persist in their pedalling.
There is something inherently civilised about a bicycle. Quite why, I am not sure, but suspect it is something to do with a latent realisation that the bicycle is man’s greatest invention.
An extension of that totemic symbol of science, the wheel, a bicycle shows humanity’s ingenuity, its learning (the science of riding a bike includes geometry, momentum, velocity, gravity, gyroscopic forces, mechanical advantage etc), and even its casual courage – after all, the apparent impossibility of riding a bicycle is what makes mastering it such a daunting but ultimately exhilarating childhood experience.
Unlike the car or the aeroplane, there is no environmental penalty to pay, and the exercise it delivers turns cycling into an unambiguously “virtuous” activity. It’s also democratic in that the faster you pedal, the faster you get there, and unless you try really hard, the only person you are likely to injure through misuse is yourself.
Own a bike for long and it will inevitably develop a personality. Immediately I think of one of my own previous bikes, a rickety assemblage of random corroded tubes I rode as a student that I Christened “Vlad” for obvious reasons. When Vlad got stolen, I almost felt sorry for the thief and told the police to keepa look out for a suspect who may recently have developed a high-pitched voice and a limp.
So with a dearth of political ideologies able to offer alternatives to today’s threadbare capitalism, perhaps the “freedom machine” is finally coming into its own more than a century after it first shook up the system. Who knows where it will end up?