“A symbol of modernity and change, but also of elegance.”
Text: Nick Chapman
Photos: Andy Donohoe
Artur Lourenço, a professional photographer who makes the long-running photo blog Cycling Lisbon, is a quiet, mild-mannered older gentleman with closely cropped silver hair and beard, black thickframed glasses and a flat cap. His enthusiasm is clear from the start when we meet him in a trendy cafe - pointing out where he has locked up his elegant vintage bike, showing us his Ardennes pannier bag made by a friend, Marie Vieira, and reeling off list of names of people and places we should meet and visit whilst Bikevibe is in Lisbon. Although his English is very good, he asks us to wait to begin the interview for his wife who happens to be a professional translator. It is only when she arrives and he starts to tell us about his cycling life that Artur’s true passion and his serious love for building a bike community in Lisbon becomes clear.
When asked if his is a life-long love affair with bikes, Artur responds: “I always dreamed about bikes, and about Lisbon with a lot of bikes - I have always thought that it is the perfect city for cycling.” Whilst he concedes that the Seven Hills for which the city is famous can make it difficult, it is a pleasure to ride here (especially to descend), and you get a beautiful view from the top! A town that is flat, he says, is an easier place to cycle but it’s not as fun.
“Since I was little,” he explains, “I have been in love with bicycles.” Contrary to his friends, he always preferred bike rides to football games, and a threemonth summer holiday in France when he was 16 deepened his understanding of the bicycle: not just a machine for pleasure and sport, but also an object of mobility, for transport. It was a discovery that increased his passion.
Over ten years ago, Artur started a photo blog about Lisbon to document its diversity and beauty which were not being recognised. There is, he says, a very interesting symbiosis between the old and new here that you don’t find in other cities. It began as a project where he would post one new photo a day for a year. Bicycles were, he felt, one of the newest elements in the city that he was photographing. “So I focussed on that - the bike was a symbol of modernity and change, but also of elegance.”
The photos of people on bikes got a lot of comments and interest. However these were focussed on disbelief, saying that the people weren’t real, that only Artur saw them, he was accused of staging the pictures. Wondering if cycling in the city is hidden, his answer is simple: “Your eyes have to be open.” These people didn’t want to see, 95% of Lisboners don’t think that it’s possible to cycle here and will pretend it doesn’t exist.
To Artur the bicycle is a beautiful object, and the best thing to photograph. Viewers who enjoyed his work on the blog asked him to make one specifically for cycling, to show that it was possible. He decided to stage an exhibition of his photos at the Vélocité Café which proved to be very popular. It ended up being shown all over the country, winning a national mobility award and being displayed in the Portuguese parliament.
Considering why it had been so popular, he says it was the start of bikes in Lisbon. Cycling had become fashionable and people liked to see themselves in a photograph. “Of course, there had been bikes and things for cyclists before, but not in a coherent way - showing bikes in use in day to day life, as part of the city’s culture.” Nearly all bike users in Portugal use it for sport - who Artur, and many others we spoke to, referred to as ‘lycra bikers’. Showing bicycles being used by normal people in normal clothes in a normal setting was very important. He has been documenting and presenting cycling here for so long. The continued presence and the consistency of his work (as well as the quality) means that people come to him and his blog to find out what is happening and his photographs work as a positive influence.
On encouraging cycling, he thinks that the biggest challenge is to convince others that the hills are not a problem, announcing that Lisbon is 80% flat. When everyone present laughs he gives a knowing smile and hold up his hands, but insists that it needs to be understood there are always routes that avoid the hills. The other thing is that cycling is not dangerous - to overcome this investment needs to be made by the city. Many people see this investment as a waste but if more of them cycled then it would make more economical sense. It is, he notes, like a fish with it’s tail in it’s mouth. Artur points out that he is not alone in this fight, that there are many people doing good work advocating for cycling: “The main challenge Is to remove cars from the city. It goes beyond cycling, there is an environmental challenge here for all of us - we have no other planet.” His favourite place to cycle in the city is Monsanto Forest Park. One of the largest green city spaces in Europe, the trees allow the city to tackle and reduce the traffic emissions, but there is much more to be done - “It is a fight!”.
Rather than getting involved in any official capacity, beyond being a member of the Portuguese Federation of Cycle Tourism and Bicycle Users (and his blog of course), he likes to try and make change on an individual level - talking to people. He tells the story of recently threatening to stop shopping a the local supermarket if they did not install cycle parking. “I try to have a pedagogical approach”, he says, “By always being on my bike I’m an advert.” His neighbours are a good example: to begin with they thought he was crazy, but now they see his bicycling as normal, and even use bikes themselves from time to time.
Following the two of the main threads of Artur’s cycling passion, I ask if the bike for him is more an object of beauty or a tool of functionality. He answers that these things are all wrapped up together - “For me it is an object of happiness.” He points out that bikes are very useful in that they allow humans to travel quickly, to overcome long distances and to go almost anywhere, which is a joy, but it also a useful tool in our daily lives. Foremost though he comes back to this notion that it is an object of happiness. “I like to go slowly”, he says, “To absorb everything around me.” He leaves his house early in order to enjoy his rides as much as possible, but the biggest pleasure is to ride home after work - “A joy you cannot get from any other means of transport.” Going from a macro view to a micro one sums up well Artur’s approach - he sees and believes in an overarching cycling community, but understands the need for individuals and small personal changes to influence bigger ones.
“In the town hall there is the recognition that there needs to be change, and there is a will to make that change happen. However, public opinion needs to change to allow this. This blog is my humble contribution to help that change happen.”
Visit Artur’s blog for Lisbon cycling stories.