YES, there are practical motives, like saving gasoline and getting exercise at the same time, but the bicycle is also a pathway into an exuberant, often madcap, 21st century culture of speed, grace, give-a-whoop fun, obsession -- and lawless derring-do.
The assorted colorful tribes that make up this culture are the subjects of a globe-circling celebration headed for Los Angeles this month: the 2006 Bicycle Film Festival.
Born out of the gritty New York City urban cycling and bicycle messenger scene five years ago, the mobile and steadily expanding festival maintains its roots in city cycling -- and often the wildest side of it -- but also reaches out to track and road racing, to exotic mountain bike touring, to the furious fun of BMX bikes and to the sentimental place that the bike occupies in the hearts of riders.
The lineup spans two days of screenings, June 23-24, with 40 films divided into seven programs. Included are collections of shorts as well as features, new and classic. The festival actually begins Wednesday with a show of bicycle-related art titled "Joy Ride," complete with bicycle valet parking, followed the next night by a rock 'n' roll dance party. (The art show, featuring work by Swoon, Peter Sutherland, Taliah Lempert and more than 20 others, will be at the Don O'Melveny Gallery.)
"Fifteen years from now when we look back on this decade and what left an imprint, we'll see that the bicycle was an important part of it, culturally and socially," says festival founder and director Brendt Barbur. "It's very subtle now, but people are beginning to pay attention. In this, Los Angeles is very important. When Los Angeles breaks through, the rest of the country will too."
The festival began as an outgrowth of a bicycling accident. Barbur, an actor, was riding in Manhattan in 2000 when he was hit by a bus. While recuperating with multiple injuries, he vowed to turn a negative experience into a positive one. In the years since, he has become one of the most irrepressibly energetic promoters of bicycle culture.
The festival began in New York and this year will travel to eight other cities in the U.S., England, Italy and Japan.
Among notable films in the lineup is a big-screen presentation of the 1976 classic "A Sunday in Hell." Danish director Jorgen Leth follows the rivalry between cycling greats Eddy Merckx and Roger De Vlaeminck during the one-day Paris-Roubaix road race, known as the Hell of the North. With a lush soundtrack and artistic cinematography, the movie conveys the ethereal ballet of the moving peloton as well as the struggle of human limits in competition.
The screening will be preceded by a filmed 10-minute interview with Leth, who says of cycling, "I thought it deserved to be sung about."
OF local interest, Kim Jensen screens her 12-minute film, "Ride On," about the monthly urban adventures of "Midnight Ridazz," an open-invitation street ride with cyclists exploring Los Angeles at night. Jensen founded the event, which started with a handful of riders and now attracts 800.
Critics have drawn parallels between "Joe Kid on a Sting-Ray" and the classic documentary of skateboarding, "Dogtown and Z Boys." The film by Mark Eaton and John Swarr, narrated by Jesse James of TV's "Monster Garage," tracks the 30-year history of BMX bicycling from its birth in Long Beach onward.
From abroad, "Adventure High" is an Estonian film about five adventure-hungry travelers bound from Mongolia to Nepal, a four-month journey through the Gobi desert and Himalayas.
For those with a taste for the wild side, popular underground cycling filmmaker Lucas Brunelle takes viewers along via helmet camera as bicycle messengers race through New York's high-octane traffic in "Monster Track VI." A second sampler of his hold-your-breath filmmaking, which has a zealous following on the Internet, shows under the title "Lucas Brunelle Video."
Also in the hard-core urban vein, a 20-minute preview will be shown of the forthcoming "M.A.S.H.," a film about fixed-gear riding in San Francisco. Festival organizer Barbur says the movie could prove to be "a turning point in urban bike culture."
A word to parents: Some films contain profanity, adult themes and bicycle riding without regard to safety.
2006 Bicycle Film Festival
Where: Vine Theater, 6321 Hollywood Blvd.
When: 7:30 and 9:30 p.m. June 23; 1, 3, 5, 7:15 and 9 p.m. June 24
Price: $8 per program
What: "Joy Ride" art show
Where: Don O'Melveny Gallery, 5472 Wilshire Blvd., L.A.
When: 6 p.m. to midnight Wednesday