Monday, 3 May 2010

Cycling and the Mind

from "On Your Bike - The Complete Guide to Cycling" by Matt Seaton

Another distinct aspect of cycling is the way that a cyclist apprehends his or her environment. Unlike a motorist, who is cut off from their immediate surroundings, cyclists fully experience the sights, sounds and smells of the world they are pedaling through and are able to cover much more ground and at a faster pace than any pedestrian. Where a pedestrian in London for example can cover several pages of an A-Z map, a cyclist can link several pages at a time. The cyclist is the ultimate realization of the flaneur, what the poet Charles Baudelaire called "the passionate spectator", the person who travels through the city with the eye of an artist, observing everything, part of the flow of the urban bustle. Baudelaire's idea of the flaneur was a type of intelligent, idle drifter, whose existence in Paris was threatened by the dirigiste logic of Haussmann's boulevards. He might have been surprised then to find his notion surviving and even thriving through the twentieth century.

First, the German intellectual and theorist of modernism, Walter Benjamin, took up the cause of flanerie. He defined the city wanderer as one "who goes botanizing the asphalt", someone in whom "the joy of watching is triumphant". In other words, flanerie is a sophisticated term for the simple pleasure of people watching and a particularly unfocused and aimless form of tourism. This activity was further refined, mystified even by the Situationists, for whom the idea of the 'derive', - a close cousin of the flaneur's ironic stroll - was a central principle of their theories of 'psychogeography'. As one of the Situationist International's key architects, Guy Debord defined it, "In a derive one or more persons during a certain period drop their usual motives for movement and action, their relations, their work and leisure activities, and let themselves be drawn by the attractions of the terrain and the encounters they find there." The distinction between the situationist derive and Benjaminian flanerie is that, for Guy Debord and friends, the 'drifting' is not random but purposive, albeit obscurely so. The deriviste surrenders himself to the secret, hidden currents of power, interest and desire that the Situationists believed to run through the urban environment. The derive is therefore " a technique of transient passage through varied ambiences" in order to reveal a city's occult psychogeography.

These are rather abstract and fanciful concepts, but they do seem to relate to the counter cultural way in which a cyclist progresses through an urban environment. Because they can go where most traffic cannot, cyclists tend to use back streets and unconventional routes, accessing parts of the city that are screened off from the majority of people. The mental map of the different neighbourhoods in a city and how they relate to one another is totally different for a cyclist the the one held by someone who relies on transit or on the major arterial routes that most motorists stick to. So much more of the history of a city's development and its patterns of poverty and wealth are visible to the cyclist. A simple illustration of this is to visit an unfamiliar city and explore it by bicycle; there is no better was to establish a rudimentary knowledge of its layout and character. "The city is the realization of that ancient dream of humanity, the labyrinth;" wrote Benjamin. Traveling by bicycle allows these secrets and puzzles to be unlocked; it makes you fully a citizen of the polis.