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Travis Hugh Culley's "The Immortal Class: Bike Messengers and the Cult of Human Power"

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  • Simon Baddeley
    Thoughts on reading Travis Hugh Culley s The Immortal Class: Bike Messengers and the Cult of Human Power (2001) Villard:New York Aren t bike messengers
    Message 1 of 1 , Jun 28, 2001
      Thoughts on reading Travis Hugh Culley's "The Immortal Class: Bike
      Messengers and the Cult of Human Power" (2001) Villard:New York

      Aren't bike messengers selfish dangerous servants of city business who bring
      urban cycling into disrepute, hrmph .. hrmph? I have seen on or two TV
      features on this type of cyclist. A New York documentary I saw was like a
      mix of ballet, acrobats and wall-of-death but overall rather beautiful. The
      virtuosity of their cycling somehow earned the US couriers - like Cully in
      Chicago - an esteemed outlaw status in settings where all traffic breaks the
      law, tho'cyclists are nearly as vulnerable as pedestrians. In London or
      Birmingham I see little sign of such brilliance. Perhaps it's yet to come.

      To Culley conventional commuting "Cyclecraft" seems a bit sad. To him the
      standard conventions give advice on cycling enslaved, teaching cyclists to
      adapt, with skill, to the world as it is. Culley is part slave, part
      gladiator, promoting cycling with attitude. Part of me is impressed - though
      I find his writing less centred than his cycling, perhaps accessorised in
      ways he'd regard as anathema on a bicycle. I read this book for its
      intelligent thinking and to satisfy curiosity about how the city looks to a
      certain kind of cyclist. On both scores - though cycling with a completely
      different skills, mental set and physiology, I empathise with Culley's
      reflections. There are maxims about cities - over and underground - time,
      speed and space and the blight of autodependency but Cully's prose never
      quite justifies the rapture of some critics. That sounds churlish. To say I
      like this book because of its quality as a paean to cycling in the city
      would be to patronise someone for whom cycling - though virtuoso - is a
      means to ambitious artistic ends.

      Cully's book reveals to the unaware - like me - that somewhere out there are
      the cycling equivalents of the heroes and heroines of the film "Crouching
      Tiger, Hidden Dragon". I'm not talking about the acrobats of the BMX tribe
      who, though brilliant, don't mix with hard-core traffic on city streets. I
      am intrigued that there might be men and women able to do with a bicycle
      what the actors are shown doing with a variety of weapons in a film that
      speaks over and above cult to a wider audience. That film is brilliantly
      directed. Its stars are fine actors and, only after that, people who fight
      on screen.

      Culley writes but perhaps first of all he's a grand master of urban cycling.
      He tells us of riders who can sit on their bicycles in one spot, arms off
      the frame for over 10 minutes; of minimalist, practically nude, cycles; of
      riding in extreme weather conditions and at speeds faster than other urban
      city traffic, and acts of split second judgement that take on the magical
      quality of impossible road stunts without the protection of a steel cage or
      the push of an internal combustion engine.

      Part of me says there's an urban cycling saga based on Cully's book waiting
      to be filmed - a screen success featuring in breathtaking immediacy the
      attitudes and skills he celebrates "The Immortal Class". The film would be
      rightly deplored by us civic cyclists, but when did following city
      ordinances make a good picture? People aren't supposed to roam the streets
      with the kit of a ninja warrior, but they do on film. I could see high drama
      and pictorial wonder in a movie featuring human powered vehicles with
      super-human potential doing astounding things amid trucks and cars. Cully
      has written the context if not the screen play. Of course it would
      exaggerate. Cyclists would fly. It would be as visually hyperbolic as the
      best cinematic car chases. It would make sustainability sexy. And because it
      would still look mundane without talent and charisma, they'd have to put the
      film-world's finest onto courier stripped bicycles and set them loose with a
      plot and a brilliant director trying to recover on film that old advice of
      the angry parent "Go play in traffic!" That might have been a better title
      for this book - or the film. I look to see Travis Hugh Cully in the billing.

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