Feargus O'Sullivan is a contributing writer to CityLab, covering Europe. His writing focuses on housing, gentrification and social change, infrastructure, urban policy, and national cultures. He has previously contributed to The Guardian, The Times, The Financial Times, and Next City, among other publications.
The revived Balkan is a cheap, sturdy throwback to the 1970s.
At first glance, the Balkan looks like a bike that could be popular anywhere. A foldable fixie that hits Bulgaria’s stores in March, the bicycle is just the sort of sturdy knockabout that younger people have taken to riding in cities the world over (at least the flatter ones). But this dependable, affordable new model has a distinctive twist: it isn’t really very new at all.
The latest Balkan is a replica of the bike by the same name churned out en masse during the Communist era. Roughly 1.5 million Balkans were made during the 1970s and ‘80s, becoming ubiquitous across Bulgaria. The old model is on the rebound because the country is no exception to the global trend for retro chic. When it comes to bikes, at least, Bulgarians are looking back nostalgically to those Communist days.
The original bike’s popularity was arguably a result of limited choice; imported bikes would have been prohibitively expensive. But many survive in decent condition today, and having weathered their immediate post-Communist unpopularity in small villages and musty sheds, the reliability of these older models makes up for what they lack in speed or elegance. In recent years, these survivors have become a fetish object widely sought after by urbanites, conjuring childhood memories and tapping into an international yen for retooling the discarded products of the past.
So popular have they become that their manufacturer, Balkan Velo, is now bringing the Balkan back from the dead, recreating both a slightly modernized “classic” version and a new “comfort” model that comes with gears. The Balkan’s popularity is still about more than just cycling. While the period of its original manufacturing run was no doubt oppressive and frustrating for many Bulgarians, it’s now lit in the warm glow of fading memory as a time of stability, progress in industry and housing, and full employment.
Central and Eastern Europe host a mosaic of such retro cults celebrating the trappings of the Communist era as alternately kitsch and comforting. Eastern Germany has Ostalgie, while the former Yugoslavia has Yugo-nostalgia—an understandable phenomenon that reflects on the horror and instability that followed a country’s break-up. The irony of such cults, typified by the revival of the Balkan bike, is that they express themselves through consumerism—something severely restricted during the period being remembered. Miss the supposed stability of the Communist era? Now you can buy its products. Never mind that the era’s poor adaptation to consumer demands actually made many products frustratingly difficult to get hold of at the time.
In that light, Bulgarian lovers of the Balkan bike are no different from many nations that were always part of the capitalist West. As Owen Hatherley’s new book The Ministry of Nostalgia observes, Britain has seen something similar in the form of austerity nostalgia that revives the stoic wartime message of “Keep Calm and Carry On” as the logo for a million tea towels and fridge magnets. The Balkan’s revival nonetheless has an unusual, powerful charm: the new bike is pretty cheap, costing around 300 Bulgarian Leva ($167). At least this form of austerity nostalgia is coming with a price tag to match.