Just what is it that makes cycles and creatives natural bedfellows? Nick Carson makes tracks to find out when he chats to leading bike-head designers about their two-wheeled love affair.
Having inspired everything from global art shows and lovingly crafted magazines to artist-collaboration jerseys, bike culture has proved fertile ground for the design industry of late. Aesthetically, the undisputable beauty and elegance of these sleek machines translates well into illustration, but for many creative types it's the emotional experience of riding itself that seals the deal - and the affection runs deep.
"Bicycles are my passion as well as my poison. They consume my every sinew," enthuses John McFaul, founder of McFaul Studio and now a full-time freelancer, who wore his heart on his sleeve in 2010 with a fortnight of bike-themed events under the banner 'A Beautiful Machine', and worked with cyclewear brand Milltag on a jersey to pay homage to iconic Manchester club The Hacienda. "Cycling, for me, is cathartic," he goes on. "I need it. It's beautiful. I tell it everything. Those bikes of mine know it all, and the wind, too, knows far too many secrets."
Gavin Strange, senior designer at Aardman by day and freelancer by night, feels a similar affinity with his two-wheeled companion, and echoes McFaul's words: "It's easy to become obsessive about these beautifully simple machines," he admits. "There's just no feeling like it, especially riding the streets on a bike with no gears."
Strange's fascination - which recently spawned his own short film, BÃ¶ikzmÃ¶ind, exploring the thriving fixie scene in his native Bristol - began a couple of years ago when a friend showed him his new fixed-gear model. "It was baby blue with white bits, and that was it," he recalls. "No gears, no brakes, no cables. It was so minimal, the epitome of beautiful design."
John Coe, creative director of fellow Bristol-based bike culture magazine Boneshaker, couldn't agree more: "The minimalism of the modern fixie - the clean lines, the simple mixture of form and function - interests me as a designer," he says. "I guess we just love a well-made machine, be it a Mac or a beautiful Bianchi." Conceived over a pint and put together by a small team of creatives on top of their day jobs, Boneshaker is sold in over 70 art bookstores and independent bike shops.
"If you live somewhere with a bit of a bike scene, like London or Bristol, there's a buzz from the sense of belonging; being part of something DIY and a bit counter-cultural," he explains. "The new breed of cyclists see their bike as an extension of their personality. How many people can really say that about their car? Sure, some people might like to add pink wheels, or crazy shortened handlebars, but in essence, bikes are beautiful and you get a real sense of a person when you see their bike."
A whole magazine dedicated to cycling culture might seem niche, but Boneshaker is not alone: published by brothers Philip and Andrew Diprose, The Ride Journal targets both cycling enthusiasts and designers through a similar blend of independent bike shops and design-focused stores, such as Magma.
"We get a kick when 'non-riders' become consumed by the content of the magazine, or on the flip-side, when riders get into the photography and illustration," explains Andrew, who, as art director of UK Wired in his day job, brings his expertise to their labour of love. "Hopefully we've let non-cyclists see the passion that runs through all types of riding."
Fixed-gear bikes in particular have developed a distinctive 'scene' around them: "There's some snobbery from the hardcore riders towards the 'posers' though," confesses Brighton-based freelance illustrator Matt Taylor, whose clients include Adidas, Wired and The Ride. "But I guess that's true of any niche activity that gets a wider appeal, like skateboarding, graffiti or hip hop."
Taylor's new-found passion for fixed-gear riding soon started creeping into his work: "It was a downhill slide from there," he grins. "I think cycling illustrations now account for about a quarter of my work output." After he ran one such self-initiated piece past his contacts at The Ride, it soon developed into a series of four. "I was experimenting with a new style, and just had an itch to draw some bicycles," he recalls. "I really wanted to capture the slightly 'outsider' nature of cycle couriers, but to exaggerate it to the nth degree, so slightly longer hair and the odd tattoo here and there turns into a full-blown rock mullet, and head-to-toe tattoos."
Clearly some riders have as defined a 'look' as the bikes themselves, but true enthusiasts take it all with a generous pinch of salt: "Tight jeans, thick-rimmed glasses and tattoos are the stereotypes," observes Coe. "But to be honest, most people into the scene just like to ride. Get on your bike and see the world, and it's bound to filter back into what you create."
For Strange, the fixie aesthetic is best summed up with an expensive Italian bike with no brakes, its stylish rider covered in Sailor Jerry-style tattoos and being in a punk band. "I personally try to steer clear of that: it's all rubbish anyway," he chuckles. "Just as long as you have fun on your bike, what does it matter?"
Strange enjoys making light at the cliquey aspects of the culture in his work, most notably his recent 'Death Before Derailleur' piece. "It's a mock-propaganda poster, which uses the infamous Nazi eagle and replaces the Swastika for an Aerospoke front wheel," he explains. "It happens in all sub-cultures when they reach critical mass," he adds. "People in the scene get really defensive of their chosen love. "
Of course, there's much more to creative cycling culture than said fixie fetishists. Andrew Diprose identifies a broad cross-section of bike-obsessed designers: "New-school downhill bikers, Italian road bike fetishists, beat-up bike-polo kids and Brooks-obsessed vintage tourers," he reels off by way of example.
Many of these self-confessed bike-heads have owned cycles in some form for as far back as they can remember: "I lived through the rise of BMX culture in the 80s, where we built our own ramps and tracks," remembers Chris Thornley, AKA Raid71, and co-founder of Lancashire-based studio Source Creative.
Thornley contributed to a recent exhibition at London Transport Museum with an illustration called 'I Don't Want to Die in my Sleep'. "It was part of the launch of the London bike scheme: taking bikes out of their hobby status, and recognising them as a serious form of transport," he explains. "I tried to express the freedom that a bike gives you compared with other forms of transport: this sense of being alive, as opposed to being half-asleep on the tube."
Another piece, 'Wounded', was inspired by falling off a bike as a child and being hurt. "Everyone has that tale to tell, and with pride," he smiles. "Bike culture might have changed a lot since I was a boy, but the essence is the same. As a designer, it's a chance to express this sense of freedom, and tell a story."