Slow biking in Bassel, Switzerland.

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Professional cycling’s “Tour of Switzerland” finished up this past weekend. American Levi Leipheimer won by a mere four seconds. But there was another biking contest taking place in Switzerland this weekend. In Basel, a teenager named Yuri staged a late comeback to win the city’s first “slow biking” competition.

On a busy sidewalk on Sunday, Dutch artist Kaspar König was busy using chalk to outline the slow biking track. It consisted of three lanes together, each stretching about 36 feet. The lanes were about 2 feet wide.

The idea is very simple. You start at one end, and try to make it to the other end as slowly as possible. There are two basic rules: you cannot let your bike stray from its lane, and you cannot put your foot down.

König grabbed a microphone, and tried to sell the idea to passers-by.

“The best thing is when quality time means taking a long time,” König said. “The idea is that people can bring their bikes, just the way they are. It’s in a public space, so they don’t need an invitation. 

König oversees the races, and enforces the rules. He also often encourages the contestants, with cries of “slower, slower.”

König, who loves bicycles, got the idea for his slow biking competition during some time spent at an art school in Beijing. He remembers being asked to compete in a slow bike race, and he took the second place. His prize was a bucket of milk, which he shared with the winner, who had been given breakfast cereal as a prize.

You would be wrong to think that slow biking is easy. In Basel, competitor after competitor discovered that it is difficult to keep your concentration on the busy sidewalk. Oblivious cyclists whizzed right through the course, as do cell-phone walkers with roller boards.

Some slow biking competitors were fighting their own demons, too.

“My time was 45 seconds,” said Basel resident Matthias Buess. “But to be honest, I had a beer before I tried it. Without the beer, I think I could do it in a minute. Maybe.”

To make matters worse, sometimes a drunk took the microphone from König and belted out a song while the competitors were on the course.

König said he doesn’t mind any of this because, for him, slow biking is as much street art (or “reality hacking,” as he calls it), as a competition. Usually, König even adds his own obstacles. He has been known to encourage interpretative dancers to waltz through the course during the competition. He also usually gets local musicians to play music.

No musicians turned up on this day, so König unleashed one of his own artistic creations on the contestants — his “Guitar Bike.” As the name implies, it’s a standard bike frame with five strings and an electric pick-up strong between the seat and the handlebars. There are also pick-ups near the spokes and wheels.

The result is a noise that jangles many a contestant’s nerves.

König has done slow biking competitions now in a few European cities and in New Orleans as well.

“I want to slow down myself too,” he said. I’m part of this society. I speed up myself, in a lot of things. But if you can slow down once in a while, it’s a very strong inner power.”

Slow biking seems to be catching on elsewhere as well. “The idea that you have to ride fast and intense doesn’t always appeal to the mainstream crowd,” said Mikael Colville-Andersen, who lives in Copenhagen, Denmark and started a blog called The Slow Bicycle Movement.

“We’re encouraging people to slow down, take it easy, and enjoy the ride. Look up at the birds and trees, instead of staring down at your handlebars wiping sweat from your eyes.”

Truth be told, Kristina Wagner spent hours on Sunday afternoon in Basel staring at her handlebars, lost in concentration as she tried to improve (or is it worsen?) her time.

Wagner said that taking time out was worth it “because everything is busy in life, and it’s a very good idea to slow down.”

Her son, Max, took second prize. 

But it was a teenager named Yuri who came through with some last-minute heroics. His winning time was one minute and nine seconds.

König said the record in the competitions he has run is nearly seven minutes.

Of course, before I could speak with Yuri, he was off, quickly, on his ten speeds. In his hand he clutched his grand prize. A can of WD-40.


PRI's "The World" is a one-hour, weekday radio news magazine offering a mix of news, features, interviews, and music from around the globe. "The World" is a co-production of the BBC World Service, PRI and WGBH Boston. More about The World.

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