gone with the lamp-lighters and cinema projectionists

It’s entirely appropriate that a frivolous event – a night ride and beach party – has origins shrouded in mystery.

Barry Mason had flair. It was he who invented the Dunwich Dynamo’s creation myth; that a bunch of cycle messengers set-off after an evening drinking session and didn’t stop until they reached the North Sea. Barry always prefaced this confection with ‘legend has it…’ but despite the caveat his sticky tale passed into history.
It’s entirely appropriate that a frivolous event – a night ride and beach party – has origins shrouded in mystery. The problem with Barry’s story is that it may – over time – lead those without much adult memory of the Twentieth Century to misunderstand what those times were really like.

In the years when the DD was a pay-to-enter event, selling enough tickets to cover fixed costs was the difference between profit and loss. Down at Critical Mass sometime in the mid-Nineties, diligently passing out DD flyers with a coupon on the bottom, a scruffy young man took one, read it carefully and asked:- “Do any couriers do this?” Then answered his own question. “No courier would ever do that.”

His declaration was over-statement. There were some bike messengers who rode for fun, but in those days – when delivering letters and packages on a bicycle was a real job, not a lifestyle – many more of them hung up their bikes at the weekends, just as toilet cleaners put down their brushes and carpenters their chisels. On Saturday nights some of the most adept messengers travelled by taxi.

For the benefit of teenage readers; a coupon is a form cut from a newspaper, magazine, leaflet or flyer (a flyer is a promotional piece of paper like the ones promoting industrial pizza that get shoved through letter boxes)

In olden days people cut coupons out, filled them in and sent them – in paper envelopes with cheques or postal-orders – something like Paypal only slower and more concrete.

Email, electronic artwork, email attachments, automated bank transfers, Wi-Fi; it’s easy to forget how fresh this stuff is. Every kilobyte, one less cardboard envelope or – for pedants – one cardboard envelope fewer.

Is it a coincidence that just as the last Scottish Highlanders were cleared off their lands and embarked for Nova Scotia, New Zealand or Birmingham, the British aristocracy went wild for tartan, Queen Victoria had a bag-piper under her bedroom window and – in Edinburgh – North-Brit male toffs started waltzing around in pleated skirts with little daggers stuck in their socks?

The Last of the Clan

When the last un-contacted forest aboriginals get their first taste of Coca-cola, and first experience of steel tools, rich kids start wearing Campagnolo seat-pin bolts through their nasal septa and sporting warrior tattoos.

Sturmey Archer sprocket circlips?

When I explained the theory – that a global infatuation with ‘bike courier chic’ is(was?) a clear symptom that the riders with big bags and radios are running out of road – to Bill ‘Buffalo Bill’ Chidley, the King of the Couriers, he disagreed. As counter-argument the legendary self-advertiser cited a recent case of a messenger who had to ride from Soho to Clapham to deliver a hard-drive.

Later – on reflection – I tried to imagine how many old-school couriers it would have taken to carry two terabytes of paper correspondence?

One of the rules of mass-participation cycle-touring is…

Never assume anyone else knows the way.

If you ride the Dunwich Dynamo next week and follow a handful of red lights for half an hour you may find they’re not going to Dunwich at all, just heading up to the all-night garage in Bury St. Edmunds for a packet of cigarettes.

Keep the route-sheet handy – even if you know the way, it sets a good example to greener pilgrims – and this five-bob data display system will add old school Twentieth Century messenger-cool to almost any bike.

wisdom from the Wizard

“The bicycle is the one piece of sporting equipment that’s got more of a role to play outside the arena than inside. Tennis rackets, cricket bats, footballs; useless outside the arena. Bicycle saves the planet.”

 “The bicycle is the one piece of sporting equipment that’s got more of a role to play outside the arena than inside. Tennis rackets, cricket bats, footballs; useless outside the arena. Bicycle saves the planet.”

Mike Burrows

central-casting mad professor

I’m sure many readers already enjoy The Bike Show on Resonance fm.

Check it out if you haven’t before. It’s always interesting and the current episode is a cracker.

Mike Burrows is the best bike designer in the World. I know that because he told me himself.

He’s also an aviation-grade talker.

Next Monday he’s holding forth on funny bikes. I can hardly wait.

 

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.

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.