If you find yourself in Palace Square in the centre of St Petersburg one summer evening, you may notice a group of shadowy figures gathered near the brightly lit walls of the General Staff Building and the Hermitage. Aglitter among the black silhouettes — some immobile, some moving back and forth — is a multitude of red and white lights. The square is dotted with bikes. You hear the chatter of a large crowd and music thrumming from portable speakers. People flitter past. Then suddenly everything jumps into motion: the crowd of figures and lights fuses into one long neon serpent that begins to coil itself around the Alexander Column, then slithers away onto Millionnaya Street, its head disappearing round the corner. A couple of minutes later its tail flickers out of view, and, save for a few gawping passers-by, the square empties out. That’s how you might make your first acquaintance with PIN-MIX, St Petersburg’s weekly night-cycling event.
The idea behind communal nocturnal rides was borrowed from events in Berlin and Paris and similar movements exist in cities worldwide. Even in Russia, with its absence of a cycling infrastructure and public attitude to bikes as little more than a children’s amusement, city-wide mass cycling events are no longer a rarity. There’s Tweed Ride, Eurorace, the Ded Moroz/Snow Maiden Ride, and most prominently, Velonotte, which attracts thousands of participants in Moscow and St Petersburg.
In contrast to all these European and Russian events, however, St Petersburg’s PIN-MIX, which begun in the early 2000s, takes place weekly on Friday nights/Saturday mornings, irrespective of the weather and the time of year. Five to 500 people take part. Departing from Palace Square at midnight, riders follow a predetermined route of between 25 and 90km, returning to the square in the early hours of the morning.
Routes can be chosen to mark a significant date (New Year’s), a historical event (Victory Day) or the architectural history of the city (the Avant-Garde route takes in the modernist buildings of the 1920s and Thirties). And they are crowned with titles that range from the prosaic, (“Gardens and Parks of the North-West”) to the lyrical (“A Winter’s Tale”, “The Universe Really is Infinite” and, more straightforwardly, “Die Hard”).
The route creators are people with divergent interests and backgrounds, which is exactly why PIN-MIX can help you get new and unexpected insights into the city and penetrate its secret recesses. As graphic designer Anna Brom, 22, explains, it was the urge to “showcase the city as I see it” that drove her to lead a route. Routes can stray beyond the city’s confines as well, taking in forest tracks and villages, traversing fields and brooks. Nikolai Tikhonov recalls “the feeling of trepidation and gloom that set in as we were tracing the edge of a cemetery on a narrow leaf-strewn road a couple of kilometres out of town one autumn”.
Winter cycling is another of PIN-MIX’s unique features — its participants aren’t put off by the weather conditions, and the ride takes place every single week, come hell or high water. Some regard nocturnal winter cycling as an extreme adventure or endurance test. “Harsh conditions can stretch your capacities, pushing the envelope of what you can do with a bike,” says Alexander Rotov, 32, a business analyst. “Before PIN-MIX I’d never cycled these kinds of distances, never cycled at night, in the cold or the rain. It was through a kind of self-overcoming that I became capable of it all.” Other participants are equally enthusiastic. “Winter cycling has long ceased to be an extreme activity as far as I’m concerned — well, as long as the thermometer reads -18C or higher, that is,” says Galina Grishanina, 29.
In the column of cyclists, everyone is rendered equal, with nothing but their bikes to battle against road, night and headwind
Uniting people of widely varying ages and professions PIN-MIX represents, according to one member, “a cross-section of society, a state within a state”. Within the column of cyclists whizzing through the nocturnal city, everyone is rendered equal, with nothing but their bikes to battle against road, night and headwind. This is “a club where it doesn’t matter what job you do, how much you earn and where you’re from”, says Nikolai Tikhonov. “Here you’re just the same as everybody else.” If you’re a newbie you’ll get eased in, and if you’re experienced and well-prepared, you’re not going to be able to make that advantage count — the speed of the column is limited to 20-25kph, which means that racing is simply impossible.
Having given it a go, people tend to stay, eager, says secretary Dina Ponemareva, to “find out about new places in our city and to enjoy its landscapes as the sun comes up”. The prospect of watching dawn break in a pastoral setting is an attractive one for many city-dwellers. But PIN-MIX also offers a glimpse of the city’s transformed nocturnal atmosphere. “After nightfall it’s particularly beautiful and romantic, says Nikolai Tikhonov. “And different, too — different people, different life.”
A huge group of cyclists, however well-organised, will invariably have an impact on road traffic. Generally, the Petersburg authorities are pretty well disposed to cycling events, sometimes briefly blocking off intersections or escorting the column with flashing lights — compensation, perhaps, for the lack of cycle lanes in the city. Many PIN-MIX regulars see their mission as fostering the development of a cycling movement in Russia and regard it, in one rider’s words, as “no less emblematic of St Petersburg than the drawing of the bridges and the White Nights”. And there are signs that the city government is slowly paying attention: earlier this year a few kilometres of cycle lanes opened in the outskirts, and a city bike system with dock stations is growing.
The constantly evolving PIN-MIX movement represents a rare example of an autonomous club-cum-community in Russia
PIN-MIX is gradually expanding: it’s spawned a number of smaller additional events like Monday- or Wednesday-night rides, designed for the super-keen. And it’s become an outlet for city-dwellers’ growing enthusiasm for urban exploration. Participants treat events as cornucopias offering much to meet their desires: group riding; thousands of like-minded people; a traffic-free playground of a city; journeys across St Petersburg and beyond; and nocturnal adventure.
The constantly evolving PIN-MIX movement represents a rare example of an autonomous club-cum-community in Russia; not only has this movement achieved its internal goals, it has also started to exert an influence on city life. If the bike were ever to become a commonplace mode of transport in Russia, PIN-MIX might lose its function as an escape outlet for urban cyclists and metamorphose, say, into a predictable series of themed excursions. If the current state of affairs in the country is anything to go by, however, that time is a long way off yet.
Text: Vsevolod Mititello
Thanks to Nikita Krasnov, Aleksei Morozov, Georgiy Bagayev, Kirill Lukyanenko, Daria Zaitseva, Igor Koifman and Katerina Shcherbakova. Special thanks to Alexander Rotov.