Saturday, April 11, 2009

On the Aesthetics of Bicycles

These are a few thoughts I’ve been toying with for a while now. I don’t know that I’ve said anything really worthwhile here, but I’m posting it anyway. Throwing a few things against the wall and seeing what sticks, you might say.

A bicycle is an inanimate – although kinetic – object. It does not have a heart, soul, or personality (although we frequently attach these attributes to them, but that’s another post). So, I am fully aware that, as they say, “a bicycle is just a bicycle,” but I would also like to suggest that a bicycle can and should be something quite beautiful. Not beautiful in an abstract sense, as in “bicycles are beautiful because of what they can help us accomplish," but actual physical beauty, and in this way, the reasons bicycles should be beautiful have little to do with bicycles themselves.

For a bicycle to be beautiful, it needn’t be new or expensive, custom-made or hand-built. Certainly, bicycles built by hand and featuring the finest and most expensive parts are frequently beautiful, but these things are not prerequisites for beauty. The beauty of a bicycle is not determined by its cost, the status it confers on its owner, or even how quickly or comfortably it moves its rider through space. What then, makes a bicycle beautiful?

The answer, of course, is something subjective, but I would like to suggest not wholly so. I don’t believe I am over-generalizing when I say that for a bicycle to be beautiful, it should exhibit some amount of grace, elegance, and style. I don’t mean “fashion” when I say style, and I don’t mean “fancy” when I say elegance. What I mean is a perhaps-indefinable quality that causes us to pause for a moment, register the beauty of the thing we are observing, and come away somehow enriched. It’s not the same as admiring costly components or flashy gadgets for their own sake – it should be something much deeper, and it is in this sense that it matters very little whether a beautiful bicycle is really a bicycle at all.

The quality, or combination of qualities, that causes us to pause over a beautiful bicycle will be different for me than for you, but it should be the same indefinable something that causes us to linger over a beautiful work of art.  At base, our common attraction to beauty – whether it be a bicycle or a painting – is one of those hopeful features of humankind. The subjectivity of “taste” is less important than a common appreciation for things beautiful, rendering pointless the arguments over the comparative aesthetics of the over-engineered road racing bicycle, the sleek urban fixed-gear, or the slouchy beach cruiser.

The value of a beautiful bicycle, regardless of why we find it beautiful, is equal in significance to the value we might more commonly seek in a gallery or a museum, and all the more so because we can see it every day. Beauty enriches, calms, and sustains us. For there to be more beautiful things in the world, I believe, is of the utmost importance. If it serves no other purpose for you, make this your reason for finding and riding a bicycle that is, to you, beautiful. 


  1. I can't believe I've waited till now to read this. Bicycles are beautiful the same way birds are beautiful.


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