Anatomy of a reliable, everyday bicycle (in Bogotá)

A few years ago I read an article called “The anatomy of a reliable, everyday bicycle” on the Holland-based bicycle blog “A view from the cycle path” (, in which the author describes the normative qualities of the prototypical Dutch bicycle. It is a vehicle built for the purpose of mundane practicality and rider comfort in the cycle paths and cycle tracks of that country’s cities and towns. It is characterized by an upright posture, racks and baskets for carrying things, minimal gearing, enclosed chain, etc. In the U.S., at least, the Dutch-style bicycle has been enjoying an upsurge of popularity given its utility, upright posture, and stylish good looks though it’s still fairly unusual to actually see one.

So what is the “anatomy of a reliable, everyday bicycle in Bogotá? It’s quite different here…

Practically any time I leave my apartment, I see bicycles being used for everyday transportation. They are ubiquitous in this city. But they are also heterogeneous. There is no single or normative “anatomy of a reliable, everyday bicycle” because there are many bicycle types, adapted for different purposes and the variable needs and conditions of the rider. If the sometimes contorted bodies of riders sitting on bicycles that appear too small for them seems to suggest, “comfort” doesn’t always seem to be a major priority of every rider here.

For low-income riders–the vast majority of bicycle riders here in the city–a major priority is affordability, as well as durability on city streets with irregular surfaces, potholes, rocks, litter, fragments of brick, and the general flotsam and jetsam of urban waste. So inexpensive mountain bikes (Colombian-made) with knobby tires are very common, such as the blue bike in the foreground. Some of them, such as this one, are outfitted with front shocks for dampening the impact of irregular surfaces.

Such bikes may, or may not, have fenders and a rack. Maybe a blinky light, but not always. Backpacks and plastic bags hanging on handlebars are considered practical.

There are some imported inexpensive everyday bicycles, some of these are Indian-made “gentlemen’s bikes” (known here as turismeros, or touring bikes):


Another category of everyday, reliable bikes are work bikes, which are also common here since many deliveries are made on bicycle. They come in all shapes and sizes:

IMG_0083  IMG_0313IMG_1174

As you move up in class status, ideas about reliable, everyday transportation shift. For many people who can afford them, an imported folding bike such as a Dahon or Tern with rack, fenders, and hub gears is considered highly practical not just because it can carry panniers but because it can be brought inside instead of left outside for bike thieves to grab. Folding bikes are fairly common among bike advocates, who are serious about their investment and the utility of their bikes:


“Reliability” is a relative concept too, especially when it’s fairly easy and inexpensive to get your bike repaired on any given Sunday at Ciclovía, where bike mechanics set up temporary shop along the sidewalks to repair bicycles.


The bikes above are the not the only bikes one encounters in everyday use; there are the others one sees out there on the streets, including ten-speeds, the fixies (especially popular among young men), even road racing bikes. The diversity of bicycle types reflects the social heterogeneity of the people who ride them, and the specific conditions in which they bicycles are likely to be ridden.

Buying a Bicycle in Bogotá

About three weeks ago, my family and I purchased bicycles. For me, the purpose of having a bicycle is obvious: riding one–to and from my work at the Universidad Nacional, running errands, etc.–is a form of participant observation. Having the actual experience of riding around helps me better understand what others tell me about it: the mundane frustrations, the excitement, the marginality, the feelings of moral righteousness as one passes automobiles snarled in traffic jams, the experience of taking it for repairs, and so on. The issues are complex and subtle.

Here is the bicycle I bought. I set it up as a utilitarian urban bike, with fenders and a rack:


For my family, on the other hand, having bicycles is pretty much solely for a recreational purpose: to ride them in Ciclovías, the Sunday morning tradition–a “rolling parade” as someone called it–here where numerous streets are closed to automobiles and people come out in droves to ride bicycles, walk, rollerblade, etc. as seen here with my son:IMG_0955Depending on where you buy it, purchasing a bicycle can be quite different from buying a bicycle in the U.S. There are some shops, mostly in the middle-class and wealthy northern part of the city, that sell mid-level and high-level imports (Specialized, Trek, etc.) and the layout of the shop, the selection of bicycles, the interaction with an attendant–and the prices–are similar to any of the some 4,000 shops you’d find in the U.S. But there are other shops–the majority–that are densely-packed, small-scale businesses where Bogotanos shop for bikes and parts that are concentrated next to each other in a few locations around the city. It’s bit like how retail is clustered in New York City: if you want to buy restaurant equipment, find the neighborhood where it’s sold and you’ll find a bunch of shops next to each other. So it is with retail in Bogotá.

So when we decided to buy our bicycles we chose one of those bike shop areas, a neighborhood called 7 de Agosto (around Calle 68 with Carrera 28), where there about two dozen shops.


One of the striking things about the shop we chose–and it is not unusual in the mainstream shops–is that the attendants were women. My wife responded positively, contrasting it with her experience in U.S. bike shops where she says she feels alienated by the masculinity and tech-heavy vibe. Here she felt welcome because the women we interacted with–the shop attendant who helped us pick our bikes, the woman behind the counter who handled the financial transaction–were asking about who we were, what we were doing here, how our kids (who were with us) were adjusting to life here, sharing with us suggestions about where to eat lunch nearby, etc. I asked the woman behind the counter why it was so common for women to be in the bike shop business and she explained jokingly, “Because we’re so much more intelligent and careful with money than men!” Many bike shops are family-owned and you’ll see spouses working together and their kids playing around the shop. Except for the high-end shops I’ve visited, one gets the sense that bike shop employees and owners are not “cyclists” as they often are in the U.S., that is, bike enthusiasts who identify themselves closely with bike culture and events. Here, the bicycle appears to be just another commodity to sell.

We bought the cheapest bicycles possible, Colombian-manufactured mountain bikes, for about $75 each. At this level, bike sizes don’t really vary so the process of picking a bike is not around sizing but which color or substitutions you want (front shocks, higher end shifters, etc.)–they’ll pretty much compose the bike you want. We didn’t test the bikes at all–lack of trust in strangers is a pervasive feature of life here, and it didn’t seem conceivable at this mid-to-low-end shop to even ask to try the bikes out on the city streets out front. One result is that it is very common to see people riding bikes that clearly don’t fit them, usually because the bikes are too small. When we made the purchase, they did not push accessories on us which I’ve seen is common in shops at home (locks, tools, fenders, etc.).

One of the important issues to get squared away right off the bat once you pay for a bike is for the shop to issue our “proof of ownership” card. Here’s mine:


Bicycle theft is a big problem here. One measure to deal with it–mostly ineffective at combating the problem, according to my friends in bicycle circles–is that police can stop you while you’re on a bicycle and ask to see your proof of ownership card. They have the ability to confiscate the bicycle if you cannot prove you own it. And apparently they do actually confiscate bikes, in big quantities, to the point that I’ve heard there is a huge mountain of bicycles in a police yard somewhere in the city where all the confiscated bicycles reside.


Thoughts on ethnography and blogs

I’ve been quite busy since my last blog posting, which was a while ago now, but there’s something I’ve found awkward about thinking about posting here while in the midst of doing fieldwork, blogging-while-fieldworking being something I’ve never done before until now. Fieldwork is a slow process that comes in fits and starts, and has episodes of intensity and then seemingly long periods of not feeling much is happening. It doesn’t align well at all with the immediate feedback and gratification world of the internet and blogging. It’s like “slow food’s” criticism of fast food: rushing through a meal just fills your belly; it doesn’t fill your brain or spirit and ignores the subtle complexities of the food itself, where it comes from, etc. Ethnography is the “slow” method.

Not to say that ethnography can’t be fairly quick under certain circumstances (AKA parachute ethnography, done largely by applied anthropologists) but when I’m in the middle of fieldwork as I have been here during the past month, I feel like my central goal is to get as many field notes down as I can (and I have been taking a lot of field notes), not getting something “out there” for public consumption. Telling stories from it all feels too raw, my “data” being not-yet-ready-for-primetime. In my twenty years of using this method in many different social contexts, I’ve discovered that it takes a lot of mental processing, thought, and reading to go from the raw field notes to saying something that is truly interesting and worthwhile.

Furthermore, field notes are often full of a ton of what I call “white noise,” that is observations, snippets of conversation, reflections, etc. that will never see the light of day because they don’t align with the themes and patterns that seem to be emerging through this inductive process, or because in spite of my best intentions I’m not able to follow up on them as I opportunistically or strategically dial in on other emerging stories or themes that I sense or realize are more critical than I had expected. It all points to a simple fact: cultural dynamics and the process of ethnographic research are messy and don’t fit neatly into the world of packaged blogs.

Having said that, in the coming days I will get back on it and post here on what I’ve been up to with the caveat that it’s all very raw. I will begin with the story of buying my bike…

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