Longer (and more grammatically correct) essays are posted here.


2 November 2012

You can’t really do that! This was the reply from a Danish friend after I pitched the idea of putting personal notes on bikes around Copenhagen. While the idea of noting nice bikes seemed reasonable, my initial suggestion to leave my phone number along with the compliment seemed way too foreign. Even though the first-cut idea didn’t gain much support, I was determined to rework it into reality. Copenhagen, the city of bicycles: the character that made my head turn just seemed all too commonplace to everyone else. How could I not point out the cultural value of the classic cruiser, or the hip-defining custom ride? So, I came up with a compromise. Leaving a tag on the bike was the key part of the effort, but instead of leaving my phone number on that tag I would put a note with the address of a blog that featured a photo of the liked bike. It sounded like a good idea to me.

I admit that the initial motivation for tagging bikes was to meet new people. I was in a new city, in the dark of Scandinavian winter, and I needed an outlet outside of work. I failed at the night scene. I froze sightseeing. I was surprised how much I loved blogging. Of course the “me” remained hidden, but I unexpectedly thrived on the public aspect. I was always on the lookout for my next post, and afterwards felt the positive pressure that the tag recipient was waiting for their world-wide-web fame. And, as any uncertain effort needs, the first tag garnered one of the best responses: “Thank you for the note. Instant respect from colleagues when we came out after work.” Woohoo! (I think I actually said that)

The effort evolved in two unexpected ways. First, I wasn’t meeting anyone and I no longer cared about that. Responses were usually from supportive friends, or my Mom. Rarely did the recipient reply, and only once did I actually meet the bike owner. However, the bike tagging gave me a unique way to engage in new surroundings. Surrounded by foreign language and lifestyle, and with little personal rooting to grow from, making my mark on this city and noting my steps through it had a sentimental (yet sincere) aspect of personal discovery. Second, I noticed bikes everywhere that I went.

The blog begins with my yellow 1979 Schwinn Sportabout. I bought this bike in Southern California from the original owner, and after a summer sporting through city traffic I put it in storage until it’s Danish debut. I Copenhagenized the local-looking cruiser with a basket and a wheel lock. While it wondered what happened to the beach and it rusted terribly in the snowy winter, the bike fit right in. I took to heart the bike’s trademark name, and made the sportabout (or walkabout) an almost weekly event. I took rides exploring Vesterbrø, Kødbyen, Sydhavn, the inner city, and the coastal edge of Østerbrø. There were some hot days where we went for ice cream in Kastellet, or by Nyhavn, for a sunshine-seeking lunch break at Sankt Hans Tov, and even a swim at Amager Strand. I would sometimes work or read at the canal-side Royal Library and go for vegetarian soup in Christiania. Group rides with friends after a night out, winding my way home through Nørrebrø, to Frederiksberg, or along the lakes. The bike basket was often full of groceries or a co-op bag of local vegetables, and sometimes a loaf of seedy bread or a Tebirkes pastry (the best ones from bakery Det Rene Brød). While I left, the yellow Schwinn is still sporting about in the city; I took home a Polaroid.

After my personal bike was previewed, I tagged a few side-street bikes, I solicited some bike photos from cycle-savvy friends, and then I went to visit my sister in Chicago: there were Schwinn bikes everywhere! (Leading me to feel clever by re-nicknaming it the Schwinndy city). My head was turning left and right on every corner, as I snapped a Traveler, a Super le tour, a Prelude, a Sprint, and more. Schwinn began in 1895 in Chicago, and branded itself into the bicycle boom. The bike blogging was gaining momentum but since I traveled so much from Copenhagen during my first year there I had to adapt the photographing and tagging concept to a log of travel-sighted bikes. There was Portland (Maine), Georgia, Nuuk (Greenland), Oxford (England), Hamburg (Germany), Antarctica, New Zealand, Australia, Salt Lake City (Utah), Seattle (Washington), France, Stockholm (Sweden), and the in-country bike trips to Bornholm and Møns Klint. Interlaced with plenty of Copenhagen bikes, this collection captured my life in these past years.

Now to the one and only person that I met through the blog. I passed by his distinct bike on my way home, but I was tired and I didn’t tag it. I negotiated with myself that next time I would take the shot. It took a few days to reappear, but I was ready when it was there. The reply was long and generous: “Dear Bikelover :-) Thanks a lot for the little note. The bike is an old Pedersen Bike. Mikael Pedersen made the design in 1894. In 1978, Jesper Sølling re-discovered the Pedersen design and began building frames in Christiania, after some years the production moved to Ebeltoft, and now the German has taken over the whole production. In Christiania Bikeshop you can still get the bikes. I bought my bike used it’s quite old, but runs very nice (and fast :). Keep up the good work, and if you’ll like to meet for a cup of coffee at Mokkeriet Jagtvej 123, near the place you took the picture, let me know, I work near by. Best regards Bo. You can read more about the bike at: http://www.pedersenbicycles.com”. We met for coffee and agreed that it wasn’t everyday you meet someone because of a bicycle, especially in the city of bikes. He was working on a concept called street rugs, where he made a rug out of a city photograph and then put the rug on the city street. “There just aren’t enough rugs on the street”, he pointed out emphatically. He knew a friend who made an art installation based on lone lost gloves that he found on the street; I had a similar idea at one point.

A good friend of mine who studies Art theory told me that this is participatory art – a new wave in the Art world. While I am not trying to be an artist, I saw this more as a perturbation. (She told me this is also an upcoming art-world activity.) I simply like perturbing my surroundings in small, positive, and unforeseen ways. The bike tags fit well with my passion for bikes, with my giving side, and with my need for constructive missions to engage directly in my surroundings. Another example was giving away home-baked cookies in exchange for questions. Or, following a weeklong course determined by the number 37. It is fun to solicit individual responses to something that no other individual would solicit. However, I found out that I am not bike tagging solo: http://www.yourbikeishot.com/ parallels with tags, but differs in output. Like the guy who actually picked up the gloves he saw on the street, I am sure there are other people photographing hearts and mailing inquiries… I am here, and ready to participate!