In Praise of the Bicycle


There is a lubricant for bicycle chains called White Lightning that is simple to use and, I’m told, does a better-than-average job of reducing friction. But that is not why I, or other cyclists I encounter, use it. The real attraction is that it is self-cleaning; the chain remains spotless.

Many bicyclists, and especially serious road cyclists with their sleek machines, consider their bicycles ridable art and are devoted to keeping them and themselves pristine. Mountain bikers may consider a thick coating of mud from head to toe a badge of honor. But on the road, slippery clean lines are favored in all things. We dress in tight clothing, hoping to slither through the wind. Some men even shave their legs to further an appearance of glossy smoothness.

For the record:

12:00 a.m. Oct. 2, 1998 For the Record
Los Angeles Times Friday October 2, 1998 Home Edition Calendar Part F Page 12 Entertainment Desk 1 inches; 31 words Type of Material: Correction
Bicycle exhibit--Thursday’s Calendar Weekend cover story gave the incorrect opening date for the exhibit “Bicycles: History, Beauty, Fantasy” at UCLA’s Fowler Museum. The exhibit opens Sunday and runs through Jan. 3.

Consumers that we are, we live in a world of fetishistic objects, and we have become very good at justifying our obsessions, to the point of making fetishism an honored academic subject. Bicycling can provide rich grist for that particular cultural studies mill, given the impressive list of zealots over the past century.


Great authors have lined up to adulate the bicycle. “When I see an adult on a bicycle, I do not despair for the human race,” H.G. Wells declared. For T.E. Lawrence it was “the only vehicle by which thoughts are put into action.” Bike writers, too, were Tolstoy, Joyce, Beckett, Sartre, Twain, Hemingway, Nabokov and Henry Miller, all of whom can be found musing about bicycling in a marvelous anthology, “The Literary Cyclist” edited by James E. Starrs.

The bicycle has been an indelible image of the century as well. A large museum would be required to hold all the artworks by important artists inspired by it--among them Picasso, who made a bull’s head from seat and handlebars; Christo, who wrapped a bike; and various painters from Hopper to Warhol, who put a bicycle on their canvases.

Although music has its limits in its ability to convey much about the bicycle, musicians haven’t been immune to its appeal. Giordano wrote a very nice aria about the bicycle in his verismo opera “Fedora,” and more and more productions of other operas bring a character on stage on a bike. The British composer, Edward Elgar, found tooling around Malven on his bicycle helped him come up with his famous tunes for the “Enigma” Variations.

In cinema, Vittorio De Sica’s groundbreaking realist 1948 film “The Bicycle Thief” used a bike as the symbol for man’s dignity. “Without warping the life it depicts,” playwright Arthur Miller has written about the way the film performs the central function of art, “it discovers the meaning of that life, its significance for the race.”

These are extreme statements. And how about one more? William Saroyan called the bicycle “the noblest invention of mankind.”

The extravagance of such remarks actually removes the bicycle from the realm of simple fetish--however much some of us may feel we need frames that cost a princely ransom or $200 helmets with lots of air vents--and treats it as a crucial component in a well-functioning society.

Pryor Dodge devotes his interesting monograph “The Bicycle,” which serves as the catalog for the UCLA show “Bicycles: History, Beauty, Fantasy,” to the evolution of the bicycle and its meaning for our times. It was bicycle manufacture and the lobbying by bicycle enthusiasts that literally paved the way for the automobile. It was the Wright brothers’ expertise as bicycle mechanics that allowed them to build a successful airplane. It was the bicycle craze of the 1890s in New York that turned the once-quiet Broadway into today’s busy urban thoroughfare.

Equally important was the bicycle’s transformation of society. Susan B. Anthony thought it did more to emancipate women than anything else. “I stand and rejoice every time I see a woman ride on a wheel,” she said. “It gives women a feeling of freedom and self-reliance.” The bicycle in the late 1800s offered women mobility and independence for the first time. It got them out of the house and out of their corsets. It made suffragette rallies possible.

That a bicycle is good for modern life and the environment remains incontestable. Studies tell us that employees who ride to work are more alert and have fewer sick days. The world’s most livable cities, from Seattle to Salzburg, are also the bicycling paradises. Such cities tend to have a higher self-image and a higher arts consciousness than less bicycle-friendly cities (even New York is about to spend millions of dollars on bicycle lanes). Seattle just built a new concert hall with far more civic support than Los Angeles has had with its struggle to complete Disney Hall. And standing above the entrance to the main auditorium of Seattle’s Benaroya Hall is a newly commissioned mural by Robert Rauschenberg, a collage that includes a bicycle wheel.

In Los Angeles, however, the bicycle is looked upon as an enemy on the road. I live a few easy miles west of UCLA, yet I will have to drive my car to the Fowler Museum to see the exhibition. The two main streets that I could take, Wilshire and Sunset, are too scary. I could cut through the Veterans Administration grounds, if signs didn’t forbid it. And as much as I would like to be one of those alert workers who never gets a cold, I do not bike to The Times, although the 17-mile commute downtown is reasonable and The Times provides bike racks and showers. It’s the dangerous streets that make it uninviting.

As a bicyclist and music lover, I am pinning my hopes on Disney Hall, now finally assured completion, to improve just about everything about Los Angeles, including its bike-ablity. If the Frank Gehry-designed concert hall turns out as hoped, it should give Los Angeles a new sense of itself, both as a place and as a place for the arts. With a new self-image, Los Angeles will be ready to be enjoyed by bike. That may be a lot to ask of a single building, but I am asking it anyway. You have to start somewhere.

And I take encouragement from the example of Marcel Duchamp. In 1913, he nailed a bicycle wheel onto a kitchen stool. He did it, he said, for pure enjoyment. He liked having it in his room just as much as having a fire in the fireplace. He liked absent-mindedly turning the wheel; its motion gave him comfort. He also liked the fact that it wasn’t useful, that its only purpose was to provide pleasure.

Yet “Bicycle Wheel” is one of the most crucial artworks of the century. It was the first of Duchamp’s ready-mades, those sculptures of found objects (sometimes slightly altered like this one, sometimes not at all) that have led to the whole unresolvable what-is-art question that continues to enrich culture today. It was the first mobile sculpture, and hence prelude to the whole issue of technology and art.

This casual sculpture, intended to bring indoors the simple joy of turning a bicycle wheel, the simple joy so many of us know even when we go overboard replacing spokes with things like Space Age aerodynamic wheel discs, has made 20th century art very much what it is. To its benefit and our own.


“Bicycles: History, Beauty, Fantasy,” UCLA Fowler Museum of Cultural History, UCLA campus, opens Saturday. Museum hours: Wednesday-Sundays, noon to 5 p.m., Thursdays, noon to 8 p.m., admission through December, free. A separately curated exhibition, “Cruisin’, Stylin’ and Pedal-Scrapin’: The Art of the Lowrider Bicycle” will also be on view at the Fowler Museum.

* CYCLING PARADISE: Southern California has some fabulous places to ride. Page 8