With Velo-City, Propellor Design and the Museum of Vancouver pay tribute to the weird and wonderful world of local cycling
Fixies, choppers, and freaks: the items on display at the newly renamed Museum of Vancouver (formerly the Vancouver Museum) sound like personality types best avoided by the young and impressionable. But not to worry—while the institution is undergoing a bit of a rebranding, its new exhibit is totally kid-friendly, albeit with a touch of the subversive.
Curated by Toby Barratt, Pamela Goddard, and Nik Rust of local lighting and furniture design company Propellor Design, Velo-City: Vancouver & the Bicycle Revolution is an exploration of the city’s cycling culture, in all its whacked-out glory. From today (June 4) until September 7, the museum’s exhibition spaces will be filled with all manner of bikes, from the purely functional to the outrageously whimsical. There’s the ride owned by 82-year-old Harold Bridge, a randonneur whose idea of fun is taking part in nonstop rides ranging from 200 to 600 kilometres; the one-wheeler belonging to extreme unicyclist Kris Holm, whose stunts include barrelling it down the North Shore mountain trails; and the custom-built Moth Chopper, a monster low-rider equipped with massive gold-coloured “wings” that is the pride of bike advocate and magazine publisher Amy Walker—to name just a few.
“We just noticed that there’s a real explosion in all these different subcultures of cycling in the city right now, and it’s just gaining momentum,” explains Barratt during a tour of the partially installed exhibit. Having taken part in the institution’s Movers and Shapers design show, Barratt and his partners approached the museum with the notion of curating what became Velo-City. “Commuter rates are constantly rising, along with participation in sports like road racing, mountain biking, BMX.”¦On top of that, there’s this really vital bike culture around the more creative community-building aspect of cycling.” The museum, which is remaking its image to focus on Vancouver and its culture, loved the idea.
The resulting show is a collection of 60 bicycles, most belonging to local people, arranged in a series of galleries along thematic lines: sporting bikes, working bikes, creative DIY “freak” bikes, and next-generation human-powered vehicles. Alongside the wheels is a series of 15 portraits of individuals whose rides appear in the exhibit, accompanied by their biographies and interviews about why, where, and how they cycle. In addition, visitors can take in video clips of mountain biking, BMXers, and the underground scene where anything and everything goes, including burlesque-influenced bike-inspired dance troupes such as Vancouver’s B:C:Clettes.
What you won’t find on display are examples of early bikes such as the high-wheeled penny farthing of the 1800s. “We wanted to concentrate on the contemporary culture as much as possible,” says Barratt, who, like his business partners, is a keen cyclist who doesn’t own a car. The focus of the exhibit remains firmly on the Vancouver scene. Even so, pulling a cohesive show together took some work.
“It was a real learning experience for us,” admits Barratt. “One of the first things we did was sit down and try and figure out what all the subcultures were, and we came up with 42—although there are shades of grey and a lot of overlap between different aspects of the bike world.”
Although they’re not all featured in the show, Barratt lists some of the more out-there cycling communities to be found in the city. “There’s bike polo, which is pretty interesting and gaining in popularity. There’s bike jousting, there are people like the B:C:Clettes, who do bicycle performance. That’s just basically about having fun and not taking yourself too seriously.”¦There’s the extreme distance-sport culture like the randonneurs, where there are a lot of older people in their 50s and 60s.”
There’s also the latest craze that’s flourished among Vancouver’s hipsters: the fixed-gear bike. “You may not know it, but in the city riding around you all the time are people on bikes that don’t have brakes at all,” observes Barratt. “They’re track bikes, also known as fixies, and this is absolutely exploding, this culture. It’s drawing in a lot of young, creative people and young people that may have gone skateboarding in the past.”¦There’s a really big aesthetic component to that culture of people.”
But as broad and diverse as the cycling scene may be, there’s one element that ties its adherents together, according to Barratt. “The big common denominator seems to be a sense of freedom to go wherever you want, whenever you want, without worrying about traffic or parking or any of that. There’s a sense of connection to the city and to the outdoors, of experiencing the city at a more human pace, where you can stop and talk to people.” He smiles, “One person said to me, ”˜There’s no such thing as bike rage.’ There might be road rage, but there’s no bike rage. It’s hard to be unhappy when you’re cycling.”