Saturday, 6 October 2012

Underground bike culture in Buenos Aires - Argentina Independent

Tucked away between the Hipódromo Argentino and Jorge Newberry Airport, the Velódromo de la Cuidad be Buenos Aires is one of the city’s best kept secrets. From the top of stands designed to seat 15,000 people you are treated to a commanding view over Parque Tres de Febrero, the high rise apartment blocks of Palermo, and the enormous outdoor track below.

For four decades the cream of Latin America’s cyclists hurtled around its banked corners, emboldened by the shouts and screams of thousands of fans. But now it lies empty, the track colonised by vegetation and the stands silent. The velodrome was built by Juan Domingo Perón for the Panamerican Games in 1951 but in a tale typical of 1990s Argentina a corrupt privatisation deal led to its abandonment, and it has lain empty ever since.

Elsewhere in the city, however, one of the most vibrant cycling communities in the world is just coming out of hibernation. With the blossoming of spring in the southern hemisphere, Buenos Aires retakes the mantle of world cycling capital.

Over the past decade an incredibly vibrant subculture has grown up around the bike, one that has spawned anarchist bike maintenance cooperatives, clandestine “puerta cerrada” bike modding workshops and mysterious riding groups who make secretive midnight explorations of the city. Oh, and tonnes of great parties.

This weekend sees the first shoots of what looks set to become another fantastic summer of cycling in BA as the second Che Polo South American Bike Polo Fest kicks off at Plaza Unidad Latinoamericano. Thirty male and female teams from all over Latin America will compete over two days, accompanied by a host of parallel activities such as food, music, parties and group cycle rides of the city.

It seems Argentines just have polo in their blood as the two-wheeled cousin of the traditional equine version is booming. Check the Argentina Fixed Gear forum for polo matches throughout the year.

In Buenos Aires, somehow it always seems events like these are about much more than just cycling. Che Polo’s organisers see their event as “a weekend to strengthen urban cycling in our city but at the same time an instrument that will build a greater union between countries and cultures of our continent”.

While the movement is too diverse to generalise, BA’s cyclists reject the selfishness of the car-dominated society and instead use the bike as a political tool to push for self-sufficiency, sustainability, and cooperation.

Fabricicleta, for example, is a community workshop and bike repair cooperative housed in a former pizzeria in Villa Urquiza. Inspired by the anarchist ideal of self-sufficiency, they provide tools and know-how to anyone with a broken bike, or to those who just want to learn more about cycle maintenance.

If you thought cycling made you automatically eco-conscious, think again. Not content with a zero-emission machine, Argentine company Monochrome recycle dilapidated old bikes and rejuvenate them in the brand’s trademark white.

With a slightly different take on bicycle recycling, Rashe Cycles or Born in Garage, two of the finest “puerta cerrada” private cycle workshops in Buenos Aires hand build custom bikes to order from refurbished retro parts. They take pride in producing unique two-wheeled works of art every time.

Dispensing with steel and aluminium altogether, Bambucicleta take sustainability to new heights. The workshop has crafted a range of fully capable bikes from bamboo, using approximately 10% of the energy and resources used in traditional bike manufacture. Their bamboo fixie is a true master work.

To discover BA’s thriving cycling culture for yourself a good place to start is the La Vida en Bici blog. Artist Mati Kalwill’s project aims to “fill the world with bicycles” by encouraging love for cycling.

Or you can find a set of wheels and head down to the Obelisco at 4pm on the first Sunday of any month. Here the phenomenal Masa Critíca (Critical Mass) brings the city’s cyclists together into a rolling street carnival one thousand strong to reclaim the streets and spread awareness of the bike. Free of the militant edge sometimes found at Critical Mass in the northern hemisphere, the buena onda radiates from the river of cyclists.

Whether you are an avid cyclist or still yet to be converted, its incredible and unique atmosphere makes Masa Crítica truly the best way to experience Buenos Aires.

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