subjective safety special

“In its raw state the reflexive fluidity of the World overwhelms our limited powers of comprehension. We resort to simplification and abstraction in an attempt to cope.”

“In its raw state the reflexive fluidity of the World overwhelms our limited powers of comprehension. We resort to simplification and abstraction in an attempt to cope.”

John Adams

Obsession with anniversaries make this an auspicious week to consider ‘subjective safety’. A concept which has lately gained some traction in the zany World of bicycle politics.

passengers comfortable, ship unsinkable, shipwreck unthinkable

Traditional estimates of risk and safety relate to actuarial statistics, data about what’s happened before. Subjective safety is a psychological concept about how people feel.

Subjective safety fits into a theory that a mass of pre-cyclists are standing-by, waiting for ‘subjective safety’ to pass a critical threshold so they can hit the radweg. Advocates describe the theory as ‘simple’ but human motivation, human comfort, are slippery fish.

Do the people who ride motor-cycles, for short journeys, maybe to the gym, do it because bicycling is too safe? Everyone knows motor-cycles are really dangerous.

There are other ways to describe subjective safety. A misplaced feeling of safety is complacency. Over-estimate of threats is paranoia. An informed risk-assessment makes the concept redundant, ‘subjective safety’ and safety can then be treated as the same.

Risk-assessment is a key skill in enjoying cycle-travel. Successful risk-assessment is a life-enhancing faculty. Over-estimate hazards and you miss out on fun and excitement, under-estimate dangers and you may come a cropper. Learning to ride a bike is learning to live.

September 3, 1967, was a significant date in Sweden. Road traffic switched from travelling on the left in the English pattern to moving on the right in the German style. The significant drop in crashes in the period after the change has led John Adams to suggest that the best way to make road traffic safe would be to change the rules about which side of the road to travel on every six weeks, or better still to have no rules at all.

The simple formalities of traffic circulation allow people operating vehicles on the highway to concentrate their vigilance and therefore go much faster than would otherwise be safe. The system that regulates social interactions on our highways is called ‘road safety’ when really it’s the opposite, a social code that routinely enables highly dangerous behaviour, while keeping carnage and destruction at an acceptable level. When the very name of the system obscures its real purpose, it’s not surprising that some people have trouble assessing the risks of travel.

Its customary to describe threats from motor-traffic, threats from the current system of hyper-mobility, in euphemistic terms. People talk about the ‘dangers of busy roads’, ask bicycle users if they aren’t ‘frightened of the cars?’ Systems failures that happen every day are always ‘accidents’ never ‘crashes’.

This picture – “The Cars That Ate Paris”  aims to make it’s audience subjectively endangered – a jolly Australian horror that prefigures the successful ‘Mad Max’ series deserves wider distribution, a reissue, maybe even a remake? If you haven’t seen it take any chance you get.

A road is only dangerous if liable to flash floods, avalanche or some other natural disaster. Cars are dangerous if they catch on fire or are left parked on inclines with hand-brakes disengaged. The routine danger comes from people. Nice people like you and me.

The person who thinks it’s safe, normal and sane to negotiate a junction in a heavy vehicle, too fast for full control, with one hand holding a phone into which they are talking, is just as deluded as the person who can’t consider riding a bike. The latter doesn’t need a reason but if pressed may offer ‘I’d be too frightened’.

Neither are bad people. Neither deserve to be indulged. They need help, but trying to re-engineer the World to accommodate a warped analysis won’t help either of them.

They might even be the same person?

blinkin’ silly

Historically there’s a big difference between the headlight – that came in without controversy in 1903 – and the red tail-lamp, a temporary wartime measure in the Great Patriotic War against fascism, which I heard was over, and that the good guys had won? You need a headlamp to see where you’re going. The faster you want to go the brighter your light needs to be. One of the nicest things about old-school, unregulated, bottle dynamos is the way their headlamps shine brighter as you speed up on a downhill.

Historically there’s a big difference between the headlight – that came in without controversy in 1903 – and the red tail-lamp, a temporary wartime measure in the Great Patriotic War against fascism, which I heard was over, and that the good guys had won?
You need a headlamp to see where you’re going. The faster you want to go the brighter your light needs to be. One of the nicest things about old-school, unregulated, bottle dynamos is the way their headlamps shine brighter as you speed up on a downhill.

“Stopping Distances.

Drive at a speed that will allow you to stop well within the distance you can see to be clear”

HIGHWAY CODE RULE 126.

It’s foolish to speed into darkness blindly assuming all obstacles will be lit. Wandering livestock, fallen trees, a person in a black coat who’s suffered a stroke and fallen while crossing the road; none of these are likely to show red lights. That’s what your headlamp, your eyes, your brain and your brakes are for.

Carrying a rear light is an encouragement to others to break rule 126.

Not to say shining a red light backwards is a bad thing under current conditions. Anyone who remembers the box shaped ‘nEver-Ready’ rear lights – clamped on your seat-stay, powered by two ‘D’ cells, whose mighty weight soon squashed the springs, so the bulb started to flicker and then went out – knows we are living in Light Emitting Diode paradise.

Contemporary battery lights are so compact, convenient, bright and economical, there’s no reason not to carry them. Just remember to turn the red one off if you’re going onto a railway platform. If your red light has standlicht carry a thick black sock.

When I see someone riding without lights – and of course the most important word in this sentence is ‘see’ –  I regret a theoretical nuisance and a real tragedy. The nuisance is that they’re relying on others to look after them, which we all try to do. The tragedy is that – without lights in the dark –  it’s much harder to relax and own the road. They’d enjoy riding more if they had lights.

Reader Peter Myers sent me this excellent piece of wildlife photography from Sadler’s Wells…

…an extreme example of the current fashion for winky lights. Note how – at 26 seconds – the flasher gives a hand signal – without looking behind to see if there’s anyone worth signaling to – and reveals a teeny on-off-on-off red light on his wrist.

Does his – I’m guessing it’s a man – risk-assessment include the threat of electrocution in a sudden shower?

I can see why someone might be too disorganised to keep lights on their bike,  but why the craze for half a light?

If you’re in a shipwreck half a light might attract the attention of the crew of a rescue helicopter and the blinking beacon battery will last an extra two weeks. The first signal a flashing light gives to others is ‘Help me, I’m in distress.’

On a bike a tail light isn’t so other people can see you. That’s what rule 126 is for. It’s to make it as easy as possible for others to judge exactly where you are. The second message from a flashing rear light is ‘I care more about saving pennies than I do about giving a consistent signal of my position. I’m too cheap to let you know exactly where I am.’

There might be an argument for a flashing rear – if you’re riding desert roads with 50 kilometre straights – so that someone approaching from behind knows, early that you’re on a pedal-cycle with a relatively low speed, but that doesn’t make much sense in EC1.

There might be some argument for a flashing rear but why would you want a half a headlamp? Why would you want the road ahead to be illuminated half the time?

I’ve a set of DiNotte lights purchased at considerable expense for going downhill in the dark on a streamlined bike. On their brightest setting you can bounce the beam off low clouds. If everyone used them traffic-riding would be tiresome but anyone can benefit from the experience of all other traffic deferring to your blazing presence. It’s not necessary to mount a laser on your front forks to own the road but the experience can build confidence. Confidence is essential.

There’s value in a super-bright headlamp but half a super bright headlamp is dumbest of all. A light bright enough to rob you, and anyone else, of all night vision followed by a little sample of darkness.

The narrator of Ralph Waldo Ellison’s 1952 novel ‘The Invisible Man’, an unnamed African American man who feels himself completely overlooked, squats a forgotten basement apartment, robs electricity and illuminates his cell with 1,369 bulbs. A symbolic reaction to social exclusion.

It’s traditional for cycling magazines to publish features on lighting in the Autumn but the time for voluntary night riding is just coming in. Enjoy your travels. Show a steady light and don’t act like a victim.

priority

Whenever I see a person riding after dark, on an unlit bike, wearing a crash-hat. I can only imagine them in a cycle shop, with a limited amount of cash, facing a tricky dilemma…

I just can’t help it.
Whenever I see a person riding after dark, on an unlit bike, wearing a crash-hat. I can only imagine them in a cycle shop, with a limited amount of cash, facing a tricky dilemma…

Helmet?

Lights?

Lights?

Helmet?

I know it doesn’t happen that way but my only reaction to the – oddly common – combination of timid and reckless, is to envision a small-scale retail drama, late on a Winter’s afternoon, gathering dark, urgent incidental music, tension, jeopardy…

…resolved as the un-illuminated, basin-head plumps for Expanded Polystyrene rather than electric light.

BSO record low

A post on theBSO problem attracted the attention of former rickshaw entrepreneur Jason – cycling is his middle name – Patient, who contributes this happy story… Whilst browsing for kiddy helmets on the cycling section of the TESCO website last March I noticed the attached ‘MTB’ on offer at £58 including delivery.

A post on the BSO problem attracted the attention of former rickshaw entrepreneur Jason – cycling is his middle name – Patient, who contributes this happy story…

Whilst browsing for kiddy helmets on the cycling section of the TESCO website last March I noticed the attached ‘MTB’ on offer at £58 including delivery.


I just was curious to find out if a supermarket ‘BSO’, (Bicycle Shaped Object) could be assembled to be a half decent bike. The attached is the result. Rides fine, and I’m really happy with it.
I’ve added accessories such as the subtle pink mudguards which had been in my loft for over a decade and the rack too.

cyclingly……………Jase

If you haven’t heard of Tesco – a grocery company started from a stall in Well Street Market, Hackney E9 – they are the Microsoft of grocery vendors. Microsoft are the Shimano of personal computers. Shimano make reels for fishing rods.

I quizzed Jason further on the subject of his budget ride…

“The BSO is original parts apart from saddle/seatpost and knobbly tires swapped for smooth. I added rack, mudguards.
The wheels are fine. Did a first true after bedding in and that’s it.
The steel frame tubing is seamed YUK. The matt black paint finish is pretty ‘bullet proof’.

…all good, but the sorry part is…

For anyone trying to set it up from out the box who had virtually zero cycling experience it would have been a nightmare.”

Jason combines full time employment as regional coordinator
for a cycle training company covering Northumberland, with running his famous photo library and producing top-quality images like this one…

jason@cycling-images.co.uk

…if you need nice pictures of people on bikes I suggest you contact him. The framing alone is worth the price of a new bike.

Sober cycling

Being a drunk on Saturday night can be great fun, everyone’s good looking, everything is funny. On Monday morning, when your money, your health and your loved-ones are gone, things may seem less rosy. Riding a bike is like being an alcoholic. It expands the range of experience.

“A fixed wheel is a sprocket fixed solidly to the rear hub, so that pedalling is always rigidly coupled to the drive through the chain. The merits of which is best, the fixed or the free, is hardly worth discussing now that it is so simple to have a reversible hub with a fixed sprocket on one side and a free wheel on the other.”

Cycling Manual & Year Book

17th Edition

1939-40

Being a drunk on Saturday night can be great fun, everyone’s good looking, everything is funny. On Monday morning, when your money, your health and your loved-ones are gone, things may seem less rosy. Riding a bike is like being an alcoholic. It expands the range of experience.

Coasting down a good road, at thirty kilometres an hour, silent and sweat-free, you’re a God. An unforeseen mechanical failure, rising headwind or long hot climb can quickly change that status to ‘grovelling beast’.

On a fixed-gear you lose the best parts of riding a bike, relaxing on a downhill, freewheeling in a massive tailwind. In exchange many of the worst problems are also missing. You don’t have to turn the pedals. The mechanics are simple. There’s nothing tricky to go wrong.

It’s strange that – for a brief period early in the Twenty-first Century – single-fixed carried a radical, outlaw image. Strange because riding without a freewheel is cycling at it’s most sober.

There was a man on the January edition of Critical Mass, on a single-speed bike whose frame – branded ‘Tokyo Fixed’ – was equipped with a freewheel. No harm in that – he had hand-operated rim brakes front and rear, a mellow specification – even better if he’d fitted mudguards – but his sensible personal choice indicates that the fixed-gear boom is over.

In olden days a craze would mature slowly, creeping through the land at the speed of an invasive plant; already old-hat in the big city, when people in the provinces were just catching on. In the 21st Century global-village you can read Fixed Gear Gallery just as easily in Llanelli, as Shoreditch and those candy coloured rims will look as passé in Cumbria as they do in Clapton.

Hard-court bike polo boomed in parallel with the global infatuation for 1897 specification. (The automatic freewheel, the last element of the modern bicycle, hit the streets in 1898.) Fixed gear bikes are used in old-school bike polo played on grass fields. Hard court polo has evolved rapidly and everyone now competes on freewheel bikes.

hardcourt polo: free at last

That’s what happens with bike crazes, they attract a mixed cohort at the beginning, reach a peak then dissolve into sub-sub-cultures which are absorbed back into the many roomed mansion of bicycle madness.

Bike crazes are great, they bring new blood which has a ratchet effect on cycling. Some ‘fixie’ aficionados will have moved on to long-board skating, or bee-keeping, or whatever’s getting the kids going these days, others are out training on road bikes, saving up for leather luggage to hang on their roadsters or just riding to work.

Those who came to cycling via ‘track’ bikes have two advantages over those washed in on previous waves. They’re much more likely to have some minimal, mechanical literacy. If your bike has one gear – two if you count walking – then you really need, and are likely to develop, an idea of what a ‘gear’ actually is. Neophytes on mountain bikes just tweaked the thumb-levers until the bike felt OK and stooged off to the supermarket, the cinema or the dance studio, anywhere except the mountains. Fixie victims steered clear of banked tracks in timber or concrete but needed to know how far each turn of the cranks was going to take them.

Even more important is inoculation against dogma. People fear freedom and a common response to all the mysterious, untested potential of this pioneer era of bicycle travel, is retreat into dogma and sectarianism.

If you like riding fixed, if you came to cycling via an enthusiasm for 1897 bikes, then you probably know that the day before yesterday the thing you like best was theoretically extinct – anywhere except a velodrome or a circus tent – and bound for the museum along with the Woods valve and the cotter-pin.

It’s useful to consider the opinions of others, but bicycling is much too fresh to have developed any kind of classical form. Study the principles but don’t be afraid to experiment. And don’t knock it till you’ve tried it.

Velorution postponed

Do you remember the fixie storm of the early Twenty-first Century? The first global bike craze of the internet era? When it was raging, at it’s height, I had a crazy dream. If the idea that riding a minimal bike is cool, could cross-over with the tendency of poor, ignorant people to buy the cheapest bike – or the cheapest thing that looks like a bike – available, then something revolutionary might happen?

Do you remember the fixie storm of the early Twenty-first Century? The first global bike craze of the internet era? When it was raging, at it’s height, I had a crazy dream. If the idea that riding a minimal bike is cool, could cross-over with the tendency of poor, ignorant people to buy the cheapest bike – or the cheapest thing that looks like a bike – available, then something revolutionary might happen?
The problem with BSO’s is not that you can’t make a serviceable bike to retail for £69.99. It’s that if the bike has to look the same as one that must cost much more, the budget gets spread too thinly, cheap icing on an inedible cake. If the bike has two wheels, air tyres, brakes, pedals, cranks, chain and single sprocket or freewheel then maybe, if you economise by making tens of thousands, they might be OK. When I saw this bike in 2010……the bTwin Vitamin, made for Decathalon, I just had to buy one; a new bike for seventy quid.

It was rideable, the headset races didn’t fit the frame too well so you couldn’t eliminate all play, if you pumped the tyres up to a practical pressure they started to lift off the rim, but the brake levers and brakes were made of metal and I rode it from Surrey Quays to West Hackney via the West End without any real trouble. If I’d kept the bike I could’ve glued the races in with two-part epoxy and maybe fitted some part-worn hand-me-down tyres, but I sold it on, my curiosity satisfied.

Earlier this year I checked with the Decathlon and found the ‘Vitamin’ is no more…

Our answer to your question :
Dear Mr Field,

Thanks for your message. Unfortunately we no longer stock the Vitamin Bike, and at present there are no plans to restock.

There is no direct replacement, but I would say that our best priced bike is the RR 5.0, which is 99.99. It is a leisure mountain bike, but many people still use it for using in town. It is certainly a good bike for the price.

Please do not hesitate to contact us if you have any further questions.

Regards,
Paul, from your SURREY QUAYS store

…deleted presumably because it didn’t sell.

At least the suggested alternative has rigid forks but if you’re going to offer a bike for under £100 why not spend all the meager budget on essential components?

From what I know of Decathlon I presume this bike scrapes into the category ‘budget bike’? It’s not a BSO, but I can’t imagine it’s very nice to ride or will last long enough to be good value.

The fixed gear boom, it’s successor the ‘cycle-chic’ craze and their bizarre hybrid offspring ‘tweed’, all encourage alternatives to the ubiquity of the derailer. Hub gears, single-free, single-fixed are offered as options by many manufacturers today in a way they weren’t five years ago but the potential, revolutionary moment has, alas, coasted on by.

Better to burn your money

If you’ve never tried to ride or work on one of these, it’s hard to imagine just how shonky they can be. Brake blocks won’t adjust to hit the rim, front derailer can’t be positioned where it won’t rub on a chainring. Inflate the tyres to a practical pressure and they lift off the rim, try and fix a loose headset and you find the target – between too loose and too tight – only exists in theory.


A significant minority of the products sold as bikes in this country – if you include machines  for children it might even be a majority – come into the category of ‘bicycle shaped object’ (BSO).

If you’ve never tried to ride or work on one of these, it’s hard to imagine just how shonky they can be. Brake blocks won’t adjust to hit the rim, front derailer can’t be positioned where it won’t rub on a chainring. Inflate the tyres to a practical pressure and they lift off the rim, try and fix a loose headset and you find the target – between too loose and too tight – only exists in theory.

The worst of these machines are usually sold part-dismantled in cardboard boxes. The box may carry a sticker, ‘this product must be assembled by a trained professional’. No trained professional will touch such a thing. The sticker is there to dodge trading standards.

The difference between a budget bike and a BSO is that the former is built to a price, but built to be ridden, the latter is only designed to sell. Once the customer’s money hits the till, or their payment clears, the BSO has fulfilled it’s function.

The fixed costs of a bicycle are the same regardless of quality, the cardboard box, the shipping from East Asia. The sale price of a BSO covers these costs and a retail margin, leaving almost nothing for the machine itself. If it’s offered for sale in the UK for £89.99 you know that, at the factory gate, bought by the container load, it costs ten dollars. If you already love cycling and know how to use a spoke-key you might get some limited short-term use from a BSO. If not it may easily break your heart.

A conspiracy theory is always over-optimistic because it assumes someone, somewhere is in control of something. If there really was a conspiracy social progress would be a simple matter of finding the conspirators and seizing control of their levers of power. The conspiracy theory can be a useful tool of analysis but it never describes what’s actually happening.

BSOs aren’t part of a conspiracy to stop people taking up cycling, but they might as well be. If you wanted to put people off cycling, selling them a heavy unserviceable lump of ship-ballast and telling them it’s a bike, would be a good way to go about it.

It’s easy to sound snobbish when explaining that cheap products are no use, but really the people who buy BSOs would be better off burning their money. They’d have enjoyed a few seconds heat and light and not be left with lump of scrap, rusting on their balcony, to remind them how troublesome cycling is.

Bikes are expensive. You can buy a new car for £7,000. Compare this to a bike for £350. How many components, and sub-components, in the car? How many in the bike? The car’s fuel pump is more complicated than the bike. How come the little saloon only costs twenty times more than the push-rod?

On a cheap car everything is twice as strong as it need be and the engine moves all the redundant weight around. A bicycle, engineered for rich people like us, is more like an aeroplane or a race-car. Everything is much closer to just-strong-enough, this kind of engineering costs money.

When you understand about bikes this is not a problem. If a cheap car lasts ten years that’s a minor miracle. Aeroplanes last for decades, an old race-car is a blue-chip investment. Give a bicycle basic attention, don’t crash it and it will out-last you. When you’re gone and your descendants are riding around on it, they won’t be worrying about what you paid for it in 2012. If the service-life is measured in generations the steep purchase price starts to look like good value.

If someone flirting with the idea of cycle-travel asks you what bike they should buy? Or even how much they should spend on a bike to get value for money? It’s best to dodge the question. They’re an adult and need to make their own decisions. I suggest passing on these principles…

  • If you’re not sure whether you need a particular feature choose a bike without it.
  • Only buy a new bike from someone who offers a first check-over service – after it’s been run-in for a month or fifty miles – as part of the purchase price.

If the trader doesn’t offer you a service it probably means the bike is not serviceable.

‘nother normal Friday night

‘Look Mum no Hands’, a cycling-themed cafe on Old Street. Once upon a time there were places to hang out, Bar Italia has good coffee – and showed live coverage of the Giro before satellite TV was everywhere – the Duke of York’s in the Clerkenwell Road, thick with couriers on a Friday evening.

Friday night at  ‘Look Mum no Hands’, a cycling-themed cafe on Old Street. Once upon a time there were places to hang out, Bar Italia has good coffee – and showed live coverage of the Giro before satellite TV was everywhere – the Duke of York’s in the Clerkenwell Road, thick with couriers on a Friday evening.

Cycle mechanic’s joke.

  • Q. How many cycle-couriers does it take to change a light-bulb?
  • A. None. They want you to do it. They want you to do it now. And can they have a discount, because they’re a courier?

Back in the day there were places to hang out. Now there are cycle-themed cafes. LMNH is busy with people of all stripes. Truly we live in crazy times.

It’s the launch of ‘The Ride Journal VI‘ a handsome, perfect-bound anthology of writing, illustration and photography. Even the sparse ads are easy on the eye and loaded with symbolism. Ever wondered why Brooks saddles are so costly? Check this.

I’m disappointed. My 800 word contribution features an embarrassing mistake. The submitted copy described recumbent bikes as “crashworthy”, which has been misunderstood and rendered in print as “prone to crash”.

Some cycles are harder to ride than others, the’re good reasons why disc wheels and tri-bars aren’t allowed in road-races. Crashworthiness is about the ability of a vehicle to leave its pilot unharmed in a wreck.  A car with seat-belts, crumple-zones and an airbag is more crashworthy than one without.

On a recumbent you’re usually closer to the ground than on a classic bike. Impact is to do with acceleration not speed; half the distance, equals one quarter the force. Crash a classic bike and you’re likely to land hard on your head, shoulders or arms. Crash a recumbent and you land gently on your arse.  We all know individuals who’d be better off landing on their heads, but – in general – it’s better to absorb energy with your glutæus maximus than your skull. The brakes also work much better because you’re weight is loaded on the back wheel. Until you’ve been on a recumbent you’ve never really ridden a push-bike with brakes that actually work. On a recumbent with hydraulic-controlled discs you can out-brake anything.

Don’t get me wrong, crash a recumbent at speed and you can give yourself extensive superficial injuries, but it’s usually a walk-away. It’s a good job recumbents are so safe because most of the people who ride them are idiots.

It’s a truism that nobody (except the producers of El Dorado?) went bust by under-estimating the public, so I’m the mug for sending copy containing unexplained sub-cultural vocabulary; but whoever subbed the piece could have looked up ‘crashworthy’ before they mistranslated it into nonsense?

Not to worry. I’m not Anne-Caroline Chausson, and my little essay doesn’t appear until page 159. In truth this kind of volume is more likely to be thumbed through and tossed on a coffee table then read carefully.

Out of the window Critical Mass goes past.

The Mass has become more cheerful lately. It’s always better in the Winter or in the rain. You get a higher proportion of people who actually like cycling, fewer angry twerps who only ride to annoy their parents. Critical Mass is a free event – it belongs to everyone – so you can’t complain how participants treat it, but I always hope bystanders think…

…’wow those people are cool. I wish I was one of them’…

NOT

…’why are those white kids so angry?’

Prof. Kayoss:- Godfather of Ecopop

The presence of people on the blue Transport for London hire bikes make the ramshackle peloton look approachable and inclusive; a clear indication that ‘normal’ people can join in. The increasing cadre of long-board skaters blur the boundaries further.

Lots of people already have a line on ‘cyclists’ – sheroes at the vanguard of peace, freedom and sustainability, or self-righteous, work-shy vermin, who think they own the friggin’ road. Personally I can’t see the point of wheels without punctures, and no-way am I tough enough to ride the streets on a vehicle with no seat and no brakes, but the skaters certainly add gaiety. Also great to see Professor Kayoss rolling by on his custom Linear.

Standing in a bar full of assorted people for whom the little queen of the road is the default mode, watching a jolly, random club-run pass, soaking up anger and frustration and giving out LOVE as it goes.

These are the golden years.

  • Q. How many cycle mechanics does it take to change a light-bulb.
  • A. One. They’re resourceful, self-reliant people; but… …if it’s a Shimano light-bulb? Maybe you should consider moving to a new house?

It just looks wrong

In 1880 a bicycle was ‘a wheel’ – cranks mounted directly on the front hub like a baby’s trike – the taller the wheel the bigger the gear. The development of roller-chain, running on sprockets of different sizes, made it possible to set a cycle’s gear regardless of the size of the driving wheel. To differentiate these newfangled machines they were called ‘safety bikes’. Safeties were unpopular with some who’d mastered ordinary, high bikes. Smaller wheels didn’t cope well with bumpy roads and, more importantly… they just looked wrong.


In 1880 a bicycle was ‘a wheel’ – cranks mounted directly on the front hub like a baby’s trike – the taller the wheel the bigger the gear. The development of roller-chain, running on sprockets of different sizes, made it possible to set a cycle’s gear regardless of the size of the driving wheel. To differentiate these newfangled machines they were called ‘safety bikes’. Safeties were unpopular with some who’d mastered ordinary, high bikes. Smaller wheels didn’t cope well with bumpy roads and, more importantly… they just looked wrong.

‘bladder wheels’ will never catch on

In the Nineteenth Century people’s idea of a road was a strip of broken stones, a tyre an iron hoop around a wooden cartwheel. A suggestion to put bags of compressed-air around wheels was – to ordinary folk – laughable. Cycle racing was an infant sport, dominated by forward thinking. Early-adopters proved that safety bikes, with pneumatic tyres, were faster. A significant pioneer was Charles Terront, who won the inaugural, 1891, Paris-Brest for Michelin, covering 1200 kilometres in 71 hours 22 minutes. People stopped laughing. The modern era had begun.

At the 1992, Barcelona Olympics Chris Boardman won the 4 kilometre pursuit, his gold medal bike had a carbon-reinforced-plastic, monocoque frame. A classic bike made from tubular struts compares to a World War One biplane, Boardman’s looked like a Spitfire. You can find pictures of Miguel Indurain riding time-trials on a monocoque bike, but nowadays even super-champions are back on turbulence-generating stick frames. Why? Did bikes shaped like aero wings prove unreliable, slow, hard to control? You won’t see them because the Union Cycliste Internationale(UCI) banned them. They just looked wrong.

“Stick bikes are finished.” M. Burrows (1992)

The UCI is cycle-sport’s governing body. As the designer of the Barcelona bike – Mike Burrows – explains:- “Sports administrators are ex-competitors, international administrators are older ex-competitors. They don’t know anything about engineering. It’s not a problem for cycle-sport. Cycle-sport is fine, but restricting what can be used in races lets ordinary people think bikes are old-fashioned. Most people don’t expect to solve modern problems with Nineteenth Century machines.” Burrows believes the conservatism of the UCI is holding back public acceptance of bikes.

The Boardman bike took advantage of new materials to make a shape that sliced through the air. The atmospheric-resistance produced by a bike is much less significant than the drag on a human body. Graeme Obree – Boardman’s great rival – changed his riding position. First folding his arms under his shoulders, then pushing them straight ahead in what become known as ‘the Superman position’. At a Science Museum reception, to celebrate the Barcelona bike’s induction as an exhibit, Boardman complained that he was going to have to do tests in the Superman position, with no possible, positive result. If it wasn’t faster that meant Obree was stronger. If it was, he’d have to learn to ride in the new posture. It turned out that Obree’s position was faster. In sport destroying the morale of your opponents is an objective.

Indurain:- “extraterrestrial”

The UCI rescued Obree’s rivals. They banned ‘Superman’. Their excuse was safety, although how dangerous riding unpaced on a velodrome can be is an interesting question. You don’t win races by crashing so on a velodrome safety solves itself. The UCI has strict rules on the acceptable position for a bike rider. Faster designs, that take the rider through the air in a horizontal shape, are banned. Ironically low, faster, feet-first bikes are also more crashworthy, than classic, head-first ‘safety’ bikes.

Cinelli’s ‘spinachi’ handlebar extensions were banned using a safety justification. The UCI even planned to ban Giant’s compact frame – it just looked wrong – until it was pointed out that it would enable dealers to accommodate almost all customers with three stock frame sizes. “I don’t really blame the UCI” – continues Mike Burrows –  “but why do the manufacturers let them get away with it?”

The classic bike is a brilliant device. It doesn’t need to be defended with conservative rules that – whatever the blazer’s excuses – are essentially aesthetic. Bike racing is more than a compelling athletic contest, it can also be a race between bikes, where the choice of mount is another sophistication. This can only widen its appeal and make bicycles more interesting to the velo-deficient majority.

Bike racing is an industrial activity, rooted in modernism. It also has noble traditions, but that doesn’t mean it need be dominated by a retro idea of what a bicycle should look like. Bikes that win races look good. Fausto Coppi, Eddy Merkx are honourable role-models. And so is Charles Terront.

This copy first appeared in The Ride Journal issue VI with a nice illustration and an embarrassing mistake.

Future shop

You must have noticed that many categories of solid shop – book-shops, record-shops – are almost obsolete. Virtual shopping does have drawbacks. Here’s the queue to collect undelivered parcels at Emma Street post-office two weeks before Christmas 2011…

Westfield Stratford City is a suburban salient pushing old-fashioned, low-density development towards the centre of London. This kind of land-use, that accommodates and promotes motor-dependence, is not what we want.

You must have noticed that many categories of solid shop – book-shops, record-shops – are almost obsolete. Virtual shopping does have drawbacks. Here’s the queue to collect undelivered parcels at Emma Street post-office two weeks before Christmas 2011…

…and it was another forty minutes from the door to the counter. You can tell this a genuine cross-section of Hackney and Bethnal Green folk as it includes…

  • …man/boy sporting a cycle crash-hat/running shoe combination
  • …very ugly dog

Westfield features a number of big shops selling small things. Why do you need a cavernous gallery to sell watches or mobile phones? The future of shopping is souks crammed with kiosks where the person behind the counter picks out the item you ask for with a long pair of reaching tongs.

The overheads are low and customers can walk to a dozen different stores in the distance from the door to the till and back of an over-designed Westfield boutique.

Westfield Stratford may be all wrong but even it’s dreary, privatised, faux streets betray clear signs of a new reality.

The automobile marque ‘Mini’ – produced by the Bayerische Motoren Werke AG (not to be confused with BMW) – has a pop-up shop.

“The MINI store, which will be open for 12 months only, showcases the two newest MINI models, the MINI Coupé and the MINI Countryman and also sells a full range of MINI lifestyle merchandise.”

Lifestyle merchandise?

What would Henry Ford or Juan Manuel Fangio say about that?

Once cars were useful tools, that allowed doctors to visit sick people, isolated farmers to get to market, to church or a dance on Saturday night. In 1914 it was already cheaper to run a small car than a pony and trap. Now they’re fantasy items hung on shop fronts to sell over-priced plimsolls, and handbags with too much branding.

If you’re walking from Stratford Station to the Olympic Park watch out for this pretentious and threatening landmark…

What modern, practical tool of liberation has pride of place in the MINI shop window?

If you don’t want to know the answer look away now.