The Charm of Pedal Power

Why are bicycles so charming and photogenic? You would think they’d make terrible pictures, being cluttered with chains and spokes and odd bits of metal here and there. But no, a bike can lift the spirits, especially when there’s a pretty girl riding it.

Or not. That’s the point — even at rest, leaning up against the railings, a bicycle seems appealing. It could be because we look at it and imagine a pretty girl (or guy) riding it. Or it could simply be because we imagine it in motion, doing what it’s meant to do. It allows us to move at a greater speed than we can achieve by running — and to do so without resorting to any source of energy other than our own. Surely, that’s a really beautiful notion?

Jules et Jim
Just think of the movies that have featured bicycles. The definitive film of the French “New Wave” was Francois Truffaut’s “Jules et Jim” — and what are the scenes we remember from it? Why, it’s surely those with the bicycles, with the eternal triangle of Jules, Jim and Catherine cycling with exhilarating freedom, accompanied by Georges Delerue’s delightful music.

For an article called “The greatest film scenes ever shot” in The Guardian newspaper, film director Ken Loach picked the bicycling scene in Jules et Jim as his chosen sequence. He wrote: “The sense of enjoyment with this trio on their bicycles is perennial. It’s completely evocative of that carefree young moment, the age when people are carefree. And then of course, for these three, it will all be ruined by the war.” (WW1).

When the Wobbling Has to Stop
Yes, there’s also a poignancy associated with bicycles. Youth and cycling go together. As we get older, we tend to wobble more dangerously when pedalling on two wheels. A judge, dismissing the arguments of a motorist who’d knocked a man off his bike, said a cyclist must be “allowed his wobble.” He included the exaggerated wobbling of elderly people on bicycles. Maybe he was a cyclist himself.

There’s poignancy in my featured image (above), but not because it shows the ephemerality of youth. Rather, it’s the contrast between the elderly man with his two sticks and the other, faster means of transport in the background.

The image is an example of “layers,” with three types of transport occupying three layers in the photo: the man with the sticks, the parked bicycle, and the white van behind them. The poignancy of the image is fairly obvious, but it’s not entirely negative. At least the man is making intrepid progress, whereas the bike is locked to the black pole — and the van is stuck in traffic.

Tough Bikes
Bicycles are beginning to lose their integrity by becoming tougher and — heaven help us — motorised! Pedalease, the makers of the bike below, offer electric bicyles as well as the ruggedised Big Cat Fat Bike shown in the photo. It’s certainly eye-catching. The two policemen seem to like the look of it, while the woman with the black bag examines it closely as she walks past.

Personally I would hate to ride such a monster. It looks burdensome, like a heavy DSLR camera with a big zoom lens. When obesity invades the bicycle you lose the sense of lightheartedness and freedom which two thin wheels can provide.

On the cycling track and even in road races, it’s the lightweight, super-strong bikes that give their riders the greatest advantage.

Here’s a shot (above) I took of British cyclist Hannah Barnes, on her way to winning an Izumi road race around Colchester town centre. It’s not a “street photo,” as such, but it’s a study of human grace and power, allied with advanced technology and super-thin wheels.

Somehow, I can’t resist taking a shot when someone of interest passes me on a bicycle. The resulting photo is not always as complex or meaningful as the featured image at the top, but I can often find amusing contrast, as below.

The colourful bicycle is almost the antithesis of the woman’s black jeans, cap and cape. I panned the camera to get the shot and the 1/800th second shutter speed hasn’t quite frozen all the movement.

Disturbingly, the only part of the picture in sharp focus is the triangular cape with its colourful, hand embroidered edging. It’s as though the cyclist has had second thoughts about dressing entirely in black. (Please note this was taken well before the national mourning later in the year).

Sadness edged with hope? Or just a regular costume to protect against the sun? I have no idea. As Francois Truffaut said: “I begin a film believing it will be amusing — and along the way I notice that only sadness can save it.”

Sometimes the same is true in still photography — and sometimes it’s the opposite. What appears to be sad can actually seem joyful on close examination.

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