by Our Bicycle Lives

Derelict cinemas play, in my opinion, the saddest music in the world but abandoned bikes come a close second. They look at first like any other bike on an outing, lively and raring to go the moment they are unchained. They are there incognito. But, as weeks go by and no-one returns to collect them, they slowly die. They are stripped of their functionality and personality until nothing is left but the bare bones, a skeleton tied to its D-lock. First go the wheels, then perhaps the saddle, pedals, cables and any other removable parts. A rusty chain dangling loose, like the door of a vacant building flapping in the wind, is often the ultimate sign that what was once a working machine is now less than the sum of its missing parts, a motley ensemble of ill-assorted bits and bobs: an amputated whole, not quite a bike any more.

The street is their home and come rain or shine, they’re there. Their constancy is disturbing. Battered by the elements, looking the worse for lack of wear, they nonetheless hold firm for a year or two. They age rapidly. As they turn a grimy grey in just a few months, they bleakly mark the passing of time, not the time of experience and wisdom but time the destroyer. Until one day they reach that depth of decrepitude that forces time to stand still: they become an immutable fixture. Occasionally, like a burgundy bicycle last year by Loughborough Junction, I’ll observe how they are curiously absorbed by the vegetation surrounding them and turned into fossil-like creatures. They are a petrified urban forest, both arresting and unnerving, silent witnesses that are passed by by life and whose raison d’etre, movement, has gone.


A red shell – Place des Vosges, Paris

There is something deeply emotional about abandonment: it means being at the receiving end of rejection. Nothing like a puppy tied to a tree by the roadside to tug at one’s heartstrings. Likewise, a discarded bike may be left behind but it is not free and remains tightly fastened to its anchor. What tragic fate that of the object tied to its past and without future. Even a bicycle rusting in a shed still has hope, whereas the status of an abandoned bike will gradually fall from lost property down to wreck and, in the end, to waste. If secured to a cycle rack, it is in the way and it will get pushed aside or trampled to make room for bikes which are very much alive and in use. It is not around long enough to acquire the prestige of archaeological remains, nor does it come to be viewed with the fondness of lost memories as the lost property items in Souvenirs Perdus (Christian-Jaque, 1950). But . . . how I wish those bikes could talk!

I came across a funny post describing the hurt of receiving a removal notice for your beloved companion. But where do abandoned bikes go once they are taken away? I imagine their prospects are grim: the tip or metal scrapyard, which is the bike equivalent of a pauper’s grave. They may get sold at a police auction, turned into street art or if they’re really lucky, they could get a new lease of life thanks to recycling schemes such as the dynamic charity Re~Cycle, which sends spare bikes to Africa. A friend’s bike travelled all the way to Ghana last year!

I like to wonder what leads someone to never come back for their bike. Have they forgotten where they left it – this reminds me of a former colleague who was up in arms because her bike had been stolen from the company premises, only to realise belatedly that it was safely tucked away in her shed at home – or simply lost the key to the lock? Are they students who have moved away at the end of the academic year and have neglected to take it with them? Has the owner been suddenly taken ill and the bike left to suffer the same sad fate? Has the bike fallen out of favour and been renounced for a better one? Or did it sadly belong to someone who couldn’t be bothered with it any more, perhaps because a wheel had been stolen? It intrigues me but I am certainly more inclined to imagine melodrama than indifference or cold-blooded callousness. For the passionate cyclist that I am finds it inconceivable that one’s pride and joy be forgotten altogether or worse, purposefully and carelessly discarded from one’s life, and I think of a cyclist abandoning their bike as committing an offence as serious as a captain abandoning their ship.