TRUE TRAVEL TALES: Cruising the Buenos Aires bike scene
It would be simplistic to say there is a single face of Buenos Aires' bicicultura ("bicycle culture"). But if you had to choose one, you might select native porteño Matias Kalwill, director of nascent bike culture blog La vida en bici.
Kalwill believes that his city is hitting a "creative boiling point" when it comes to bikes — and other cultural vehicles, for that matter. "Buenos Aires is in a sweet spot," he tells me over a late night beer. "For example, there's been new kinds of sounds emerging in the local music scene over the last few years — it's like a new kind of porteño energy."
A bicyclist since his high school days who previously worked in a young family education center, Kalwill and friends started Biciconga in October 2010. The group promotes the bike as a part of Buenos Aires' burgeoning creative culture, not just as a cool toy.
"We wanted to generate bicycle culture by fashion or style. We wanted to make it cool — not just a hippie or sporty thing," says Felix Busso, one of the group's founders and a fashion photographer. They began organizing free bike parties, riding en masse to predetermined secret locations where live bands played. The parties took off and in February, Kalwill started La vida en bici.
In the beginning, he used it to share his bike illustrations and videos of various bike happenings. Its popularity grew quickly. Kalwill's simple view of cycling freedom ("You know how superheroes fly around the city using their own energy? That's what happens you ride your bike to see a friend across town.") and anthropomorphic animal characters make bikes seem like something so elementary as to be a common sense part of city living.
The success of the blog and the events Kalwill sponsored through it earned La vida en bici entry into the British Council's Climate Generation program, a worldwide network that supplies promising young environmental activists with the practical tools needed to make their organizations more effective. Theirs is one of the program's only bike projects.
I met Kalwill three months after the launch of La vida en bici, at an event he curated at the city's Museo de Arquitectura y Diseño (The Museum of Architecture and Design). He and the other artists who'd begun working with La vida en bici had been granted use of the museum's minimalist concrete basement as studio space and had lined it with whimsical bike illustrations, silkscreens, and photographs.
That day, the group was holding its second Bicifriendly event at the museum. On the schedule were art demonstrations, bike maintenance lessons, and a discussion with city experts on the potential of complete streets plans in the city. Kalwill was dashing around in his signature Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou-esque red beanie, playing welcome wagon, docent, and hype man.
"One year ago, none of this existed," he said. "This idea that the bicycle was cool, that's really something special. It broke into the culture of the city without permission. And since it didn't ask permission, it has people asking, 'Hey, where are you going?'"
But he's had something to do with this shift in perception. The Biciconga collective and the artists in La vida en bici — rarely older than Kalwill's 30 years — are experts at packaging the joy of riding a bike in the city into a thousand easily digestible, easily sharable forms — key in the Facebook era. Bicifriendly, although an inspiring moment for those who could make it to the architecture museum, would soon have its impact magnified one-hundredfold by sweetly soundtracked event videos and professional-quality photographs posted onto blogs.