Pub date May 13, 2009

P>I’ve been aware of the intersection between alternative culture and bicycles since 1996, when I saw my first tall bike at Reed College in Portland, Ore. Since then, I’ve seen bikes at Burning Man tricked out with paint, fun fur, and EL wire. Bikes at Critical Mass made to look like animals or disco balls. Bike-powered carnival rides at Coachella. And punk girls, dressed in pink, dancing on minibikes at Tour de Fat.

But it wasn’t until "The Art of the Bicycle," an underground multimedia art show and party held in a warehouse in the Mission District last May, that I came to understand how these were each parts of a greater whole — spokes in the wheel of a bicycle culture that centers around creativity, empowerment, and, above all, fun. It also became clear, as I sipped cheap beer and listened to live punk rock in an unpermitted space, that this culture was very different from the road bike culture my dad (and his Spandex shorts) was a part of in the 1980s — or even the activist culture my friends in the San Francisco Bicycle Coalition are in now.

No, this bike culture is something else. Rooted in DIY principles, punk and anarchist values, a good dose of geekiness, and rejection of the mainstream, the alternative bike culture that exists in San Francisco and beyond is an entirely different animal — and it’s growing up fast.

In the Bay Area alone, there’s Cyclecide, a bicycle club known for mutating found and rejected bikes into new forms and pedal-powered rides, as well as for their carnie aesthetic and rodeo-inspired antics; the Derailleurs, a group of women who dance on, with, and about bicycles; and the Trunk Boiz, an Oakland-based community of kids who pimp out their bicycles the way their older brothers might’ve pimped out their low-riders; and many others — all of whom operate outside the realm of traditional bike culture or politics.

And each of these are connected to a greater network of bicycle artists across the country and the world. The past decade has seen the birth of the Portland-based Bicycle Porn festival, which screened films showing the sexiness of (or near) bikes at Victoria Theater last November; as well as the New York City-based Bicycle Film Festival, which had its first West Coast showing in San Francisco several years ago and now visits 39 cities per year. There are now more than 120 bicycle clubs all over the world, with originals like Black Label growing so big it has 40 chapters of its own. And only five years after the first bicycle dance troupe, the Sprockettes, was formed in Portland, there are 11 bicycle dance troupes worldwide.

But who are these people? Why are they so inspired by bikes? And why make art with or about them, rather than just ride them? The answer is complex. For some, the bike is simply a beautiful machine, an engineering problem whose solution hasn’t changed much since the 1600s but whose application is infinite. For others, it’s the bike’s democracy that’s so appealing: cheap, accessible, and available to all kinds of riders. Some see the bike as a vehicle for change, undermining car culture and the politics involved in non-people-powered transportation.

But what seems to tie all these people together is a counterculture instinct. These are artists, musicians, and math geeks. They’re the same people who may have been drawn to skateboarding or surfing (before both became commercial and mainstream), punk shows, Dumpster diving, or even Stitch ‘n’ Bitch parties. It’s a community of people dissatisfied with the status quo and filled with the imagination and ambition to work outside it — if not against it.

"We wanted to have fun," said Jarico Reesce, about founding Cyclecide in 1997. "And we wanted to break every rule we could." (Molly Freedenberg)