it's a tired cliche that there's nothing new under the sun, a cliche particularly apt when applied to the bicycle. so many folks have claimed credit for invention of the machine, or a variation thereof, that i figure it would only take minor tweaking of a nearby family tree to put one of my own ancestors firmly in the frame for the invention of at least one rudimentary bicycle. i will, however, leave the wrangling to bona-fide historians; the bicycle is here and has an even richer history than many of us could even have guessed at.
it may be that bicycle design has settled into a pattern (or rut, if we're being unkind) with the advent and subsequent development of groupsets from the big three, and the widespread use of computer design software. the latter is perhaps most to blame for the ubiquity of the carbon fibre on show at most of the autumn's cycle shows. perhaps we need to look more towards this weekend's north american handbuilt show for breaks from tradition, or in one or two cases, the continuation of same. assuming an errant publisher had the temerity to offer me a substantial advance allowing the production of an illustrated volume describing carbon bicycles of the last few years, i fear the pages would be remarkably similar, a feature that would no doubt be underlined if they were devoid of paint and logos.
i say this as a point of fact, rather than any form of criticism. for though we'd all like to be houseproud bicycle owners, the shape and form all but disappear when in the saddle; provided the ride is to our satisfaction, style is overcome by substance. but it's hard to escape the overweening desire for a large smidgeon of character, and much as i enjoy the benefits of carbon fibre, i'm not so sure its manufacture allows for quirky. we are fortunate, therefore, to have michael embacher and photographer bernhard angerer to clearly and forcibly point out in such artistic fashion, the quirks of the velocipedinal past.
michael embacher is unkown to me, yet a photo on page nine places him midst a huge collection of bicycles placed neatly within a bikeshed to die for. though it is not expressly stated, i take it that the illustrations of such a motley crew of historic and near modern cycles are from this exemplary collection. who knew that someone had invented a complex mobius strip of a chain arrangement that moved into second gear when the rider started pedalling backwards. who knew that you could hinge the latter part of a pair of handlebars that woud apply the brakes when the bars were squeezed inwards. of course, this resulted in a complete lack of steering, but nobody's perfect.
each bicycle is more than adequately illustrated over two or more pages, accompanied by details of country of origin, approximate date of manufacture, number and type of gears, tyre size and the method of stopping. considering the state of most of the repairs that come my way, these historic machines have either been very well restored, or incredibly well maintained in the first place. or maybe they just don't make stuff like they used to.
i am a subscriber to singletrack magazine, the only trappings of the dark side that are allowed in washingmachinepost cottage (well, aside from the first issue of privateer). in my defence might i state that i like to keep an eye on offroad developments, just in case some of them osmosise (i think i just made that word up) across to skinny tyres and bendy bars. but it is with some satisfaction that i was only twenty-six pages into the book before finding a road bike from 1954 (older than me) featuring fibreglass hoops front and rear providing very rudimentary suspension. admittedly, i'd be the last in the queue to ride it (an afa), but yet again, the star around which our planet revolves has seen it all before.
if there's a disappointment with cyclepedia, aside from its title being a rather overused variation on the word encyclopaedia, it is the rather random nature of the contents. to quote the author; "this selection does not attempt to categorize (when did we start spelling that word with an american 'z' as opposed to the queen's english version with an 's'?) bicycles too prescriptively, or to show them chronologically". unfortunately, he does not expand upon this, and we are left wondering why not. it may well be the joy of historical discovery to treat each item individually, but i can't help feeling that it would have benefitted the book's overall ethos if chronology had been inplemented from the get go. surely it wouldn't have been that hard to do?
however, this lack of an explicable and orderly timeline does not detract from the substantial fascination engendered on each and every page of this book. as an example, i for one had no idea that colnago had produced a carbitubo pista frame in 1990, pre-dating the c40 by almost four years. nor was i aware that sweden's wilhelmina plast itera was a bicycle almost entirely fabricated from plastic; it warped in summer heat and its tyres were a fraction larger than the standard. and i thought it was shimano who invented incompatibility. and talking of inventions, the brief potted history of the bicycle in the first few pages of cyclepedia ascribes not only invention of the pneumatic tyre to john boyd dunlop in 1888, and with it the simultaneous invention of the puncture. nicely put.
cyclepedia is due for publication on 14th march at a cost of £19.95. it may well easily slip into the category of coffee table book, but the contents are more than equal to perusing while supping the froth from a soya cappucino, or appreciating the crema atop the double espresso sitting on that coffee table.
as alluded to in the title, the foreword of 'cyclepedia' is provided by sir paul smith, pictured inside holding a paul smith branded single speed. and purely co-incidentally, rapha today announced the spring/summer collaboration between themselves and sir smith, available to buy come early march. and a rapha launch would not be a rapha launch without a video, in this particular case, from the inestimable ben ingham. this is what's known as viral advertising, a concept with which i am familiar and one i'm only too happy to encourage.
posted wednesday 23rd february 2011..........................................................................................................................................................................................................