Bikes in Nicaragua
Posted on 08 August 2008
Editors note: the problem with working in a bike store is that you tend to observe bike culture wherever you go. Nicaragua was amazing, an example of bikes linking short distances better than cars or walking, and an amazing identity politics. Status meant loads of stickers, disc wheels, and triathlon bars - none of which made any sense, but strangely, that only made it more glorious.
The problem with working in a bike store and taking holidays is that you can rarely escape bicycles - but that's really not so bad. I found myself in Nicaragua a couple of weeks ago snapping pictures left right and center as bikes whizzed past me. While it may not be true for larger cities like Managua, the bike is the dominant means of transportation (besides colourful buses) in the smaller towns I visited in Nicaragua. Unlike Amsterdam, where city bikes have been refined over a century of industry development, Nicaragua has no indigenous bike industry and imports mostly cheap mountain bikes from China. These bikes are turned into practical city bikes by the addition of huge lavishly coloured BMX pegs that are put on the front and rear wheels so that friends can be transported. This, however, is where the practicality ends and individual expression begins. Bike stores - usually small stalls at chaotic public markets - sell cans of spray paint, anodized brake calipers, plastic disc wheels, triathlon aero bars, and tons of stickers. The end result is a riotous custom made bike, each one different from the next. Most of the bikes are stickered with huge garishly glittered "Campagnolo" or "Shimano" stickers, which would probably rattle a few trademark developers in Italy and Japan. Beach cruisers are sold as "Campagnolo Super Record", and other brands are "Toby Trek" (spelled in the same typefont as Trek bikes) and Raly USA, which clearly references the venerable British brand. Most Nicaraguans probably have no idea what kind of anarchy they are imposing on our North American concept of brand (or perhaps they do), but they remain intensely proud of their bikes. How refreshing it was to leave the car culture of Costa Rica (San Jose especially) and end up in a bike culture that has its own unrecognizable vernacular of commuter bike, developed chaotically with whatever could be scrounged up. In any case, the bicycle was king. I rented an 1958 Schwinn Paramount in town - in immaculate condition - and the little kids ran after me, making fun of me for riding such an old grandpa bike. I thought I was cool, but clearly I wasn't. I didn't have a Toby Trek with full BMX pegs, disc wheels and triathlon bars. But the Nicaraguans proved one thing: you have to love your bike to love riding it, and sometimes that means form overrides function.</p