We’ve all been creative on a bike, at one time or another: inventive manoeuvring around potholes, creative retribution, imaginative route finding, and the odd flamboyant track stand because there is nothing worse than putting one’s foot down on the tarmac. Getting on a bike is already thinking laterally, outside the (metal) box, literally and figuratively, so we’re prone to being creative with a bicycle too. The many hours spent together obviously get us thinking of our bike as more than a machine, a companion that we personalise, just like an office desk, maybe name, and which inspires a certain affection. We’ve been through a lot and then some together. I enjoy looking at a beautiful bicycle, but a lovingly adorned one is so much more alive. If its larger-than-life appearance is said to put thieves off, it may be because it isn’t anonymous any more but is indeed in someone’s ownership. We’re marking our territory.
Some bicycles, like the multi-coloured Temans, don’t seem to need any added flourish. Other, plainer, ones invite decorations: paper flowers, garlands, teddy bears, stickers, spray paint, ribbons. Some of us like to let our arts and crafts selves come to the fore for a spot of entirely gratuitous DIY fun. A friend came across a yarn-bombed bike in Cornwall, an exquisitely cute blend of knitted wool and metal whose skilful owner had managed to bring home comforts and cycling together. Wouldn’t you like to be riding this bike, just once, to experience how it feels? The trouble is I am not sure this is a bike for riding: it looks suspiciously clean, which makes me wonder whether it is for display only. On the road, optional extras acquire a sad, battered look surprisingly quickly.
Perhaps this is why bike decorations have a particular appeal for me: they tell me there’s a dreamer in the saddle, a light-hearted cyclist who looks on the bright side of life. A white-trouser wearer on a rainy day, someone who hopes against all odds. Londoners will understand the analogy. To keep cycling in a UK city, you have to be the kind of person who notices silver linings and finds cause to be hopeful in little things. Since colours have moved into cycling – the vivid Brompton frames come to mind – it has become pretty. I see nothing wrong with that. Twee, too fashionably middle-class, hipster culture? But so what if cycling is made to look neat and clean like an architect’s drawing and has us forget for a moment the grime and dirt and the ‘utility bike’?
‘The widespread appeal of the bike as an image suggests there is a bike-shaped space in everyone’s psyche’ concludes Matthew Wright. It is a powerful and evocative symbol just as iconic as the London Underground designs, a vehicle with a past and a vision for the future, all of which add to its allure. As the 21st century bicycle is experiencing some kind of renaissance, it seems to have captured the public imagination, and that of artists who celebrate its unique combination of modernity and sustainability. Simple geometric forms, moving parts and components that are replicated across bicycles, each being factory-built on a similar model but subtly different, lend themselves to sculptures and installations that mischievously play with the concepts of scale and numbers. Chinese artist Ai Weiwei welds 1200 bicycles together in Forever and time stands still. There is something poignant, oddly beautiful, about still bicycles, a timelessness in their immobility that make the memorial tribute paid by ghost bicycles – to someone for whom time one day stood still – so arresting. Like the ‘Say something beautiful or be quiet’ bike I spotted in Brixton last year, they take us somewhere else, in another headspace.
We’ve got a mutual understanding, a two-way contract: bikes transform us, in return for which we transform them into something else. They become a garden gate (fitting for what was seen in the early part of last century as a gateway to the countryside and to freedom), a fence or a clever bit of interior design, a mix of art and practicality. That’s the way it goes with bicycles: they give a new lease of life, and so do we.