In Italy bikes are essentially a form of community – mobile community. In this sense bikes form a cultural marker that intimately reflect Italy’s culture. However, I begin with two comparative points of reference, the United States and the Netherlands.
In the United States bikes are an expression of physical virility. At a young age we are introduced to bikes as a form of play. However, play for Americans is often an extension of, or a seedbed for the embrace of, sport and competition. Lance Armstrong’s Live Strong brand is the perfect example of the American cultural code for bikes. Yet for as much as America is a physical and competitive culture, it expresses strong tendencies toward closure and protection. Thus, Americans are usually found biking along with the highly symbolic bike helmet.
In the Netherlands, bikes are an integral form of transportation expressing the practicality of Dutch culture. Certainly those who ride bikes are often in good physical condition, but the act of riding a bike in the Netherlands is a reflection of functional resourcefulness, not physically conditioning. Thus one often finds huge bike parking structures (akin to American auto parking structures) outside rail stations in major urban centers. Bikes, locked in place, also line quiet neighborhood streets in most Dutch cities. While bikes certainly offer a form of connecting Dutch people together their use is much more rooted in utility, connecting people to work and home and the resources that support home-life.
In Italy bikes mark a distinctly different cultural space. Surely they function as a form of transportation and clearly they help Italians stay in relatively good physical condition. One only has to see the 80something men and women biking down Italian streets to note their utility and physical benefit. However, transportation and physical conditioning are simply residual effects of Italians need to maintain their sense of community – and this they do, in part, with bikes.
Bikes are an inherently embedded point of community connection. It is not uncommon to see a someone stopped, bike straddled between their legs, engaged in a conversation with someone in a car, on foot, or on another bike. While some cities have carved out spaces for bikes along the roads, other cites have simply accommodated them as a part of life. Children grow up on bikes in Italy – literally. The smallest of them on seats in front of their parents with the middle sized children on seats behind. And as families grow, they often move in unison on bikes. Any walk through a market will find Italians strolling with their bikes, their baskets full. Italians ride in snow and rain with one hand holding an umbrella. In one moment you might see an Italian riding along, a cell phone glued to their ear, and in the next moment they are locking their bike beside a coffee bar or concert hall. Bikes propel and engage Italians within community.
Bikes also offer a glimpse into Italians powerful gender cultural codes. During my time in Italy I have been riding a man’s bike, an ancient loaner from the uncle of a friend. As an American, I initially saw it as simply my bike. I quickly realized its straight middle bar was a powerful cultural code for masculinity, and I had crossed the line. That bar was an endless source of discussion and an immediate signifier for me as non-Italian. For in Italy bikes are highly gendered, as are many other things. A further articulation of gender can be observed in the clothing of the people riding bikes. It is not uncommon to see women in beautiful dress with amazingly high-heeled shoes and men wearing elegant suits. In Italy bikes brings people to together in community whether at concerts or clubs, work or school and they dress accordingly – and always along strongly articulated gender lines.
I close with a branded articulation of the impact of bikes on Italian community life – Vespa. The representations of community inherit in biking explains, in part, the explosive success of Vespa. The brand understood the cultural codes inherent in bikes and it offered a fasters mode for mobile community connections. Its small size, easy room for two, and quieter engine (relative to the hyper-American Harley) signify the modern extension of the Italian bike. Vespa will never replace the bike, but it has successfully leveraged its culture codes of mobile community.
All photographs copyright: Jean Grow