Here at the Bike Alliance, we tend to focus on political and policy issues and leave the aesthetics of cycling to others.
That’s only natural. We’re a cycling advocacy organization, not an artists’ collective or small-scale bike frame builder. And with the legislature in session and our own strategic-planning summit in the offing, it’s important to focus on the basics.
But in the midst of this work it is nice to take a few minutes occasionally to remember that cycling can be a beautiful thing.
Take the machine itself: it’s spare, light and efficient—in fact, the most efficient means of human locomotion ever invented. And like a suspension bridge, a bicycle is beautiful in that special way that happens only when form gracefully follows function.
There’s also an aesthetic pleasure in riding a bicycle, which can bring the same sense of fluid motion that you get when skiing or swimming.
There can even be a gracefulness that’s evident when watching others cycle—especially when seen through the lens of an artist.
Which brings me to Ed van der Elsken, a 20th-Century Dutch photographer and filmmaker whose work I recently discovered via the Dutch Amsterdamize blog.
Born in Amsterdam in 1925, van der Elsken initially aspired to be a sculptor, but had to abandon his studies during World War II when the Nazis occupied his country. He later became interested in photography and moved to Paris, returning to his native Netherlands in 1955. He became one of the most influential Dutch photographers of the postwar era, capturing every aspect of life in Amsterdam in photos and movies. One of those aspects was, perhaps inevitably, Amsterdam’s ubiquitous bicycles.
Today there’s a plethora of websites and YouTube videos that visually celebrate cycling. But for me a short van der Elsken movie from 1965 captures the aesthetics of bicycling better than anything made for the Internet. Titled simply “Fietsen” (bicycling), the film captures an era, but is also timeless. Here it is: