Like cycling barefoot

So, I have been musing about the deeper meaning of this Eroica thing. You know, that vintage bicycle event, where people of all ages, genders and fitness levels dress up in retro gear and haul themselves and their outdated steel frame machines up and down the gravelly hills of Tuscany – for no apparent prize or reward whatsoever.

An email from one of the participants put things in perspective for me. Elena, pictured below, explained that she carried with her, for the full 135 km, her first set of skis from her childhood. Apparently she grew up in the foothills of the Alps, and when she was small her parents used to cycle to the ski resorts. This, I guess is where she got her lasting love of all things naturey – she now runs an outdoor-activity-holidays business for a living.

But, back to the skis at L’Eroica. Although small in size they can only have made the ride more difficult for her, they served no purpose on the day, and yet she deliberately brought them along. Now, why would she do that? And why have been finding myself thinking about restoring my grandmother’s bike from 1958 to take part in the race next year? (This borders on insanity, as the bike has no gears and weighs half a tonne, right?) In fact, why would anyone, in their right frame of mind, not choose a modern, comfortable, lightweight bike, and cycle it on decent concrete roads? What made 4,000 people choose to do things the hard way on Oct 2nd this year?

Well, let’s consider for a moment who else voluntarily puts themselves through such ridiculous hardships. Mountain climbers. Arctic adventurers. Sometimes humans engage in practices that seem to contradict our basic needs for comfort and survival. There are, of course, emotional rewards in doing something difficult, in challenging yourself and succeeding. Getting to the mountain top. Reaching the North Pole. Such feats bestow upon the person the right to feel pride, and often a higher level of status as compared to us mere mortals who prefer to explore mountains via the telly.

But, what strikes me about L’Eroica is not just the voluntary suffering. It is also the treasured objects, the childhood skis, the jersey worn by the rider’s father twenty years ago now resurrected by the son. Any of the vintage bicycles that were used on the day. Painstakingly and carefully restored, the bikes are clearly precious to their owners, imbued with meanings and values that someone outside the vintage bicycle community might not immediately ‘get’. They are magical objects, sacred totems, as Durkheim would say, and riding them, wearing them, or carrying them with you through the heat and dust, allows you to connect with something out-of-the-ordinary. It transports you away from everyday life, to another realm, where past and present collapse into something simpler. Where your entire being is focussed on getting up the next hill, to the next checkpoint, to the finish line.

I think of L’Eroica as a modern form of pilgrimage. No longer tied to any creed or religious organisation, it is a spiritual ritual in is simplest form. There is you. And the bike. And perhaps a magical object or two, to help you invoke whatever values or memories you have invested in them.

For Durkheim, religious ritual held society together. Here, it creates in the participants a feeling of belonging to a community, even though it is a temporary one. I discussed that in my last post. But it also sets the ‘heroic’ vintage riders apart from their contemporary counterparts with their light carbon frames and aerodynamic helmets. It reinforces in them particular values and ways of being. It is an annual ritual that celebrates the past and allows participants to step back into it, away from the individualism, consumerism and competitiveness that characterise life in the present. To enter a time when hard work, beautiful craftsmanship and participation counted more than coming first. When all that really mattered was getting up that dusty hill.

More pictures here.


We could be heroes…

You will forgive me my recent silence, no doubt, with the start of term, new modules, oh, and a little trip to Italy at the beginning of October to witness L’Eroica, the annual event that celebrates the golden age of ‘heroic’ cycling.

For a few days each autumn, the small village of Gaiole in Chianti is transformed by an event which encompasses the town, surrounding villages, and everyone in the community, as 4,000 cyclists and their families arrive for the weekend. A vintage bicycle ride takes place partly on ‘white’ gravel roads, where Fausto Coppi and other Italian cycling legends once practiced their skills. Participants at L’Eroica must ride a bicycle made prior to 1987, and all components must be original to the bike or at least to the era. They choose between four routes: 38km, 75km, 135km or a near impossible 205km.

I was amazed at the wide range of different ages and nationalities of all those riders who became transformed, by wearing old cycling gear, into ‘heroes’ of the past. However, it is more than vintage tops and retro caps that gives this group their collective identity: They are united by a set of values, such as dismissing the mass-produced, throw away commodities of the fast-paced present, a belief in preserving the tools and craftmanship of the past (the bikes have been beautifully restored), and an approach to sportsmanship that values hard work and effort above individualism: At L’Eroica there is no price for coming first, rather, anyone who manages to complete his or her chosen distance is considered a winner. The feeling of togetherness comes not just from practicing the same sport, but from mutual support and assistance at roadside tire changes or a push up a hill by those who are suffering the least. Such values are enacted and embodied by the cyclists on the day of the race where – this year in a gruelling 28 degrees celsius – they start cycling at dawn, not to return until late in the afternoon or early evening.

I took some pictures of riders and their bikes as they returned and crossed the finish line after a day of heroic cycling. More pictures here

tacit learning – the fun way

I’m switching disciplines today. Last weekend I, along with tens of thousands of others, attended the hugely popular European Medieval festival held annually in Horsens, Denmark. It turned out to be a wonderful way of bringing history to life for both children and adult spectators and participants. The small city centre was transformed, by covering up street signs and rubbish bins, covering the streets in woodchips and erecting a large number of tents serving as food, drink and craft stalls.

I was amazed at how the festival not only drew in large number of tourists from across Europe, but also at how strongly it was based on community involvement – hundreds of local people volunteered at the event, and everyone had bought or rented proper costumes from a charity specialising in Medieval gear for the festival. Thus, I found myself surrounded by nuns, monks, knights and maidens, who were doing everyday things such as cleaning up, bringing items to the stalls or selling mead, bread and – for those that way inclined – roast pig on a spit. Practical demonstrations of crafts such as woodturning and ironmongery were somehow more fascinating in such a convincing setting, although the jousting and fighting displays kept violence at a playful level to suit the mixed audience.

A medieval school had been constructed and offered lessons in reading, music and early forms of medicine. But learning was constant, it was everywhere – you couldn’t help but take in knowledge as you encountered bishops, beggars and birds of prey, while drinking nettle soup and watching archery competitions.

Sometimes learning requires the sort of information found is dusty old history books. Other times, though, knowledge can take a tacit form. This is the kind of knowledge that cannot be standardised, formalised, written down. It needs to be experienced. And tacit learning can be at least as effective as the formal kind. Visitors to the Medieval festival did not only encounter words or even visual displays about the Middle Ages. They ate, drank, touched and smelled them. They wore them, lived and breathed them for a day or two. They consumed medieval times, and in the process they learned a lot.

Last Saturday, history had a field day.

Now, how can we make social science this much fun?

Coming on nicely

A couple of months later, the new allotments on the site of the demolished flats in Chamber Street are looking good. People are beginning to personalise their spaces, and they seem to be cultivating a mixture of vegetables and flowers. I will continue to visit them to see how they develop.

who likes to do the housework?

I’m transgressing slightly today: It’s class-preparation-time again. As many others these days, I like to incorporate visual material into my lectures to make classes more engaging and to cater for different learning styles.

Here’s a lovely little clip for generating a discussion on gender roles, socialisation and/or child development:

on my wishlist

The Sage Handbook of Visual Research Methods by Eric Margolis and Luc Pauwels is now out. 776 pages of goodness. Looks amazing. Costs £95. *sigh*

the social shutter

Hey, look! Social Shutter, a lovely blog that aims to ‘capture community life with a camera lens’, is featuring some of my photographs of Danish allotments this week. The blog presents image based research and projects in an accessible style, without too much social science jargon, and with a diverse range of contributions from both artists and academics. Do have a browse through their archives, you’re bound to find something you’re interested in. They are looking for contributions from around the world to compliment their already impressive collection of work, so get out your cameras – and submit your pictures!