Bike Activists "A life without bicycle is possible, but senseless"

Julia (29), Flo (26), Karl (29) | © Clara Migsch
Julia (29), Flo (26), Karl (29) | Photo (montage): © Clara Migsch

They build cargo bikes, come together into a “critical mass” at bike demonstrations and run bike self-help workshops: for bike activist, bicycles serve not only as a means of locomotion; they are also a political statement and a symbol of a self-determined life. If a few years ago the autonomist bike scene was still a sub-cultural phenomenon, its ideas and demands have now arrived in the centre of society. In interviews, three long-standing representatives of the scene give insights into bike life.

Flo, 26, co-founder of a cargo bike collective

Five years ago I still knew practically everyone who, in addition to me, went by bike in the winter. Now bike-riding is steadily increasing in the general population. The boundaries between people who simply take the bike to work, and bike nerds who are constantly tinkering on their machines, are blurring more and more. Excessive bike riding is on the way from being a subculture to being part of the general culture.

I’m not a slow driver and I don’t want to get stuck in a traffic jam. Bike riding is a political statement for me because it makes me extremely independent: I’m mobile, can stop anywhere and take care of my bike myself. I’m a co-founder of a cargo bike collective, where you can borrow cargo bikes for a free donation for transport purposes. The bikes can carry up to 100 kilos in addition to the rider. But I wouldn’t recommend completely moving house with cargo bikes unless you have a large circle of friends.

Once a year the so-called “Cyclocamp” takes place – a Europe-wide meeting for bike self-help workshops. These are non-profit workshops that, also for a free donation, provide equipment and know-how.

The goal is to give low-threshold access to everybody.

Julia, 29, landscape architect

At the beginning it was a small, motivated core group that inspired insanely many bike projects – whether Critical Mass, Bike Kitchen or cargo bike collectives. Now many new people have joined the movement and are carrying it on. The scene has become bigger and more complex.

In my flat share we all go by bike. It often happens that people come in and think the flat is a bike garage because so many bikes are hanging in the hallway. I have myself five. The apple of my eye is an old racing bike. It has a steel frame with a beautiful geometry and was the first bike I assembled myself. When I started cycling in the city in my early twenties, it was an absolute liberation. With a bike I’m always mobile and self-determined – whether it’s two in the afternoon or four in the morning. I think that’s a lot of freedom.

I particularly want to pass on this feeling of independence and joy. I therefore actively support bike self-help services and self-assertive cycling in the city. Because I’m cycling all the time, I’m so used to being on the street that I sometimes forget, as a pedestrian, to restrict my range of movement on the pavement. Who has what share of public space and how, for example, traffic space can be designed more justly are issues that also occupy me in professional planning projects.

Karl, 29, bicycle mechanic

I’m on the board of directors of the Bike Kitchen, a bike self-help workshop that functions on the basis of free donations. Our ideal is to be open and accessible to everyone. Very different sorts of people come to us: bike messengers, paperboys and kids from the neighbourhood. In addition to tools, they find here bike parts they can use. Every week two or three people also cook vegan and there are drinks for a free donation.

We assume people who deliver papers for a pittance will pay less than people who come here to repair their fancy racing bikes. Personally, for me the aspect of sustainability is very important, that old parts are repaired instead of new ones being bought. I’m a bike mechanic, so for me the bike is a means of livelihood. Naturally, I benefit from the pool of knowledge available here.

The original idea of a movement like Critical Mass, which developed in autonomist circles, certainly had to do with the politics of bikes and traffic. It was about taking over space, laying claim to space for cyclists in city traffic. Now the movement has lost in radicalness and has become more middle-class.