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.

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