The first time I went to China was in 2001, and at that time there were still a lot of bikes everywhere, and I loved it. You’d go onto a footbridge, over the street, and look down and there was a sea of bikes. Beijing is built with really wide streets, and they always had really wide bike lanes. These lanes were full of bikes and red colored taxis, with some black ones, which are government official cars or very special VIP taxis.
In 2004, the official numbers were that every day there were 1,000 more cars on the road in Beijing. One thousand people that didn’t own a car, just got their driver’s license, just got the money, and bought a car. Now the number is 2,000 new cars a day on the road. So, upon returning from seven days of travel, there will be 14,000 additional cars on the roads! Beijing can’t cope with it right now. There are traffic jams all day on every street. Car drivers are like, “Oh, there’s a bike lane. It’s empty. Why don’t we just drive in the bike lane!” Which is officially not allowed, but they just do it. The police, government officials, and the military do it, so everybody does it.
This past year was really a mess. There are very few regular people on bikes anymore. Some people ride electric bikes, but it’s mainly the top part of the poorer class, who cannot afford a car. They now have electric bikes to get around because it’s still cheaper than taking public transport in the city.
I get people that come into my shop out of curiosity. When they appear confused by all the bike parts and juggling balls I ask them if they ride bikes. More often than not, they get offended. Especially girls. It’s like I was insulting them by saying they look poor. But with fixed gears it’s different because it’s really cool, and Chinese youngsters that have money, they look at what’s cool in other places, so they are now interested to get a bike. It was funny seeing these Chinese kids driving their BMW’s and then buying extremely expensive, handpicked vintage bicycle parts from Italy and Japan for their fixed gears. I started a group ride in Beijing and invited them. We would meet up and then we’d ride a couple kilometers and they would want to stop and have dinner and beers. It was more of a way to show off their bikes. The ride has evolved over the last year, especially during the summertime. By the end of the year, we’d meet up and ride East a bit and then we’d ride North a bit and ride around the city. We’d quickly have 50 kilometers and they would still be riding.
How did you get started in performing as an artistic cyclist?When I was six, I started gymnastics competitively until the age of 13. I was training every day of the week, plus special training camps on the weekend. I was on the state team, and suddenly I stopped. I decided I didn’t want to compete in gymnastics anymore. So, I had a lot of free time and I was looking for other sports.
I had a friend who did unicycling, but from what she told me, it sounded really boring because there would be four people sitting on a unicycle having their arms out straight, riding behind each other indoors and making circles, or a figure eight and I was like what’s the point. It’s just synchronized unicycling. I didn’t think that would be something for me.
She was really insistent on me to come have a look. So, one day I went there into the gym, and there was this lady visiting from Northern Germany who did tricks on a bike [artistic cycling.] I said okay, that’s what I’m going to do. If I would have come any other day to that training session, I would have seen only the synchronized unicyclists, and would’ve said yes, this is as boring as I thought and just done something else.
Artistic cycling is a club sport in Germany. So in the beginning they gave me a bike, but it broke shortly after I got it. A couple months later I decided to buy a bike myself, which was really unusual because club sports usually paid for things. I wanted my own so I could be independent and do whatever I wanted with my bicycle. After two months my coach had nothing more to teach me. I did everything that he’s ever done and knew how to teach.
So, you were a natural It was because I was a gymnast. It was a very different approach, no other cyclists in the sport had come from a gymnastics background before. I was eager to learn new tricks. I wanted to learn a headstand on the bike. People kept on telling me I needed years of experience to try such a difficult trick. Then at training camp I found a guy who was willing to support the bicycle while tried it. After about 45 minutes, I was able to do it. Probably because I can do a regular headstand perfectly. So, if I’m on a bike or not, it doesn’t really change much. I mean, of course, it [the bike] moves and it’s a bit dangerous, but it is very similar. It was the same thing with the handstand. I learned it extremely fast. I even learned press-up handstands, which no junior woman had done before on the bike.
Is there a name for these performing bikes? The bike is an artistic bicycle, or in German, Kunstrad. K-U-N-S-T, which means art and then R-A-D, which means bike or a wheel. Nowadays there’s roughly two main German manufacturers, a Czech company and a Swiss company making them. They are all hand-made.
When I started, the lugged bike that they gave me was from a guy named Walter. It broke right away. Then they said okay, they’re going to send it to the manufacturer. He hand built bikes, but he did it as a side business. He was doing plumbing and piping, welding, heat welding or something. So, we sent it to him and he said yeah, it’ll be finished in six months. This wasn’t going to work. Of course, the club said I could ride on one of their bikes, but if you’re training on one bike, every other bike is really different. It has slightly different geometry and different balance. You end up having to relearn everything. So, I bought my first bike from a company called Langenberg. They were only doing bicycles and they were also hand built. It was a lot easier to work with them. They made me a lugged bike and after six months, the frame broke right at the lug. I sent it in and they repaired it in two days. Got it back, trained again, and after a few months, it broke again on a different lug. The frame broke like ten times. I got really annoyed sending back and forth, paying money and waiting for the repairs.
After a while I was fed up getting my frames repaired. I finally found a welder that made me a bike with the same geometry but with larger tubes and no lugs. I wanted it TIG welded with gussets around the head tubes. After my frame was made the other manufacturer started to look into bigger tubing and non-lugged frames. It was quite interesting to see how the frames evolved.
You said there are specifics about the bikes used in the competitions? Yes, especially the handlebars. The stem and handlebar are one piece. It has to be one piece and it has to be like a racing drop bar but turned upwards. There’s no offset or extension of the stem. The axis is right above the head tube. There are no exceptions to this handlebar.
The seat is also special. I don’t know exactly the measurements but it is longer than the normal saddle. They are made with cast iron and are really stable. This is very important because when you sit on it or press on it you want little movement from your body to go into the wheels. The bikes are really heavy. They’re made for balance, strength and direct control.
Tell us about the competition in artistic cycling. What is an event like? I always found it funny that the sport in Germany is called artistic cycling. My first rule book said “everything artistic is forbidden.” What that really meant was you’re not allowed to have a costume or music or whatever you want. If the rules say your fingers have to be a certain way and your thumb is out or your one finger is up, you get points deducted. It has to be exactly like this. The rules are very German and precise. There’s a catalogue with figures which have been implemented throughout the years. Over time some figures are taken out and some new figures are added. Each cyclist can choose from that catalogue what they want to do. Each figure is worth a certain amount of points. For example, riding without hands might be 0.2 points because it’s really easy compared to a handstand for 17.6 points. So, you want to pick all the figures with the highest amount of points that you can do. You’re only allowed to select 28 figures.
Then the rider puts them into a certain flow or routine that is doable in the allotted time. You have to send that into the competition committee, usually four weeks in advance. You’re not allowed in any way to change the routine, once submitted. If you do the last figure first, all the others will be scored as zero. You have to do everything in the order of your submitted routine. They check to see if your body was in the right position. Did you do the full round? Did you do it perfectly? And then you’d get a mark off of the points. So, you have to choose wisely. Some figures with high values might be really risky because you might not be able to do them perfectly. Most of the difficult tricks are done last. Mainly because it is hard to set yourself up for them. It’s really hard to finish within the time limit and often you have to choose what figures to leave out while you are performing. The performing area is made up of a circle with a radius of 4 meters with a smaller “middle circle” inside. The middle circle has a 2 meter radius, and you’re not allowed to ride inside it. To optimize your time you want to ride as close to the middle circle as possible. You have to do each figure for a full circle. If you go inside, the judges mark off a whole or half point, depending how much of the circle you’ve ridden through. Transitions between tricks can be done outside the performing circles. When you enter the circle in a figure that is when the judges start giving you points.
Some of the rules of the sport are strange. About ten years ago, you had to wear lycra tights and a T-shirt when performing. This was a bit ridiculous, especially for the women. If you are holding a position where your arms are pointed out and you are leaning forward anyone can look through to see your bra. You also do certain tricks where your shirt gets caught on the handlebars. I found it so stupid, and it was in the rule book that you had to wear a T-shirt. I started bringing my gymnastics top to competitions and telling the officials I forgot my T-shirt at home. They always wanted me to ask someone to borrow a T-shirt. I always made excuses about the fit. Then they would have a meeting and discuss my situation. Then they would say okay, you’re allowed to compete today without a T-shirt. That was maybe like ten years ago. They finally changed the rule so you don’t have to wear a T-shirt. It now says you must cover your breasts and your stomach, which is cool. I can ride in a G-string with nothing else because it doesn’t say your butt has to be covered. It’s just the breasts and the belly. I never went that extreme in a competition though.
I started competing in ’89 and in ’92 my club organized a South German Competition. I asked if I could perform an interlude while the judges were scoring all the points with calculators. This usually takes a while and nothing ever goes on. They agreed to let me do my thing. I didn’t tell them what I was going to do...
I took the rule book and decided to break as many rules as I could, within my performance. I wanted to do something really provocative, so I decided to choreograph my performance to music and add gymnastic elements.
The reactions were really strange. Most people had a confused look on their face. Later I had one guy ask me if I wanted to perform at his company event. He offered me 20 Deutsche Marks, so I did it! At that event someone else hired me for another event. And that is how I started performing on the side.
After a few years, I was getting better at artistic cycling. I was on the national team, and somebody found out I was doing these performances. They tried to ban me from competitions forever. The officials were saying I was making the sport look ridiculous. I told them I was trying to give you ideas of how we could make this sport more attractive. I would do maybe just 12 tricks and present them nicer. The audiences were always amazed. I presented an idea to have a freestyle kind of competition where anybody can do whatever they what. They can do something funny, to hip-hop, or whatever inspired people. Of course they all voted against it. To this day some people think that I’m trying to make a mockery of the sport by doing this.
So, what’s your relationship with Bicycle Film Festival? I had a promotional DVD that I made to apply for circuses and big theaters. It was just a promotional video at that time. I’m not sure how Brendt [Barbur] (Founding Festival Director) heard of me. Maybe through my website? He asked if I had a movie, so I sent him my promotional DVD. He ended up screening it at the BFF in 2005. Brendt said the reaction was amazing and asked me to come out and perform.
In 2007, I came to New York to perform at the BFF. In 2008, I performed at the BFF in San Francisco and LA. Last year I only went to Tokyo, and this year Tokyo has already invited me back. Taipei has also invited me.
Fantastic! Where have you traveled for cycling? I love the cycling culture and I love cycling. Besides performing I am also into road cycling and I recently started getting into cyclocross. I mainly use my fixed gear around the city.
Back in 1998, I booked a ticket to New York. The plan was to buy a car and drive across the country with my trick bike. I had booked a return flight from San Francisco. Before I left for my trip, I met a guy in Germany and he ended up falling in love with me. He joined me on the trip, but didn’t want to drive cross country. We ended up flying to Seattle and rented a car to drive down the West coast. As soon as we arrived in San Francisco, I put my trick bike together and started performing in a square downtown. I got some advice from other street performers. They told me I needed a hat to go around and collect money after I performed. I tried it, and ended up making $60 after each performance. It was fun! I could afford to have good food and drinks at night.
In 2008, during my visit for the BFF, the fixed gear guys took me to the place where they did their tricks. I’m like oh my God…Ten years ago I was here in the exact same place performing with my trick bike and people were just staring at me. I was so amazed. It’s too bad that I never went back with my bike within the ten years from 1998. I would have witnessed the beginnings of what's happening now. Somehow I missed that time period. All the fixed gear guys and messengers.