The teams that meet on bikes

I spend the hours before fighting to reattach the back wheel. My bike is a men’s Dutch cycle of uncertain origin: single speed, brake hub, coming in at a hefty 20 kilos. For a while I think about reverting to the skateboard then suddenly I get it right and the hipster wheels are right-way up and ready to roll. Tape on a USB battery pack, some festive LEDs, and a USB fan for the handlebars (we’ve had a heatwave after all) and I’m ready for town.

I stop on the way for batteries and it falls off its stand, clattering in the pavement. When I come out a guy with an SUV and a hefty bracelet that seems to be made of tools helps me to fit them into the impractical retro headlight. At the Junction the bikes are beginning to assemble. There’s a one-person dance platform, complete with sound system and lighting, with a pedaller behind. An albatross (lets call it that): illuminated and flapping beneath a pedaller and a passenger in a configuration that makes no sense but appears to enjoy a tight turning circle. And there’s the leader: a sturdy front loading cargo bike with the main sound system: two custom speakers that look like enormous poppies.

As the others roll in everything is illuminated. Strings of LEDs, tiny disco balls and Christmas lights start to fill the pavement, along with costumes, more sounds and lycra mixed with primary colors and glitter. This revolution is about to start. I’ve been here for thirty minutes and I still can’t quite imagine it. We’re about to take this into the Wellington streets at nine pm on a Saturday. It just feels mad.

If you’ve read Watership Down you’ll get some idea of life as a cyclist in a major city. You are low on the food chain, carry no defenses, and the weight of the industrialised world holds you to some very tight places. The week before a cyclist here was literally sucked under a Kenworth and somehow escaped with her life. No experienced rider can afford illusions, but tonight we are Zion and we’re facing the machines with a party.

For the first twenty minutes, we’re rolling around the wide spaces of Pukeahu, under the moon and among the monuments. We follow the leader down to the basin, where we stare at the winding triple lanes of State Highway One before simply rolling before it. I’d guess more than one hundred of us, on bikes, skates and dance platforms, rolling slow and noisy through the Arras tunnel. I did not see this coming. No one bikes in here, yet we’ve taken it over, if only for a moment. Reduced to 15kmh, some of the drivers put up a noise: revving their engines to red-line as if we need reminding that this is never a safe space. The same drivers spend hours not moving at all in places like this, stuck behind other cars, and, apparently, storing their rage.

For the next ninety minutes, we cruise among quiet spots and busy ones, taking over the occasional intersection to dance. I get talking to some bikers: a Peace Activist, a Climate Striker, some Social Enterprisers, an Extinction Rebel. And here’s the thing: the younger they are, the further the ladder has been pulled from them. There is nothing grim about this night, there can’t be, but in this joy is a sudden defiant reprieve from the engines that are by now literally consuming our chances.

Electric cars won’t save us. They help, but our notion that every person should carry personal transport ten times their personal size is, it turns out, madness. Imagine if we decided to take our beds with us where-ever we went. It makes more sense, since we use them thirty percent of the time as opposed to the five or ten percent we spend in the car. Every house and workplace and footpath and shopping mall would need to expand to make space to move and store the beds. And yet that is what we are doing with cars in the middle of cities. We’ve done it for so long that we can’t see that it’s the problem. We actually think that with a few more roads we might solve it. Like many parts of this puzzle the biggest solutions are the simplest.

Two days later, one of the riders tweets that a car nearly took him out on a roundabout. With his four year old. The safer lanes are coming, and so is the next rave, but till then congestion keeps building, and so do the cyclists. Somehow, being up in that saddle still feels right.

4 comments

  1. There’s the full spectrum of humanity on show here – with one extreme taken by recalcitrant petrol / diesel guzzlers who are in partial to total denial about the impacts of their behaviour / ‘lifestyle’ and care little about other road users (hence the episodic appalling carnage); and the so-called ‘extreme greenies’ who wouldn’t be seen dead in a gas-guzzler. In the middle there’s massive inertia and lobbying to maintain the status quo, which of course cannot be maintained without increasing use of energy, and ultimately must fail in most cities, as the rising sea reclaims the land – Wellington being a case in point. In the mean time, it makes eminent sense to reduce motor traffic in cities, and these kinds of events are a good case in point in raising awareness while having some fun, and not only at the expense of those fuming cars and their road-raging drivers!

    1. More than a few people down here have abandoned cars and cargo bike / PT nearly everywhere. It takes a special determination but there is also something quite joyous in riding a bike. It’s a crazy energy.

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