Published in Treadlie Issue 11, June 2013

When Auckland’s Velociteers performed at Melbourne’s Bikefest earlier this year on the big blue Melbourne Bike Share bikes, it was the first time they’d all ridden the same model in a show. Usually members of the cycling dance troupe ride their own bikes – a mixture of road bikes, step throughs and fold-ups, from Giants to Raleighs to Bromptons. In synchronised cycling this can present a challenge – balancing wheel size with bike speed and rider ability is tricky business when, for example, you have eight people riding in concentric circles in two rows staggered outwards from a central axis (a move they call ‘The Spoke’, which is very popular with audiences).

But Velociteers are not ones to shy away from a challenge. Founder Barbara Grace started the group in 2010 in response to a call for ideas for the night-time illumination festival Art in the Dark. “The organisers were asking for artists to put in proposals for light-based artworks and performances,” says Barbara. “I thought, there must be a place for bikes in that.” Having recently seen the documentary Veer, about the bike culture in Portland, Oregon, she was inspired by the Sprockettes, an all-girl bicycle dance troupe who produce circus-like performances complete with hot pink leotards and pyrotechnics. “I’d also seen my first Monkey Lights – LED lights programmed to make patterns on bicycle spokes,” she says. “I put in a proposal with the title Velo Disco and wrote that a group of synchronised cyclists were going to perform patterns lit up with LED lights. The proposal was accepted, so then I had to get a group together!”

She put out the call for participants on Auckland’s bike blogs and eventually had a group big enough for an eight-person routine. Ruth Barton was one of the first to join. “I think people appreciate seeing cycling outside of the contexts of racing or commuting,” she says. “Audiences also seem to like our lit-up night time performances, I think because the wheel lights are such a novelty.”

Since their first show at Art in the Dark, the Velociteers have appeared at numerous arts, sustainability and cycling festivals in Auckland. Their formations reference folk dancing, weaving and marching girls, while Barbara notes that the activity also reminds her of equestrian dressage events from her horseriding youth. Listing moves they’ve invented, Barbara and Ruth mention the spoke, the radar, the archway – and something called the drug deal. “Pulling all the ideas together is the biggest challenge,” says Barbara. “We don’t have an art director or manager or coach so decision making can be tricky.”

Routines are developed on a tabletop with tiny cardboard cyclists held up by bright plastic laundry pegs that the members move around like chess pieces. When it comes time to practice, the formations are mapped out on paper so that everyone has clear directions.

“The best thing about being a Velociteer is being able to do cycling in a social but almost completely non-sporty way,” says Ruth. Members come from a diverse range of backgrounds and everyone contributes something different, whether it’s screenprinting knowledge for producing team t-shirts, costume ideas, technical know-how or simply taking care of admin behind the scenes.

Now with several years of cycle dance under their belts, the Velociteers are keen to introduce some new elements to their act. “I’d like to have some percussion instruments on our bikes and some really fancy lighting effects,” says Barbara. Ruth’s plans are a little more extreme. “I have always wanted to use pyrotechnics like sparklers and smoke grenades, but we’ve yet to find someone with the expertise to safely incorporate these into our performances!”

But knowing the Velociteers, they’ll find a way.