Monday, August 30, 2010


Thomas Eakins' John Biglin in a Single Scull, 1874, is a masterpiece. Our rower is placed directly in the middle of the canvas, body and boat forming the triangle so common in classic portraiture. The horizon meets his concentrated brow, and his arm and oar echo the equilateral triangle of man and vessel with an isosceles. Beyond Eakins' formal mastery, his efforts to render reflections are borne out wonderfully in this piece, about which Robert Hughes states, "...the arrowing interweave of reflections below the boat, containing the colors of the varnished hull, Biglin's white singlet, his skin, and his red sweat-bandanna, seem to have the beauty of undeniable fact-a fact, however, which we cannot test for ourselves, but induced to take on trust." American Visions, pg. 291.

Beyond the esthetics of this artwork, its subject matter is rowing, as with cycling, an act of self-propulsion. How many other modes of conveyance are there in which you are engine as well as freight? Skating, perhaps, but only if you're in the Netherlands and it's wintertime and the canals actually freeze over, which they have not done in the last ten years in any appreciable way (right, The Skater (Portrait of William Grant), Gilbert Stuart, 1782). Rollerblading is nice, though not in the winter, where cross-country skiing is great (The usefulness of skiing is to be seen in the awesome Finnish decimation of platoon after platoon of Russian invaders during WWII). But cross-country skiing is limited to winter, which only works for half the year in certain snowy countries. And so we are left with the bicycle, useful all year round.

One can never feel any sense of accomplishment in an automobile; when you go fast in a car, you're just a slob depressing the gas pedal, but in a scull, on a bike or on skis or skates, it's all you. And of that, you can feel super duper proud indeed.

Saturday, June 26, 2010

An African Experience

Bath Cycling Club Gazette

In the number of February 1911 of the journal named at the head of this note the following account initialled N.C.H. appeared:

An African Experience

"Now you quite understand, H? Captain X must have this before midnight. It's not safe to travel by daylight. Go at sunset. You had better take the machine - it's quieter than a horse. Travel light. Take a Mauser pistol instead of the rifle, you know the road and it's only twenty-seven miles. Be careful at Rhenoster Spruit. Good luck! You needn't hurry back."

Such were my instructions one evening just before sunset on the South African veldt.

The Boers had been making themselves unpleasant to a large convoy, and were now traveling back in small detached parties up the valley where we and several other troops were stationed. I had to take a message (and my chances!) to our next nearest post 27 miles off. The sun set at 7:30; fifteen minutes later out there it would be dark, but the moon was due up somewhere between ten and eleven, and I reckoned that if I left about 8 o'clock this would find me somewhere in the vicinity of Rhenoster Spruit, about eighteen miles on the way. This was a nasty spot, even in daylight, the banks on each side almost as steep as a house and on all sides thick bush and boulders.

Just after eight o'clock I pushed the machine (we had two of them in the troop - khaki-coloured Raleighs) over the veldt from our post to the main road, or track, down the valley - a faint streak by night, with waterworn wheel-ruts over two feet deep in places, patches of loose sand and stones which meant 'full stop' once you rode into them. The only safe way was to follow a native's foot track as it wound its way over the road, sometimes on the left, sometimes on the right. It was a by no means easy task in daytime, but ten times worse at night without a lamp, for I feared much under the circumstances to have a light - in fact, I knew it would be almost fatal to advertise my presence by its tell-tale glimmer. A whispered "So long" to the outpost on the roadside, and I was in the saddle, and soon swallowed up in the African night.

One's senses, if one loves the veldt and the mysterious indescribable vastness of "the wild", soon become acute and seeem to work independently of the brain. It was some such sense that suddenly pulled my thoughts back to my machine and the duty before me. I had covered about sixteen or seventeen miles and the time was just 10 o'clock. The night was still very dark (indeed, I had already had half-adozen spills, charging pot holes or boulders on the road), when I felt the unpleasant sensation, the first time since my initial lonely dispatch ride nearly four months previously, of wanting to look behind me.

Another half-mile, and I dismounted, listening with every sense at the highest tension. Not a sound. With the thoughts of Rhenoster Spruit in front of me, I carefully felt over the machine, gingerly pumped up the tyres, and after another minute's careful listening, with bated breath, got going again.

It could not have been more than a hundred and fifty yards from the actual spruit bottom when the moon sent her first ray of light over the tops of the Magalies berge, and saw me let the machine roll slowly over to the left while I flattened myself on the roadside. Once more that creepy feeling of wanting to look behind me, and a sensation of hair standing on end, assailed me, five, ten fifteen minutes went by, and I still could not bring myself to ride through those bushes and down the banks of the spruit. I did not know the condition of the banks above or below where the actual track crossed the spruit, and to swim was out of the question, as I had the machine. Another five minutes, and I decided to creep towards the bank downstream and look for a crossing. Working my way carefully in a diagonal direction, I was lucky to find a safe, but rocky crossing, within a few yards of the spot where I had struck the spruit.

A loose stone and a stumble caused me a wetting up to the waist. One counts a wet shirt but little when dispatch riding, however, and I was soon clambering up among the bushes of the steep bank and working my way towards the track again, and within a quarter-of-an-hour of my wetting was once more pedalling towards my goal, laughing to think how superstitious I had been to funk the proper ford.

Twenty yards - perhaps fifty - had been covered, when the sudden double report of a Mauser rifle made me almost leap out of the saddle, and a faint, ghostly flake of white on the track a little ahead of me shewed where a bullet had struck. I made a hasty dive for the first cover I could find, swore at the moonlight, and then looked back.

It was difficult to locate the exact spot from where the firing came, but I had little doubt the position had been chosen to cover the ford.
After firing a couple of clips full of cartridges from the Mauser pistol at what I thought would be the position of the ford, I mounted as fast as I could and cleared. A few more shots shewed that I was seen, but the bullets must have been very wide, for I did not even hear them sing anywhere near me.

There is little more to tell. My front tyre had a bad burst when camp was reached, and from the look of the rim I must have done half the remaining distance with the tyre flat, but I had no recollection of it. A patrol party next morning found the footprints and cartridge cases of at least three Boers in a snug corner commanding both slopes down to the Spruit. I'm thankful now that I cycled instead of taking a horse, and I'm also very glad that my hair did stand on end before I attempted to cross that spruit the usual way!"

N.C.H. stand for Major Noel Cambridge Harbutt whose obituary appeared in the Bath Weekly Chronicle & Herald on 5 November 1949. In the South African War he served with the Somserset Light Infantry and later with the S.A. Constabulary under Baden-Powell. He was the son of the inventor of plasticine and chairman at the time of his death of Harbutt's Plasticine Ltd., Bathampton. With these interesting notes as a gift to the Africana Musuem came two albums about the S.A. Constabulary with private photographs by Major Harbutt who was an A.R.P.S. There was also a felt hat of the S.A.C. very similar to that used by the Boy Scouts.


Wednesday, December 30, 2009


There seems to me something entirely genteel about the measured descent of the hand from the bars on down to the downtube to shift. There's also a certain grace in the mastery of friction shifting: no loud clacks from the shifter, no annoying click-click-click of the derailleur trying to change gears when the cable tension is off. It's all fluidity, sheer fluid articulation. True, they're probably not good for high-level racing, but I don't race anymore, so that's all by the way.

Beyond the skill and grace of well-executed friction shifting, be it bar-end or downtube shifters, one of its benefits is that it discourages overshifting. When settling into a time trial, one might shift around a bit, looking for the right gear for the day, and unless there're hills involved, there's no need to shift much after that. Efforts should go instead into finding the right rhythm, into finding a quiet place and just keeping the pedals turning over, no matter how much the stomach is cramping or how much the legs burn. And most certainly no-one needs ten cogs in back to do it. 'Sides, a real powerhouse has a 48-44 up front with a six speed (12-20) in the back.

And as regards mountain biking, one cannot ignore the excellence of topmounts. RapidFire works fine, but it's a woeful mechanism to service, that is, it is from a design perspective nowhere near as simple and efficient as thumb shifters. Nor is GripShift. I have two impressions of GripShift: being annoyed whenever I had to change the cable on a customer's bike, and that I would never want my hand directly next to the shifter like that. Thank gods I still have a pair of SunTour XC Pros, XC Experts and Deore DX in my bag of components.

The thing is, since I'm (again) the only one amongst my riding friends who rides friction, I have noticed something about their shifting. Oftentimes, when shifting with Ergo or STI, its abruptness leaves the rider either pedaling too fast for a second or having to get out of the saddle for a second. But with friction, since you cannot shift that lightning-fast, you have a short, meditative moment in which you anticipate the shift, and adjust your cadence accordingly. When done right, you can execute an overall graceful ride.

The good news is, Rivendell has refabbed the SunTour retrofriction mechanism in their Silver shifters, and they are a fine, handsome shifter indeed. The downtube or barcon shifter is, in summary, esthetically pleasing from a mechanical as well as a ride-composition (grace) point of view.

Image: Le monde de Daniel Rebour, 1950-1976

Saturday, December 12, 2009


Toulouse-Lautrec, Bonnard, Vallotton, Pissarro, Vuillard, Daumier all managed to escape the onslaught of modernism unscathed. Others such as Rodchenko, Malevich, and El Lissitzky, all Soviets, seemed to maneuver rather well through modernity's increasingly complex and daunting landscape. And where architects such as Le Corbusier and later, Frank Gehry, failed horribly - Le Corbusier, through his anti-humanism, Gehry, through his vapid reliance on stock forms - some Soviet architects of the Stalinist school seemed to create a beautiful melding of modern and classical. Obviously, to anyone with an ounce of humanity, the name Stalin should wrench the gut in orgasms of disgust, yet when one casts an esthetic glance at the Kino International, the Kosmos Kino, the Palac Kultury i Nauki in Warsaw, one cannot help but feel that an opportunity was lost, an opportunity to create something beautiful out of this cacophony of industry, with Art Déco's affirmation of the new and Neo-Classicism's embrace of the tried-and-true. The Karl-Marx-Allee is one such accomplishment.

The Kosmos Kino is located on the Karl-Marx-Allee, and I made sure to walk by it every day when I stayed in Berlin for a time. It's nothing special, but there is a certain charm about it. It doesn't exude the positively maroon communism of the Kino International (right), it just sits there one-storily, a fixture on one of the greatest feats of urban planning in the twentieth century. Whatever else may have come out of International Communism, Stalinist structures in Riga, Warsaw, Moscow, and Berlin all put Le Corbusier's projects in Manhattan to shame, and somehow, just somehow, they find a place next to the bicycle as one of the only worthwhile products of the Industrial Revolution.

Thursday, August 06, 2009


"For cyclists of another category the Cape Town Municipality now constructed, at the junction of the Main and Portswood Roads, the Green Point Cycle Track, which was opened in October, 1897. A stone's throw away, near Boundary Road, there lived a young Green Point man, then in his twenties, whose spare time was given over almost entirely to cycling. This was Jack Rose, and no story of cycling in South Africa would be complete without reference to the World Amateur Record set up by Jack Rose at the Green Point Cycle Track in 1899, when he covered just under 30 miles in one hour. In 1900 he improved on this record by covering over 30 miles. This, it is believed, was the fastest speed hitherto attained on land other than by a locomotive. Shortly after achieving his record Jack Rose - Col. J.G. Rose, as he is known today - was caught up in the Boer War and, enthusiastic cyclist that he was, he formed the Cape Colony Cyclist Corps. In the First World War, after serving in South West Africa and on General Smuts' staff in East Africa, he was awarded the D.S.O. and the Croix de Guerre. In the Second World War, once again on General Smuts' staff, he was largely responsible for the organization of Transport during the South African campaigns 'up North'." Marischal Murray, Under Lion's Head, pg. 81.

Thursday, May 21, 2009

This is one of the absolute best pieces of bicycle poster art I've yet come across. You have to be a true hardman to cross - no wonder the Flemings dominate the field without ruth. Eric de Vlaeminck, Roger de Vlaeminck, Sven Nys, moet ik er meer zeggen?

Saturday, March 07, 2009

John Olsen, The Bicycle Boys Rejoice

In a certain sense, one can mark the beginning of the end of Euro-Australian painting's provincialism with the Whitechapel Art Gallery's exhibition, "Recent Australian Painting", June-July 1961. While this exhibition lacked the art-historical importance of, say, the 1925 Exhibition Internationale des Arts Décoratif et Industriels Modernes, it was a solid beginning. The introduction to the exhibition's catalog was written by the then semi-famous Robert Hughes, with a foreword by Sir Kenneth Clark.

Among the better-known Australian painters is John Olsen. His painting, The Bicycle Boys Rejoice, seems fitting for Esthetecyclist. Unfortunately, the painting's whereabouts are now unclear, and the best image I could get was a scan of the black and white reproduction. Here's what Robert Hughes wrote about it in his 1970 masterpiece, The Art of Australia, pg.262:

"He had his first exhibition in 1955, and his first significant paintings, the Bicycle Boys, were painted a few months later. In these half-lyrical, half-ironical paintings of racing cyclists, several later trends in Olsen's work appear for the first time. The gawky angular gestures may be a legacy from Passmore [his mentor], but the spidery line, which rambles and jerks across a gay surface of ochre and white, has an immediacy and wit foreign to Passmore's work: this is the beginning of Olsen's linearism. (Do these puppets, perched on their rickety wire mounts, have some ironic reference to that favourite hero-image of the Renaissance, the equestrian figure?) The forms are written on to the canvas, almost cursively - a breakaway from Olsen's Cézannist training under Passmore. Figure and machine, imbued with life by the action of this nervous line, are united in one metamorphic image."

Indeed, unity of figure and machine.

Image: Robert Hughes, The Art of Australia

Thursday, March 05, 2009

Il Campionissimo

A right thigh to make Michelangelo weep. Or Eddy. Not that Eddy's crying. He's not; he's just been burying the peloton seventeen minutes behind him and he's feeling a bit knackered, is all.

Thursday, January 01, 2009

Classical Modernism

Antique Greek sculpture, with its disturbing polished surface and equiproportial musculature is reflected in the simple, deep marble legs of this track racer. Formally speaking, the juxtaposition of two diagonals (legs, bicycles - locker, chairs, borders, helper) that his outstretched legs achieve makes us happy. Hopper is known for his unidealogical paintings, so one tries to avoid reading his works too symbolically. That said, it is probably no accident that the legs and machines are alone together in the direction they point. There he sits, centered at the intersection of diagonals, the man about to prove his mettle.

Friday, September 05, 2008

The Parliamentary Chamber

The constitutional monarchy as it has grown for seven hundred years in Great Britain has given us one of the greatest achievements of simple design, the parliamentary chamber. It is simple: 180º of a circle set against the width of a rectangle. An early, and for America politically important realization of this is the House of Burgesses in Virginia (above), first convened in 1619. It is functional simplicity combined with an above all dutiful reverence for the job to be carried out; despite a penchant for such idiotic pastimes as the fox hunt or finding blue blood in their families, Virginia's gentry have traditionally done a more honorable job in governing than their counterparts in the House of Lords.

Sunday, August 17, 2008


"For of course I am completely an elitist, in the cultural but emphatically not the social sense. I prefer the good to the bad, the articulate to the mumbling, the esthetically developed to the merely primitive, and full to partial consciousness. I love the spectacle of skill, whether it's an expert gardener at work, or a good carpenter chopping dovetails, or someone tying a Bimini hitch that won't slip. I don't think stupid or ill-read people are as good to be with as wise and fully literate ones. I would rather watch a great tennis player than a mediocre one, unless the latter is a friend or a relative. Consequently, most of the human race doesn't matter much to me, outside the normal and necessary frame of courtesy and the obligation to respect human rights. I see no reason to squirm around apologizing for this. ... I hate populist kitsch, no matter how much the demos loves it. To me, it is a form of manufactured tyranny." Robert Hughes, Things I Didn't Learn, pg. 31.

My concurrence with Hughesie's statement is so utterly total, that I feel imboldened to discuss two aspects of the cycling life that have everything to do with skill: bottom brackets and rigid mountain bikes.

Daniel Rebour's drawing above shows the insides of an old style bottom bracket. When I first began wrenching in a bike shop, cartridge bottom brackets were still relatively new. Nowadays they're par for the course, and admittedly they're pretty damn good for the price. But there is something a bit vulgar about them, about their disposability, for you could always service old-school bb's for a long time, and about their ease of installation. Old style bottom brackets required skill. One had to be able to overhaul them properly, lovingly wiping out all the nasty old grease, replacing the ball bearings, checking the cups and cones for pits. Then came the skill of the proper adjustment, finding that sweet spot, to say nothing of being able to get an Italian-thread fixed cup to keep its adjustment. And beyond the skill involved, who doesn't miss the old SunTour greaseguard bb's? Butter, sheer butter.

Now, allow me to veer away from matters mechanical, and on to issues of technical skill. The suspension fork, while totally here to stay and used by many of my very fast friends whom I respect, is a bit lame. The grace and years of muscle memory that a well-executed singletrack ride on a rigid bike display put to shame any ride on a comparable front suspension bike. Full suspension is even worse, unless you're really doing hardcore slalom races. Learning to let the bike roll, letting go, carving through the corners, and swooping in on drops you'd normally not dream of, these are the abilities of the true cycling elitist.

Image: Le monde de Daniel Rebour, 1950-1976

Saturday, August 16, 2008

Feininger und die Erfindung des Rads

Lyonel Feininger was obsessed with trains and other contraptions of the late nineteenth and early twentieth-centuries. It is no wonder then that he made this cubist painting of bicycles. The bicycle is, after all, a nineteenth-century design. What is more, it is a nineteenth-century design which is scarcely made better by contemporary technologies. Carbon-fiber might well feel like a dream, but it's unpleasant on the eye, and it doesn't wear well. V-brakes, once the object of so much cranky mechanic-derision, are a wonder of simplicity and power (and very little change in canti design), whilst disc brakes are just silly. Otherwise, it's all just little tinkering here and there: gimmicks on the shifters, the revelation of the splined-drive crank (wonderful, but not a fundamental change), and rapid-rise. The bicycle is, in fact, unimprovable.

Saturday, August 02, 2008

Australian Painting

"The sudden appearance of an Australian school of painting is one of these blessed events which help free the arts from the grip of historical determinism. We now take it almost for granted. But less then fifteen years ago, when I told my friends in England that Australia was about to add something entirely fresh to contemporary painting, they thought I was out of my mind. And when they asked me to account for it, of course I couldn't. I could only mumble something about the light, and the dead white trees and the feeling of an Australian myth.

Unlike other remote landscapes in the new worlds, Australia makes one want to paint. But what a long time it took before anyone could paint it as it is, and not like an aerated Daubigny. There are some beautiful green valleys in Australia, but they don't go far; and as long as they were the subject of Australian painting, it didn't go far either. But when painters began to look at the harsh, lonely, inhospitable substance of their country, they could relate it to the heroic qualities of their people. The heroes of the sagas and ancient epics are harsher, more cunning and less sentimental than the heroes of the Westerns; and the un-glossy Western of Australian history became a myth while some of the survivors were still alive. So in Australian landscape painting, as in all great landscape painting, the scenery is not painted for its own sake, but as the background of a legend and a reflection of human values." Kenneth Clark, foreword, Recent Australian Painting, Whitechapel Gallery, London, June-July 1961. Funny then, that it took Westerners till '61 to figure out how to paint the country, and that 38,000 years before man set foot in North America, and 48,000 years before European man seemed human, Aborigines moved into terra australis and introduced their own truly unique painterly works.

Thursday, May 01, 2008

A Football Match at Rondebosch

Otto Landsberg painted this quaint scene of South African rugby footballers in 1860, and its nineteenth-century flavor in dress and manner have a certain appeal. Just as in the early days of baseball and cycling, their athletic kit is both functional and handsome.

This scrum seems also a good starting point to quote the great polymath Joseph Bronowski, a man lauded by the likes of that most wonderful of thinkers, Carl Sagan:

"Every human action goes back in some part to our animal origins; we should be cold and lonely creatures if we were cut off from that blood-stream of life. ... Yet such differences [between man and the other animals] are secondary by comparison with the overriding difference, which is that the athlete is an adult whose behaviour is not driven by his immediate environment, as animal actions are. In themselves, his actions make no practical sense at all; they are an exercise that is not directed to the present. The athlete's mind is fixed ahead of him, building up his skill; and he vaults his imagination into the future." The Ascent of Man, pg. 36.

Image: Alexander, Lucy & Evelyn Cohen, 150 South African Paintings

Sunday, April 27, 2008

Draperie Mouillée

This is known in classical sculpture as the "draped nude". In the words of Kenneth Clark: "This device was used from archaic times onward, the earliest sculptors seeming to recognize how drapery may render a form both more mysterious and more comprehensible. The section of a limb as it swells and subsides may be delineated precisely or left to the imagination; parts of the body that are plastically satisfying can be emphasized, those less interesting can be concealed; and awkward transitions can be made smooth by the flow of line." The Nude, pg. 119.

Friday, April 25, 2008

Poster Art II

The penny-farthing's almost risibly large front wheel embodies the essence of bicycle racing, for the only way to make the bicycle any faster was to enlarge the front wheel. Even way back in the olden days cyclers were hot to outpace one another.

Thursday, April 24, 2008

Hughesie Does Away with Koons et alii

"For nearly a quarter of a century, late-modernist art teaching (especially in America) has increasingly succumbed to the fiction that the values of the so-called academy - meaning, in essence, the transmission of disciplined skills based on drawing from the live model and the natural motif - were hostile to 'creativity'. This fiction enabled Americans to ignore the inconvenient fact that virtually all artists who created and extended the modernist enterprise between 1890 and 1950, Beckmann no less than Picasso, Miró and de Kooning as well as Degas and Matisse, were formed by the atelier system and could no more have done without the particular skills it inculcated than an aircraft can fly without an airstrip. The philosophical beauty of Mondrian's squares and grids begins with the empirical beauty of his apple trees. Whereas thanks to America's tedious obsession with the therapeutic, its art schools in the 1960s and 1970s tended to become crèches, whose aim was less to transmit the difficult skills of painting and sculpture than to produce 'fulfilled' personalities. At this no one could fail." Nothing If Not Critical, intro.

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

The Corinthian Helmet

Kenneth Clarke says, "If one wants a symbol of Atlantic man, as opposed to Mediterranean man, a symbol to set against the Greek temple, then it must be the Viking ship. The Greek temple is solid, static, crystalline. The Viking ship is light, mobile, bouyant, floating like a water lily." To this I would add the revelation of the Corinthian helmet, such an elegant expression of form and function. Few of the products of modern-day homo artifex achieve the same beautiful functionality, execpt for the bicycle.

Friday, April 18, 2008

Die große Ekstase des Bildschnitzers Steiner

Of all the sports films out there, Werner Herzog's Die große Ekstase des Bildschnitzers Steiner (The Great Ecstasy of the Woodcarver Steiner) is one of the best. Only the cycling films of Jørgen Leth exceed it, and Ken Burns' Baseball comes in a close second, though his style is too different, too documentarian to bare comparison with Herzog's work. Leth and Herzog are far more poetic in the truths they seek to illuminate, whilst Burns is the master of the textured and well-spun yarn.

Beyond its cinematic virtues, its subject matter is in utter harmony with Esthetecyclist: an athlete who loves his sport, a sculptor who loves his craft ~ an athlete-esthete. And the coolest thing is, Steiner now lives in Sweden and works as a gardener. C'est parfait, ça!

Thursday, April 17, 2008


Ancient Greek athletics comprised most of what we see in modern Track & Field. All of the disciplines represented there grew out of martial necessity; indeed, what else could the javelin, shot put, discus and hammer throw be for besides the decimation of one's enemy? Of course, running hurdles and pole vaulting have everything to do with the dodgy business of negotiating the rocky terrain of Greece, and running, well, in a time when modes of conveyance were rather limited, running has its own rather obvious merits. And finally, boxing and wrestling have obvious battle origins (pankration was a combination of the two whose only rules were no gouging and no biting - a common opening move was to break your opponent's finger).

In reflecting on the athletic life of the ancient Greeks, what is so striking is that they even pursued an athletic life at all. Athletics as we know them now started as early twentieth century novelties. True, games were played - baseball, cricket, la crosse, tennis - but the single-minded pursuit of athletic perfection was relatively unknown until about a hundred years ago. The Greeks, however, were passionate about physical as well as mental perfection. Their training was totally organic, to be sure, in the buff ~ lifting heavy stones in fluid arcs that engage all the muscles, sprinting, wrestling. There seemed no break in the continuum of athletic cultivation and the exigencies of daily life. One was abstracted from the other, and one served to maintain the other. According to Socrates: "No citizen has any right to be an amateur in the matter of physical training. It is part of his profession as a citizen to keep himself in good condition, ready to serve the state at a moment's notice. The instinct of self-preservation demands it likewise: for how helpless is the state of the ill-trained youth in war or danger! Finally, what a disgrace it is for a man to grow old without ever seeing the beauty and the strength of which his body is capable!" [italics mine].

And so it ultimately is with cycling. The bicycle is, as far as modes of conveyance are concerned, imperfectible; its basic design hasn't changed in 130 years. Practically speaking, it is the best way of getting from one place to another, and athletically speaking, it is unsurpassed in its manifold physical benefits. And if you take Socrates' admonition to heart, you realize that it is, in a certain sense, every person's duty to contribute to society at large, and by giving up your car and using a bicycle, you are doing just that. Noise and air pollution are reduced, and the landscape is beautified with the very presence of a human being in athletic form. I can think of no better contribution in this day and age.

Tuesday, April 15, 2008

The Tintoretto of Kansas City

"The scheme of his bulging figures - usually worked out in advance through three-dimensional clay models - was based on the linea serpentinata, the twisting line, of sixteenth-century Mannerism. From Michelangelo, and from other Mannerist sources like Luca Cambiaso's block figures and El Greco's posturing saints, Benton assembled a kind of "kinetic" composition in which nothing is at rest, everything strains and heaves against everything else. This incessant surge and flow would have large effects on his pupil, Jackson Pollack, but in Benton's own paintings it mainly produced rhetoric. His ideas about "bulge and hollow", the rhythmical distortion of bone and muscular structure, made his human figures look strangely overdetermined, like lanky dummies with cartoon faces. Benton's trains lean forward like Walt Disney's as they steam along; the very clouds in his landscapes flex their biceps." Robert Hughes, American Visions, p. 444-5.

"He was trying to be, as it were, Tintoretto in Kansas. He was using 16th, 17th century strategies for a 20th century country, and using the dynamisms of high art in order to present a common message to common people. The distance was, I think, too great." Arthur Danto, Ken Burns Thomas Hart Benton.

"To me, there isn't any energy in those paintings of America today. It's a kind of cartoon version of what America was at that time. I remember something of what American city life was like in the Thirties, it bore absolutely no relation to Benton's vision of it." Hilton Kramer, Ken Burns Thomas Hart Benton

"Well, that's pure kitsch. Persephone is pure kitsch. I mean, it's like the girly pictures that used to appear in Esquire of an earlier period. That certainly has to be one of his very worst paintings." Hilton Kramer, Ken Burns Thomas Hart Benton.

"Persephone. Persephone is just a glorious and wonderful painting. She's one of the great works of American pornography. She invites you to have all sorts of emotions in front of her that you're not supposed to have in front of works of art, and that denies you the ability to fulfill. It's just a kind of great experience to walk into some stuffy old art gallery and all of a sudden come into contact with that lady. Besides which, there's this wonderful old lech peering around the corner at her." Karal Ann Marling, Ken Burns Thomas Hart Benton.

"I think his autobiography is a really splendidly written memoir, and what I particularly admire about it are these very short, tough sentences. I mean, every sentence is really like a kind of bullseye. I think that Benton really, you know, missed his vocation. He should have been a writer rather than a painter." Hilton Kramer, Ken Burns Thomas Hart Benton.

Monday, April 14, 2008


In the Europe of the Middle Ages the image of the wheel of fortune was favored by illuminators of manuscripts, for it expressed so perfectly the principle of being at the hub of experience. On the rim of the wheel, depending on where you are attached, you are either enjoying fortune, going down, being in misfortune, or coming up, but at the hub, you are still. In modern America, where we are constantly pursuing some goal or seeking more comfort, one sees with shocking clarity that the majority of us are attached to the rim of the wheel. The hub is where it's at.

This clever medieval metaphor of course leads me to bicycle hubs. There's so much to like in a bicycle hub. They're shiny and happily shaped ~ well-designed. True, trying to order a cone and dust cap is oftentimes nigh on impossible, and amid cries for standardization, the resuscitation of an otherwise perfectly fine, older hub is deemed impracticable. Woeful? Yes. But still, once in a while, a nice pair of hubs are rescued and built up. While the flanges of a brand-new hub are oh-so pretty and shiny and one feels a tinge of regret when first lacing them up, lacing over already-dented flanges and seeing a fine wheel come out of it brings a satisfaction of its own. The bitchinest beater wheels in the world are made this way.

Image: Le monde de Daniel Rebour, 1950-1976

Sunday, April 13, 2008

Poster Art Vyf

Here in Minneapolis we have one velodrome, which is ever on the verge of being closed. In the Bay Area, where I will shortly be moving to, there is one velodrome in San Jose. But in Melbourne, Australia, there are seven! Seven bloody velodromes! When I finish this Ph.D., I'm looking for jobs in Victoria.

Tuesday, April 08, 2008

Wheels I

The bicycle wheel is in and of itself a wonderful thing. Beyond the marvel of skill, of which the properly-built wheel is a manifestation, the wheel is a circle, the symbolic importance of which is well-known to all students of psychology, religion, and art. Carl Jung says: "The most powerful religious symbol is the circle. It is one of the great primordial images of mankind. In considering the symbol of the circle, we are analyzing the self."

Though it seems retrograde and contrarian, the esthetic pleasure of a chrome, narrow-guage hub laced onto a chrome rim with chrome spokes is one of the beauties of the bicycle. Their formal realization and glistening polish warm the cockles of my cycling heart.

Beyond the handsomeness of a shiny wheel, the 32-spoke wheel is formally perfect. Any experienced mechanic can lift one up and tell right away how many spokes there are. How? The symmetry of the parallel spokes going up and down - spoke pairs on a 36-spoke wheel have more the shape of a peace symbol.

I enjoy these wheels so much that I recently built up some mid-90's Deore DX hubs as my mountain bike wheels. Not only was the overhauling of the hubs themselves a pleasure (I have, of course, as a mechanic, overhauled countless hubs that have given me no pleasure at all; but then again, they weren't mine.), but building my own wheels myself is tremendously rewarding. Every cyclist should build his own set of wheels at least once. There is a connective meditation that takes place when you lace it up, and besides, you haven't lived until you've tried rounding a wheel during a build.


Monday, April 07, 2008

Wheels II

Australian Aboriginal art is almost entirely lacking the "sophistication" of modern art, being as it is essentially spiritual, as all art used to be. To some, this may seem either troglodytic or totally lacking any higher basis. I would beg to differ. "But in either case it would certainly seem that when an essentially cerebral emphasis preponderates in the schooling of the young, as it does in our highly literate society, an alarming incidence of serious failure is to be expected in the difficult passage of the critical threshold from the system of sentiments proper to infancy to that of the responsibilities of the hour-and that, consequently, any attempt to interpret the symbolism of archaic man on the basis of contemporary thought and feeling must be extremely dangerous." Joseph Campbell, The Masks of God: Primitive Mythology, pg. 92.

From: Crumlin, Rosemary & Anthony Knight, Aboriginal Art and Spirituality

Sunday, April 06, 2008


"Energy is eternal delight; and from the earliest times human beings have tried to imprison it in some durable hieroglyphic. It is perhaps the first of all the subjects of art. But the astonishing representations of energy in prehistoric painting are concerned with animals. There are no men on the walls at Altamira, only a few wretched puppets at Lascaux; and even on such evolved works as the Vaphio cups the men are insignificant compared to the stupendous bulls. These early artists considered the human body, that forked radish, that defenseless starfish, a poor vehicle for the expression of energy, compared to the muscle-rippling bull and the streamlined antelope. Once more it was the Greeks, by their idealization of
man, who turned the human body into an incarnation of energy, to us the most satisfying of all, for although it can never attain the uninhibited physical flow of the animal, its movements concern us more closely. Through art we can relive them in our own bodies, and achieve thereby that enhanced vitality which all thinkers on art, from Goethe to Berenson, have recognized as one of the chief sources of aesthetic pleasure." Kenneth Clark, The Nude, pg. 233.

Thursday, April 03, 2008

Contre la montre

In cycling you are humbled, grounded in your surroundings, pushed to physical limits, and given a clean canvas to create on. Graceful shifting, well-chosen lines, and smooth pedaling all bring you in accord with the world. It is a civilizing act. As Jørgen Leth says about Ole Ritter in Stjernerne og vandbærerne: "Here there is only the man and his machine. Here strength, psyche, and style are expressed in the most simple way. ... Yes, he knows himself. He is no machine. He is absorbed in his race as if it were a work of art. ... And he knows the feeling of euphoria, when the wheels start humming, when limits and contours are erased and the fluid thrust is just right. Energy. But, above all, energy under control, the allocation of energy. The ribbon of flat road. The afternoon sun. The front wheel. Hands. Stomach. Breathing. The maximum. ... He is totally involved in a marvelous, integrated effort. ... Just like in a dream. This fluid, gliding thrust of the revolutions equating time and distance. Exertion released from the force of gravity. Energy like a classic symbol. Pain as an icon. A professional's generosity. His evaluation of his own powers. His concept of honor. His sense of duty. His experience. The calculated risks. The significance of the individual effort in a larger perspective. But also the sense of well-being when the machine runs smoothly for the man. When all calculations merge into the ultimate exertion."

And there is no civilization without an outpouring of constructive energy.

Tuesday, April 01, 2008

Bicycle Racing

There are roughly 190 countries in the world, and in the majority of them, soccer is king. Baseball and Football rule in America, Cricket rules in India, Pakistan, and the West Indies, and Australia, New Zealand and South Africa are all co-addicted to both Cricket and Rugby. But in Belgium, yes, in Belgium, Bicycle Racing is Imperator Cæsar.

Europeans wax eloquent about Soccer's philosophical underpinnings, Baseball fans go headlong into historical analyses, and Cricket fans will do a bit of both, and we Cycling fans? Well, we have a few points of our own.

Beyond consisting of arguably the hands-down hardest-working athletes out there, in its essence cycle racing is totally organic. By that I mean: it is only natural to go fast on a bike. Its entire raison d'être is to propel someone faster than walking-speed. From this comes the propensity to go ever faster, and what is more natural than to give your riding buddy "the look", and either pour it on each other or sprint to the street sign?

Some sports are contrived (I don't mean that in the pejorative sense at all), and are limited in where they can be played: only baseball and cycling can be done just about anywhere, as long as you have the wherewithal. No matter how much derny exhaust goes in your face.

Monday, March 31, 2008


According to Joyce, epiphany is when one views an artwork and sees the whole, in which, through the relationship of part to part, parts to whole, whole to frame, a fortunate rhythm is struck, and the beholder says "Ah." This happens in cycling too, and not only on special or exceptional rides.

The composition of such a ride (work of art) is itself a whole of relationships, part to part, parts to whole, the rhythm, the rhythm, the rhythm. Sometimes the fluid thrust is just right, and one soars almost effortlessly. This lack of visible effort is one of the elements of gracefulness. Graceful transitions in art, the meeting of torso and hips in sculpture, for example, exist in cycling too. Carrying oneself through a corner, knowing when to quit pedaling and to lay it over, gently carving through, and then unnoticeably sending the right amount of energy into the pedals again, is grace in resumption, in motion.

Equally important is the well-timed shift that allows power to be sublimated, to be beautified. Not here the raw violence of sheer power, but rather the divinity of power under control, harnessed into something beyond the everyday. In this the rider is the deity, the cycle the vessel.

Above all, the well-chosen line is, as in the fine arts, the sign of mastery. Simply doing something so integral so competently brings a welling-up of satisfaction. In some way, the line seems to reveal itself. Like most discoveries, it's a matter of seeing that which is right in front of your face.

On such happy (and here I mean happy in the eighteenth century sense) rides, everything contributes to a whole, harmonic articulation ~ the fluid thrust, the corners, the shifting, the line. Rides like these usually result in ecstatic laughter or blissful exhaustion.