It is not quite true, but none the less often repeated, that the bicycle is the only technology with no downside. The downsides are steep and not negotiable — stationary bicycles absorb space voraciously so are difficult to store, either on the street or at home. They are also a frightful nuisance to clean.
However, they are near-perfect working machines. The mechanism creates a powerful dynamic advantage for the human leg — rotary motion is efficiently translated into smooth, pollution-free, horizontal travel. There is no vibration and, except in the sweaty rider, no wasteful heat is generated. They are silent and durable. Tires apart, a well-maintained bicycle will last indefinitely. It is not quite something for nothing since neither nature nor commerce allows such a transaction, but it is pretty damn close.
The design of the bicycle was in all essentials established well over a century ago. There have been continuous improvements in materials technology and components, while the subtleties of frame geometry continue — via debate — to evolve, but here is a rare example of a concept so nearly perfect that radical change will never occur. The bicycle will develop, but so long as humans have legs and a requirement to shift their carcasses beyond easy walking range, the bicycle will remain.
Although there are many competitors to the claim, John Kemp Starley (1854 to 1901) is usually credited with the final definition of the “safety bicycle.” This was during the 1880s, a turbulent and competitive moment among the bicycle designer-entrepreneurs who were one of the most exciting and distinctive products of Victorian British capitalism. It was not immediately obvious that the Starley two-wheel design was inevitable — there were, for example, many advocates of tricycles — but as the old, asymmetric, treacherous, high-mounted “ordinary” (or penny-farthing) became less and less acceptable from a health and safety point of view, the design options became helpfully limited.
The experience of using a bicycle was both socially audacious and physically exhilarating, when not actually dangerous. In an essay called Taming the Bicycle, Mark Twain described progress as a “weaving, tottering” sequence of accidents avoided. To address the shortcomings, by 1885 Starley had settled on a successful general arrangement. His “Rover” had a low mount, wheels of 36 inches in diameter in the front, 30 in the rear, a triangular frame and a chain drive to the rear. His brief to himself was to create “the right position in relation to the pedals” at “the proper distance from the ground.”
In September of that year, George Smith covered 160km on a Rover in 7 hours, 5 minutes. Consumer-inspired improvements followed, a sprung seat, for example, but a timeless classic had been established. In the late 1890s, Starley’s business was renamed the Rover Cycle Company, ancestor of the ill-fated car company. Elegiac that a classic evolved into a catastrophe.
Because the bicycle was such a perfect expression of the machine aesthetic (perhaps, the best proof of the form-follows-function argument), it was adopted as a symbol by the early modernist architects and designers. In 1910, Joseph August Lux, a member of the Deutscher Werkbund, a quango to raise standards of industrial design, declared “a bicycle is beautiful” because it was an explicit diagram of forces. This polemic fed directly into the philosophy of the Bauhaus, one of the most influential aesthetics of the recent past.
Because the bicycle was liberating, it acquired a reputation for being socially rebellious, as well as aesthetically advanced. So much so that conservative commentators often castigated bicyclists. Novelist Maria Louise Rame wrote in 1900: “Behold him in the velodrome as he yells insanely ... and ask yourself ... if any age before this ... ever produced any creature so utterly low and loathsome, so physically, mentally, individually and collectively hideous” as the bicyclist with his (or her) “intolerable fatuity and bestiality.”
As bicycling evolves from an activity favored by gentle liberal vegetarians with a taste for fresh air into a feral global status competition, quite a bit of intolerable fatuity and bestiality remains, as any hapless stroller sideswiped by a head-down, helmeted, muscle-bound, Day-Glo fanatic pedaling flat out along a towpath will testify. After all, it was bicyclists who made “pedestrian” a term of abuse.
However, the bicycle itself remains fascinating and desirable, even as the manners of its users degenerate. Convenience apart, it puts every rider in touch with that hubristic ambition that goes back to Icarus and Daedalus — fast, man-powered travel beyond the scope of human limitations.
The bicycle is also compelling evidence of restless human ingenuity. Within the envelope described by Starley, an almost limitless variety of innovation seems possible. The folding Brompton and the monumental Pedersen bikes are radically different, but also essentially the same. In terms of material technology, the official limit of 14.998 pounds (6.8kg) for a Tour de France bike is now so effortlessly transcended that manufacturers can almost contemptuously ballast carbon frames with extra weight to improve handling. You wonder where the limits lie.
However, let’s not forget the hard, bright flame of consumer desire — an element of the bicycle’s attraction is cupidity. You can buy the very best bike in the world for several thousand dollars. That’s unusual in any product category and you certainly can’t say it about a car, a boat or a plane. So there’s an economic upside too. If only you could find someone to clean it and somewhere to park it.
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