Trails of the unexpected

Cycling is booming – and film-makers are discovering its myriad sub-cultures. Simon O'Hagan gears up for a two-wheel festival

Brendt Barbur says he is "fortunate to live my life this way". And nobody who is into both cycling and cinema would disagree. Barbur is a 37-year-old San Franciscan-turned-New Yorker who had a vision after he was knocked off his bike eight years ago. He decided to create a bicycle film festival. It's been held every year since, and next week it makes its fourth visit to London, its first to the Barbican.

It's quite a step up for an event that has generally hovered on the margins. But bike culture is a fast-growing phenomenon, the festival has taken off in tandem (as it were) and Barbur says he's having trouble keeping up. "We started this thing just for fun. I can't really believe what's happened."

This year the festival will play in 17 cities worldwide, showing dozens of films that depict cycling in all its myriad forms. Some 300 people are now involved in the project.

Five days of films just about cycling? To the non-cyclist, the prospect might seem at best quaint, more likely completely baffling. But for cyclists, such an undertaking is only right and proper, according this activity – an entire philosophy of life might be a better way of putting it – the status it deserves.

Cycling's time has come. Cities the world over are experiencing a cycling boom as urban dwellers wake up to its life-changing possibilities. Healthy, environmental and liberating, it's part of the zeitgeist, yet not so ubiquitous that it has lost all cultural definition. Indeed, cycling breaks down into smaller sub-cultures, from the hard-core cycle messenger scene, whose denizens adorn the streets on fixed-gear track bikes, to the office worker riding a fold-up.

Bike design is evolving at a bewildering pace, and a whole aesthetic has built up around what can be achieved within the constraints of two wheels and a triangle of tubing. There's a growing awareness of cycling's heritage. The popularity of the Tour de France and other pro races endures, much of it informed by the memory of stirring deeds from cycling's so-called golden age of the Fifties and Sixties. Retro bikes and clothing are all the rage.

"Cycling's like hip-hop in the Eighties," says Barbur. "Just as hip-hop wasn't just about music, cycling isn't just about cycling; it's about music and fashion and art. There's a whole meaning to the bike. But although there's a lot of momentum behind cycling at the moment, I still wouldn't say it was huge. Look on the street. It's still primarily a car thing."

Barbur says the festival is intended to be a celebration of the bike, and to do for cycling what has been done for skateboarding and surfing: to capture a scene that has a quality of spontaneous, popular expression and that runs at a tangent to everyday society.

Of course, the rise of the Bicycle Film Festival has gone hand in hand with the development of camera technology and the arrival of the YouTube generation. "The camera is the new guitar," Barbur says, before adding that the films in the festival – many of them shorts – are much more than YouTube throwaways. "There's a submission period in which we see hundreds of movies. And it's a challenge sometimes picking movies over others that have higher production values. Often it comes down to subject matter. But I'm struck by the incredible creativity that exists within cycling."

The most eagerly awaited of the films is Road to Roubaix, "a film exemplifying the beauty and agony of the most difficult and prestigious one-day cycling race in the world". In tackling this subject, co-directors David Deal and David Cooper enter the sacred ground of perhaps most celebrated cycling documentary ever made. That was A Sunday in Hell, an exquisitely shot portrayal of the 1976 edition of the race, a hymn to heroism and to the traditions of a small corner of Western Europe where cycling is in the blood like nowhere else.

Les Ninjas du Japon is an Italian-made documentary on the efforts of five semi-professional Japanese cyclists who head to Africa for the Tour de Faso. Another substantial work is The Six-Day Bicycle Races, which charts the history of a uniquely demanding form of indoor track cycling. The Way Bobby Sees It is the story of a blind mountain biker as he races down one of the most difficult courses in the world.

Barbur recommends the shorts for people looking for a way in to what can sometimes seem an arcane world. Of these, Macaframa is a beautifully shot video that showcases the West Coast's most talented street track riders.

From the evidence of some of the festival's material, the new cycling scene risks taking itself a little too seriously, or at least that is the conclusion that has to be drawn from a short called Orange Bikes Take Manhattan, in which DKNY manages to upset the cycling community with a bike-based promotion. Standing Start, about the Scottish track pro Craig McLean, suffers from portentous narration. Waffle Bike, about a bike that might have been invented by Heath Robinson, verges on the twee.

But still. Just as bikes come in many guises, so too do the films in the Bicycle Film Festival. Pedal on down.

Bicycle Film Festival, Barbican, London EC2 (020-7638 8891), 1 to 5 October

WHEELIE GOOD: FIVE CYCLING CLASSICS

The Flying Scotsman (2006)
The life and troubled times of world hour-record holder Graeme Obree made for an inspiring drama starring Jonny Lee Miller (pictured, right).

Bicycle Thieves (1948)
After an unemployed worker has his bicycle stolen, he and his son set off through the streets of Rome in search of it. A heart-rending tale of enormous expressive power and a classic of post-war Italian neo-realism.

Laissez-Passer (2002)
The French director Bernard Tavernier explores the Nazi occupation in an elegiac drama centred on life in the film industry. Contains some of the most beautiful cycling sequences ever committed to celluloid.

Belleville Rendez-vous (2003)
Animated feature of wondrous accomplishment in which a young man fulfils his dream of riding in the Tour de France, whereupon he is kidnapped and the real drama begins. Never has the joy and agony of the sport been so vividly captured.

Juno (2007)
As a symbol of youthful freedom, the bicycle has never shone quite as it did in the teenage pregnancy drama that was a surprise hit earlier this year. The title character's vintage burgundy racer establishes Juno's cool credentials and is accorded a starring role in the film's closing shot.

Arts and Entertainment
Art on their sleeves: before downloads and streaming, enthusiasts used to flick through racks of albums in their local record shops
musicFor Lois Pryce, working in a record shop was a dream job - until the bean counters ruined it
Arts and Entertainment
Serial suspect: the property heir charged with first-degree murder, Robert Durst
TV review
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Igarashi in her

Art Megumi Igarashi criticises Japan's 'backwards' attitude to women's sexual expression

Arts and Entertainment
Could Ed Sheeran conquer the Seven Kingdoms? He could easily pass for a Greyjoy like Alfie Allen's character (right)

tv Singer could become the most unlikely star of Westeros

Arts and Entertainment
Beyonce, Boris Johnson, Putin, Nigel Farage, Russell Brand and Andy Murray all get the Spitting Image treatment from Newzoids
tvReview: The sketches need to be very short and very sharp as puppets are not intrinsically funny
Arts and Entertainment
Despite the controversy it caused, Mile Cyrus' 'Wrecking Ball' video won multiple awards
musicPoll reveals over 70% of the British public believe sexually explicit music videos should get ratings
Arts and Entertainment
Lena Headey as Cersei Lannister and Ian Beattie as Meryn Trant in the fifth season of Game of Thrones

TV
Arts and Entertainment

book review
Arts and Entertainment
It's all in the genes: John Simm working in tandem with David Threlfall in 'Code of a Killer'

TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Far Right and Proud: Reggies Yates' Extreme Russia

TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Kanye West was mobbed in Armenia after jumping into a lake

music
Arts and Entertainment
The show suffers from its own appeal, being so good as to create an appetite in its viewers that is difficult to sate in a ten episode series

Game of Thrones reviewFirst look at season five contains some spoilers
Arts and Entertainment
Judi Dench and Kevin Spacey on the Red Carpet for 2015's Olivier Awards

Ray Davies' Sunny Afternoon scoops the most awards

Theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Proving his metal: Ross Poldark (played by Aidan Turner in the BBC series) epitomises the risk-taking spirit of 18th-century mine owners

Poldark review
Arts and Entertainment
Eddie Redmayne is reportedly favourite to play Newt Scamander in Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them

film
Arts and Entertainment
Tom Hardy stars in dystopian action thriller Mad Max: Fury Road

film
Arts and Entertainment
Josh, 22, made his first million from the game MinoMonsters

Grace Dent

Channel 4 show proves there's no app for happiness
News
Disgraced Top Gear presenter Jeremy Clarkson
people
Arts and Entertainment
Game face: Zoë Kravitz, Bruce Greenwood and Ethan Hawke in ‘Good Kill’

film review

Arts and Entertainment
Living like there’s no tomorrow: Jon Hamm as Don Draper in the final season of ‘Mad Men’

TV review

  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Revealed: Why Mohammed Emwazi chose the 'safe option' of fighting for Isis, rather than following his friends to al-Shabaab in Somalia

    Why Mohammed Emwazi chose Isis

    His friends were betrayed and killed by al-Shabaab
    'The solution can never be to impassively watch on while desperate people drown'
An open letter to David Cameron: Building fortress Europe has had deadly results

    Open letter to David Cameron

    Building the walls of fortress Europe has had deadly results
    Tory candidates' tweets not as 'spontaneous' as they seem - you don't say!

    You don't say!

    Tory candidates' election tweets not as 'spontaneous' as they appear
    Mubi: Netflix for people who want to stop just watching trash

    So what is Mubi?

    Netflix for people who want to stop just watching trash all the time
    The impossible job: how to follow Kevin Spacey?

    The hardest job in theatre?

    How to follow Kevin Spacey
    Armenian genocide: To continue to deny the truth of this mass human cruelty is close to a criminal lie

    Armenian genocide and the 'good Turks'

    To continue to deny the truth of this mass human cruelty is close to a criminal lie
    Lou Reed: The truth about the singer's upbringing beyond the biographers' and memoirists' myths

    'Lou needed care, but what he got was ECT'

    The truth about the singer's upbringing beyond
    Migrant boat disaster: This human tragedy has been brewing for four years and EU states can't say they were not warned

    This human tragedy has been brewing for years

    EU states can't say they were not warned
    Women's sportswear: From tackling a marathon to a jog in the park, the right kit can help

    Women's sportswear

    From tackling a marathon to a jog in the park, the right kit can help
    Hillary Clinton's outfits will be as important as her policies in her presidential bid

    Clinton's clothes

    Like it or not, her outfits will be as important as her policies
    NHS struggling to monitor the safety and efficacy of its services outsourced to private providers

    Who's monitoring the outsourced NHS services?

    A report finds that private firms are not being properly assessed for their quality of care
    Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

    Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

    The Tory MP said he did not want to stand again unless his party's manifesto ruled out a third runway. But he's doing so. Watch this space
    How do Greek voters feel about Syriza's backtracking on its anti-austerity pledge?

    How do Greeks feel about Syriza?

    Five voters from different backgrounds tell us what they expect from Syriza's charismatic leader Alexis Tsipras
    From Iraq to Libya and Syria: The wars that come back to haunt us

    The wars that come back to haunt us

    David Cameron should not escape blame for his role in conflicts that are still raging, argues Patrick Cockburn
    Sam Baker and Lauren Laverne: Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

    Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

    A new website is trying to declutter the internet to help busy women. Holly Williams meets the founders