Podthoughts by Colin Marshall: The Bike Show

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Vital stats:
Format: talk about all aspects of cycling and cycling culture
Episode duration: typically ~30m, with occasional longer specials
Frequency: weekly

London’s Resonance FM broadcasts not what we would think of as straightforward talk programming, and not what we would think of as straightforward music programming, but something called “radio art.” This broad label turns out to cover a badly underutilized patch of radio’s philosophical spectrum, one safely distant from both bland jukeboxing and tiresome politicking. Eschew traditional news, sports, hits, and complaints, and you open up the creative space for shows a thinking listener might actually enjoy. This I realized when I Podthought about the podcast of every Resonance FM broadcast available in that form. I’d previously written up The Wire magazine’s Adventures in Modern Music, the most straightforward music show I’ve heard on Resonance (and The Wire has R. Stevie Moore on its cover this month). Now I’ve cycled back around, as it were, to listen hard to a program no other station has produced, or possibly could produce: The Bike Show [RSS] [iTunes].

When first I heard The Bike Show, host/producer Jack Thurston impressed me not only with his professionalism and stealthy production skill — qualities not immediately associated, alas, with freeform radio — but a dedication that had him not only chatting in the studio but recording out in the field, on long trips, and even while riding. (These signature “rolling interviews” have their own page on the show’s site.) But back then I lived in Santa Barbara, where cycling meant only an idyllic way to commute. Now that I’ve dropped myself into the vast complexity of Los Angeles with my old brown Nishiki as primary means of transport, cycling has taken a rather more essential place. An encounter with David Byrne’s Bicycle Diaries made me consciously grasp a fact my lifestyle had already incorporated: no more efficient, absorbing, and intellectually or aesthetically connected form of urban transportation exists. I had much to learn; I had to catch up on The Bike Show immediately.

You might find yourself in a similar position, but, especially if you live in the United States, you might not turn to this show’s guidance out of two fears: one, that Thurston gears it toward other Londoners, and two, that he gears it toward other, er, gearheads. Resonance’s location does mean that The Bike Show and its guests tend to discuss cycling in Engand and continental Europe. But I don’t mind that, since cycling across the pond seems locked into less of a garrison mentality than it does here; cultural changes are indeed underway, but America’s legacy of marginal, abrasive, spandex-coated car-loathing eccentrics dies hard. London, by comparison, would seem to boast a robust population of well-rounded, normally dressed, non-aggrieved riders, yet Thurston and his coterie bring up concern after concern about their city’s lack of sufficient infrastructure and basic regard for the two-wheeled. Denmark and the Netherlands, where toddlers and octogenarians alike ride helmetless and fearless for their every errand, come up again and again as the consummately bike-friendly countries against which all others must be judged. The term “Copenhagenize” sees much use.

Los Angeles, it will shock you to learn, has taken few pains to Copenhagenize. Happily pedal though I may over these 500 square miles — especially when we’ve got a CycLAvia going on — it only takes hearing a conversation between Thurston and the British and European bike enthusiasts, bike builders, bike racers, bike collectors, and bike writers he brings into the studio or connects to by Skype to suspect I might lack something in the way of accommodation. But thanks to Thurston’s enthusiasm, the briskness of his operation, and the variety of perspectives he brings tgether, this doesn’t actually discourage me. Quite the opposite, in fact; the next time I feel burnt out after a long, loud, lonely ride down one of this city’s bike routes in name only — Venice Boulevard, say — I’ll click on an episode or two of The Bike Show for an instantly revitalizing shot of cycling culture. I can’t listen at home without wanting to get right back on the streets, inhospitable as they may sometimes feel.

And this brings me to address that second fear: cycling culture, on this program, means more than ranking derailleurs. Thurston occasionally invites guests who sound like they’d gladly rank derailleurs for the duration of the broadcast and beyond, and perhaps he himself longs to do the same, but The Bike Show sounds dedicated to not drilling too far into any one subtopic. This is not a show about the mechanics of cycling, the business of cycling, the science of cycling, the sport of cycling, the history of cycling, or (heaven help us) the politics of cycling: it’s a show about all of them and everything else besides. As driving a car steadily becomes a stodgier, more expensive lifestyle choice, the humble bicycle has its chance to recapture the imagination of a large, able, willing, developed-world population outside of Copenhagen. But to do so, it needs as few monomaniacs as it can get. Every skillful essayist treats their chosen subject as a nexus of all subjects; in each episode of The Bike Show, we have from Jack Thurston and his collaborators a skillful essay indeed.

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[Podthinker Colin Marshall hosts and produces Notebook on Cities and Culture [iTunes]. Contact him at colinjmarshall at gmail or follow him on Twitter @colinmarshall.]