As a bicyclist who has recently discovered the advantages of biking in the city, I felt sure I would latch onto Bicycle Diaries as sacred writ. After all, apart from author David Byrne, how many people have biked the bowels of Pittsburgh and the crisscrossing backstreets of London, much less the purlieus of Buenos Aires where, for the cyclist, such memorable sights as a the long lines of people waiting to worship at the shrine of St. Cayetano, patron of the unemployed, are revealed up close and in living color?
In Pittsburgh (a city I biked through in early September as it was sprucing up for, in order to be torn apart by, the turmoil of the G-20 Summit), Byrne, a musician (Talking Heads) and writer (Arboretum,
Strange Ritual), was led to a little Croatian church with inspiring “message” murals:
“[I]n one image the Virgin, on the verge of being bayoneted herself, separates two soldiers. In another mural an oligarch done up as Death reads the stock reports while being served a chicken dinner by two black servants. Finally, we see Jesus being stabbed by a bayonet, in a kind of second Crucifixion.”
The book is as much about the art, the vitality, the resurrection or ruin of cities as it is about biking. We learn that Byrne got his chops cycle-wise by exploring New York City on two wheels and adopted a folding bike for long-distance travel. This has enabled him to see the great cities of the world from street level, by far the best way if you have the nerve.
In orderly northern Europe, less nerve is required. Bike lanes may even include bike traffic lights and are not encroached
upon either by cars or pedestrians. He pronounces biking in Berlin to be “civilized, pleasant and enlightened.” Australia has surprisingly many bike paths along rivers leading down to the sea – with a Mediterranean climate, it sounds almost ideal for any sort of outdoor adventuring. In Manila, he abandons his bicycle temporarily for the joys of the motorized tricycle (“they have a lot to recommend them except for the hideous pollution they generate”) and explores a neighborhood intriguingly named Discolandia, which turns out to be a ghetto of brothels. As the author says after figuring out the scene, “maybe here…one can fulfill one’s lifelong dream. When it’s put that way it almost sounds sweet.”
In case you enjoy bicycling in a more rugged urban locale, it’s helpful to know that in San Francisco, perhaps the hilliest of any modern metropolis, you can obtain a map with the steepness of the hills indicated by color: “a street shaded pink is a mild slope, but a dark red street is a major hill to be avoided unless you’re a masochist.” And if you want to be the only cyclist on the streets, head for Buenos Aires: “my cycling is considered so unusual here that…it is written up in the local papers.”
Bicycle Diaries gives a flavor of city heart, of art both nouveau and timeless; the author pronounces the mall and the souk to be similar examples of “social shopping.” He comments on the ornate and class-ridden house architecture of London and the square-box functionalism of commercial buildings in Sweetwater, Texas. All in all, it’s a leisurely ride through urban culture and history with commentary that, if not exactly a guide, is certainly an advertisement for taking the bike instead of the car on your next vacation.