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Two wheeled abandon

Fabulous, fairy-lit, fuckoff bikes pimped to within an inch of their velo-dramatic lives are the cogs in the Burning Man machine

Published in Treadlie Magazine issue #6, March 2012

The Black Rock Desert in Nevada is too hot to sustain plant or animal life. There is nothing here; just a dry and cracked desert floor extending for miles in every direction and the sky, an electric-blue dome arching far overhead. The atmosphere is filled with an unearthly quiet; I could be on Mars.

Then out of leftfield comes a giant, iridescent-green chameleon shimmering in the relentless desert heat. I blink, but this is no mirage. As it slides closer, I realise it’s an aluminium-framed, LED-lit amphibious art car being propelled by four pedal-pushing people.

Of course. Of course it is, and to be honest I’m a little lost out here, so I wheel my bike around and tail the lizard – official name Cyclameleon – over bumpy alkaline terrain back towards Base Camp. But a few hundred metres in I’m distracted, again, by a phone box emblazoned with the words ‘Talk to God’. I pull over thinking, why not? God doesn’t usually pick up when I call, and this time was no exception. If she/he/it had, I imagine a honeyed voice dripping through the phone, advising me to layer my bike seat with soft, bouncy cushions…by the end of the week, I can hardly sit down.

Backpedal a few months to July 2011, when I decide to join Coco Poco Loco, a crew of 150+ Australians heading to the US of A to camp, run a bar and run amok at Burning Man. A week-long exercise in community, art, self-expression, self-reliance and hedonism, Burning Man has been happening in a former salt lake bed in the southwestern state of Nevada since 1991.

The list of things I’m advised I’ll need for this – the strangest and most memorable trip of my life – range from the obvious to the outlandish: water, warm clothes, and electrolytes. Eye goggles, a tutu, a snuggie. “And a bike! You must have a bike.” A bike. Really? Yes, really.

Last year’s event was the biggest yet: 54,000 people travelling from all over to create a temporary, art-strewn metropolis measuring 2.4 kilometres in diameter. Everyone has a bike. A fabulous, fairy-lit, fuck-off bike pimped to within an inch of its velo-dramatic life – the more eye-catching and unique, the better.

Pimping has a dual purpose. One, it makes you look good. Two, when you stumble out of a bass-pumping theme camp at four o’clock in the morning to find your eyes popping with the enormity of finding your trusty steed in a sea of bicycle bling, having one that speaks your name really, really helps.

Some of the Coco Poco Loco crew visit the retail behemoth of the American dream – Walmart – and invest in cheap bikes destined for thrift store recycling. Others, me included, hire ours from Hammer and Cyclery, a Minneapolis-based outfit who take pre-orders online, then arrive onsite with several hundred fully-serviced, ready-to-roll bikes.

Finding Hammer and Cyclery is one of the first things I do. A friendly dude wearing a skirt and bunny ears helps me pick a medium-sized blue and white cruiser and pumps my wheels for me, pronto. Then, I head to a Playa-fication workshop where I transform her from everyday beauty to pageant winner with ribbon, pipe cleaners, duct tape, and metre after metre of electroluminescent wire, and I’m ready to roll, playa style. (Playa is a geographical term for an area of flat, dried-up land, especially a desert basin. It has also been appropriated by participants - Burners - as the name for the expanse of desert in front of Black Rock City).

Life on two wheels is given its dues at Burning Man. Sergey Brin of Google is a regular Burner, and gifts a bike share scheme to the Playa. A team from Las Vegas create Rack Attack!, a mutant centipede bike rack for people to park their bikes in, while Coco Poco Loco get hands on, offering a nightly bike valet service as part of the Ashram Galactica, a bar and hotel and Burning Man institution gifted to us by the LA-based Ashram crew. Then there are the organised bike events: rides, ramp jumping competitions, alley cat meets, naked rides. Take your pick.

By day three, I've fallen down the rabbit hole. Reality has split sideways and my bike has morphed into an extension of my body; an extremely handy, multifunctional fifth limb. Thirsty? Drink, on bike. Hear good music? Dance, on bike. Stumble across some come-hither art? Interact, on bike. Make a new friend? Hug, on bike. Feeling amorous? Make sweet love, on a bike.

Burners are expected to get on board with Burning Man's ten principles, among them radical inclusion, decommodification, gifting, self reliance, communal effort, and participation.  And they do, to a mind-blowing, tear-jerking degree: witness the burns themselves, three nights of huge, frenzied fire reminding us that our time here on the Playa and here in this life is temporary.

We cyclists, we get it. We understand the concept of liberation as conscious choice: liberation from the confines of a car, from the pitfalls of rush hour traffic, from the fluctuating price of petrol as a means of getting from A to B. We take the risk; we embrace transition and we choose freedom and there is something profoundly liberating about riding a bike around a huge, blazing fire in the middle of nowhere with a bunch of like-minded souls, whooping and hollering like a kid in single digits as the darkness bends and folds around you.

‘Welcome Home’ the greeters smile when we first arrive,climb out of our vehicle, hit a gong, lie down and make dust angels. Thank you, Burning Man. My bike and I are happy to be here.