Two bike photo projects show love for the movement

"My bike is like oxygen to me – it keeps me alive." Bicycle Portraits' interview with Loza Philani of Grabouw, South Africa.

We're in a moment of bike love. Bikes are hot: in SF the weather's hot, the Bicycle Music Festival's coming up, an extended network of bike paths is on their way – and around the world, there's a lot of energy surrounding the rise of two-wheeled transport. It's an important time for bicycles, so let look at how it's being documented. 

One way: Matthew Finkle and Brittain Sullivan are the authors of a book called – yes – I Love My Bike (Chronicle Books, $16.95, 160 pages) that recently landed in our Guardian mailbox. Finkle and Sullivan, the book's intro tells me, met on a bike ride on a summer night in Boston and subsquently pedaled across the country with each other, snapping flicks of their bikey buddies along the way.

Theirs is a photo book of bikes and their riders, smattered with terse little quotes from all the pretty things (“when I get pissed off I build gold bikes!” the handlebar-mustachioed, booze-toting Erik Noren of Minneapolis' Peacock Groove Cycles enigmatically proclaims). America's lookin' real good on our bikes, according to I Love My Bike -- everyone's got a bicycle fit to induce heavy breathing among the so-inclined.

I have to admit, I started getting a little hot and bothered over some of the (bike!) specimens – there's a yellow banana seat cruiser on page 109 for which I die, and I know that according to the bike snob gods I'm not supposed to like those five spoked plastic fixie rims anymore, but Daniel Mueller of Boston's pink and powder blue creation... I don't care, want.  

I Love My Bike: Wall to wall wheel walls 

When I shut I Love My Bike, I did so with the impression that the US is a solid mass of trendy, creative (mainly) young people -- on bikes. I like those kinds of people – some might say that I am one myself. The book, presented as an aspirational showcase of hipster and high performance bike fashion, works just fine. 

But Finkle and Sullivan need to holler at whoever's writing their back cover blurb. “Throughout their travels they met cyclists of all kinds...,” it rather hyperbolically shouts. Or maybe they met cyclists of all kinds, but they didn't publish any photos of them – I'm didn't see any families in there, and certainly no one with a junker bike that isn't a hard-to-find, check-my-steez brand of junker. This is a book of bikers that are just a few freeways from having a big ass social ride to a BBQ of local, organic edibles in a park somewhere.

I think that people who bike are more complex than that -- in a good way. For a different take on a bike photography project, head south. And east. Really far in both of those directions. 

There you will find South Africa's Bicycle Portraits, a photo series that was started by Nic Grobler and Stan Engelbrecht to highlight the brave, self-propelled souls on roads where cars aren't always the friendliest neighbors for meat puppets (to borrow a favorite term from David Byrne's Bicycle Diaries). You're not getting the idea that everyone depicted in Bicycle Portraits is a brother from a different mother -- but you are getting the feeling that the biking movement is moving away from the "ain't it cool?" model of awareness-building to the "ain't it necessary?" school of thought. 

You can't scroll through Grobler and Engelbrecht's website without realizing that biking in South Africa may well be a lifestyle, but it's not a single lifestyle -- people aren't just riding bikes because it's fun, hip, or social, but because it's the mode of transportation that makes the most sense for them. Bicycle Portraits purposefully paints a country of bikers as a diverse, important group of citizenry.

Rich people, poor people, old people, kiddos. Ashton May's black township cruiser, Loza Philani's well-ridden Raleigh (“my bike is like oxygen to me – it keeps me alive,” he says), and Brandon Searle's high tech Durban Cannondale. The two also collected in-depth interviews with each subject to help explain how bikes figured in each of the lives they documented.

After two successful Kickstarter campaigns, the Bicycle Portraits team is now accepting pre-orders for what is sure to be a phenomenal book. (Swoop.)

In a land such as our own when bike riding all too often is stereotyped as the domain of flippant and sullen (does that work?) trendoids who refuse to “mature” into taking crowded public transportation and gas-guzzling automobiles, projects like Bicycle Portraits seem incredibly important. If we have proof in front of our eyes that bikes are helping people lead lives that help the planet, city governments are way more likely to invest in bike systems, parents are more likely to encourage their wee ones to take to two wheels, and people who don't fit the hipster stereotype are more likely to pedal off into the sunset. Fashion is fun, but fashion alone can't influence urban planning. 

We do the movement a disservice if we paint ourselves as the sole face of biking in today's cities – but of course, the diehard dandies among us are always going to Love our bikes. Damn Carolyn Ngo of San Diego, where'd you get that metallic blue handlebar tape?


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