Indonesian President Joko Widodo (L) with Australian Prime Minister Anthony Albanese (R) get ready for a ride. (Photo by Indonesia Presidential Secretariat / Handout/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)

How a bamboo bike ride became an international diplomatic moment

The bikes, background and symbolism behind a political pedal.

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When new Australian prime minister Anthony Albanese set off for Indonesia this week – his second international foray in the fortnight since being sworn in – he probably wasn’t expecting a bike ride on arrival. But in the imposing, lush surrounds of Bogor Palace, West Java, that’s what he got

After rolling through the grounds of the palace in a motorcade, Albanese was greeted by Indonesian president Joko Widodo and all the kerfuffle of a state visit. But then there was a surprise: Widodo – or Jokowi, as he’s popularly known – had a pair of bamboo bikes waiting. Off came the jackets and ties; Albanese tucked his prime ministerial suit trouser legs into his prime ministerial socks, just above his prime ministerial RM Williams. And at a leisurely pace through the Bogor Botanical Gardens, through the humid air, Indonesia and Australia reacquainted themselves. 

But because this is international diplomacy, the bike ride was not just a bike ride but a moment thick with symbolism.

(Photo by Indonesia Presidential Secretariat / Handout/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)

Jokowi and Albanese both come from humble beginnings – the Indonesian leader via poverty and local government, the Australian from a single-parent public-housed childhood to student activism. Bikes, in the burgeoning economic powerhouse of Indonesia, are a symbol of the working class. According to The Guardian’s reporter on the ground, Katharine Murphy, “the new Labor prime minister was deeply touched by the president’s bicycle gesture… [and] well understood the cultural significance of bicycles in Indonesia.” 

Albanese’s first diplomatic forays as Australia’s leader are symbolic, too – of a clean slate after three terms under the conservative-leaning Liberal Party, most recently under Scott Morrison. Morrison led a government that dragged its heels on climate change, sided with western powers at the expense of neighbourly relations, and was punished in the May 2022 federal election for these factors and several more. It’s difficult to imagine Morrison rolling up his shirt sleeves for a bike ride, or Jokowi inviting him for one. 

Albanese, meanwhile, was elected on a more progressive platform than his predecessor and went to Indonesia with plans to reset the relationship after the Morrison years. He referred to strengthening that bond as “an absolute priority… one way I can do that is by strengthening people-to-people relations as well.“

Another layer deeper in this multi-layered gesture was the delicate dance of who would lead the ride, and who would follow. Jokowi and Albanese were not setting any land-speed records, soft pedalling along the avenues of the gardens, and Albanese didn’t even break a sweat by the end of the ride (if you’d like to see a characteristically shitty Sky News take on the matter, see here – no reimbursements if you find yourself throwing your phone against a wall). But while it wasn’t a fast ride, it was a thoughtful one with a metaphorical component to it – two leaders working to keep pace with each other, riding together rather than in competition, in a spirit of collaboration. 

(Photo by Indonesia Presidential Secretariat / Handout/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)

The final layer of nuance to this diplomatic moment came in the form of the bikes themselves. These bamboo steeds were locally made by Spedagi Bamboo Bike, an environmentally and socially responsible company led by Javanese entrepreneur Singgih S Kartono. With design techniques inspired by the US-based Calfee bikes, Spedagi now offers a number of standard models across several different categories.

The bikes are just one string in Kartono’s bow. He’s the creative mind behind several other initiatives – bamboo-based housing, wooden radios, a community revitalisation movement – that are aimed at restoring Indonesian pride in its heritage, incorporating traditional materials and techniques into an inclusive and forward-looking vision.

“Bamboo is also seen as something that is closely related to poverty and this view creates feelings of inferiority. In the concept that I developed at Spedagi Movement, I see the future as the past in a new form,” Kartono said. “We need to look at the past and everything around us today through the lens of the future.”

Kartono and one of his creations.

The presence of Kartono’s bikes were not an accident – they were carefully chosen by a national leader that is aware of the importance of symbols. Since his election in 2014, Jokowi has emerged as a popular figure in South East Asian politics, blending statesmanlike attributes and an anti-corruption stance with surprising glimpses of personality. He’s a fan of heavy metal, has been seen throwing the horns and wearing Napalm Death t-shirts, and was given a signed Metallica box set as a diplomatic gift in 2017 – which he then paid for out of his own pocket, to avoid any accusations of corruption. 

Jokowi’s not new to bikes, either. Spedagi founder Singgih Kartono told CyclingTips that this marks at least the fourth time Jokowi had been in contact with the brand, having first bought two personal Spedagi bikes in 2016. In the years since, Jokowi and Kartono had met at functions, with the president buying another bike – the one he rode yesterday – at an Environment Bamboo Foundation event in Ngada-Flores. As for Albanese’s bike, Kartono says that it’s a standard model offered by Spedagi rather than a special commission. The guest got a more modern variant than his host – disc brakes instead of rim brakes, higher-end componentry, and a more sporty stance. 

“I didn’t know he [Jokowi] had decided to use it for some kind of unique diplomacy,” Kartono told me. “Jokowi is known as a president who always supports local creatives.”

A Spedagi bike, similar to that ridden by Albanese.

A gentle bike ride around the palace might have been the first outing for Albanese’s bamboo bike, but it won’t be the last. During the ride, Jokowi told his Australian counterpart that the bike was intended as a gift. Speaking to the media afterward – before disappearing into delicate meetings on trade and regional security – Albanese responded with a promise. “I’ll take the bike back to Australia and you’ll see me riding around on what might be the only bamboo bike in Canberra,” he said. 

And with that, a bamboo bike ride grew into a diplomatic win.

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