Recently the London Cycling Campaign issued a petition to London mayors to improve cycling facilities on the capital’s streets. The petition also requested that cycling be considered a normal mode of transport like motoring, walking or taking the bus. Within the context of other European cities like Copenhagen or Berlin, such a demand sounds all but absurd. In London, however, cycling has always been regarded as somewhat controversial, not least because of its association with particular social groups, such as the working classes in the 1950s and 60s, or the hipsters of the early twenty-first century.
Road planning in London prioritises motor traffic over cyclists and where traffic-calming features are considered, pedestrians are given priority. As a result, cycle lanes are often either non-existent or added as a narrow – and in some cases dangerous – afterthought. While this environment has caused numerous complaints, it has also been embraced by a particular breed of cyclist which has adopted these ‘road worlds’ as a large adventure playground. Weaving in and out of traffic at top speed, often on a fixed-gear bike with an action camera mounted on helmet, frame or handlebars, these cyclists enjoy the fun of the fast lane, the ‘DIY cycle-lane’ so to speak.
With its fisheye lens mounted on a part of the bike which affords a view of the road, wheels and/or handlebars, the action cam produces a vertiginous impression of speed even if one is not going very fast. This is increased by a fast-paced rock music soundtrack and edited highlights which focus on the near misses with cars, lorries and pedestrians. While the ride itself can be exciting enough, the exhilaration is heightened by the presence of the action cam and the aim of getting good footage. In love with speed and confident of their own skills, the cyclist flirts with death.
While the camera provokes more risky behaviour it also provides an additional layer of confidence – the camera is yet another thing under the cyclist’s control – as well as justification. After all, the aim of the ride is to make a documentary, to create something to share. Focusing on London, this paper will explore the particular conditions of ‘action-cam cycling’ in the city, before analysing the image of the city created in these videos and looking at the attraction of vertigo.
Ricarda is a lecturer, curator and translator, teaching at King’s College London. She has published on urban space, cinematic architecture, the legacy of Modernism and Romanticism, speed, the car and driving as cultural phenomena as well as society’s fascination with death and murder. Recent books include Death and Desire in Car Crash Culture: A Century of Romantic Futurisms (Peter Lang, 2013), The Power of Death: Contemporary Reflections on Death in Western Society, co-edited with Maria-José Blanco (Berghahn Books, 2014) and Alternative Worlds: Blue-Sky Thinking since 1900, co-edited with Ingo Cornils (Peter Lang, 2014). She also runs the research and exhibitions project Translation Games.
Action-Cam Cycling in the City by Ricarda Vidal, January 2015, Brendan Walker