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Book Review: Bicycle Design: An Illustrated History

Bicycle Design: An Illustrated History fills in the gaps on how the awesomeness that is the bicycle came to be.

Up-front confession: this book was not featured (so far as we know) at Interbike!

However, it DOES chronicle pretty much all the innovations throughout bicycling history, so rest assured that the predecessors to many of the “new” things there are mentioned in it!

Bicycle Design: An Illustrated History is by Tony Hadland and Hans-Erhard Lessing, and in the authors’ words seeks to fill the neglected gap addressing the technical aspects of the history of the bicycle. It starts out with… well, actually it starts out with ice skating and wheelbarrows… but it quickly moves on to velocipedes and draisines, the predecessors of the bicycle.

Another confession: I haven’t read the whole thing. I did read all the bits about velocipedes and high-wheel bikes and wire wheels and the development of the safety bicycle (aka a bike having 2 wheels of the same size), but after that concluded that this wasn’t really meant to be read straight through – and yeah, it took me a bit longer to figure that out than it might take most people, but what can I say… I’m a bit of a bike nerd!

 

Apparently we should call these draisines!

So after some deliberation, I’d consider this more of a reference book: the next time you wonder, “when WAS the first bamboo frame made?” rest assured that this is the place you can find that answer! (page 178: 1890’s, patented in 1896. Calfee wasn’t exactly the first!).

The first 5 chapters of the book detail the history up to the invention of the diamond-frame steel bicycle. After that point, it diverges into chapters on different aspects of bikes, such as transmission, braking, and lighting. It also – at the end – includes specific sections on “racing” bicycles and mountain bikes, folding bikes, and military bikes (an interesting chapter!).

Overall this is a very informative book, and I say kudos should go to the authors for assembling all of the information in a scholarly fashion, complete with TONS of references at the back (if anyone out there needs to write a term paper on anything about bicycles, this should be your starting point!).

My one minor (major?) complaint about it is that it reminds me of several of my history classes in high school. How so? No, not because I fell asleep… I like history, and this book is written pretty well, so I didn’t do that during either high school or while reading this! It’s because in high school I had several years of history classes where we spent a ton of time on something early in the semester… and then gradually less and less time per topic, until by the end we rushed through the 1960’s on in only a couple weeks (I don’t think I had a history class that ever made it to the decade we were in!). Bicycle Design reminds me of this: it spends a lot of time on early development, but we get to the end and there are a scant 10 pages on mountain bikes. Two paragraphs on disc brakes. Two pages on suspension. Etc. etc. Yes, these are relatively recent in the scheme of things – but they’re BIG things right now, they involve some pretty neat increases in bicycle capabilities, and they deserve to be included… not lumped together in a hash that includes everything from the 1970’s til now in a handful of paragraphs.

Gripes regarding recent history aside, this is something every serious bicyclist should at least flip through sooner or later. I highly doubt many people (apart from the authors) have a good grip on all of the developments mentioned in its pages, so you’re guaranteed to learn something (and probably something interesting!). At $20-something on Amazon (for a nice hardcover), it’s definitely worth picking up for the coffee table, or for the bike-themed coffee shop, or for the bike shop, or for a stocking stuffer, if Santa’s real nice and someone you know has a stocking that can accommodate a 564-page volume.

Please click here to read our review disclaimer as required by the Federal Trade Commission.

 

Book Review: “Cyclopedia” by William Fotheringham

A couple of months ago, the publicity manager for the Independent Publishers Group offered to send a review copy of William Fotheringham’s new book Cyclopedia: It’s All About the Bike (Chicago: Chicago Review Press, 2011). Funny how that title keeps popping up..since Lance Armstrong’s It’s Not About the Bike, a number of cycling authors have used a variation on that title. Why, it was only a few short weeks ago that I reviewed ANOTHER book with a similar title!

Author William Fotheringham gained wide acclaim for his biography of legendary British racer Tom Simpson in Put Me Back on My Bike, and has quite the list of cycle-related “palmares”: cycling correspondent at the Guardian, launch editor of Cycle Sport, founder of procycling magazine, writer at Rouler Magazine. The man lives and breathes cycling history…so I was eager to read Cyclopedia.

Cyclopedia

I was NOT disappointed…this book is a treasure trove of cycling/bicycle racing facts and anecdotes — including many things I had not heard of. From Uzbek sensation Djamolidin Abduzhaparov to “The Flying Yankee” Arthur Zimmerman, the book simply blew me away. As Fotheringham is a UK-based writer, the content leans a bit heavily toward British racing legends, but rest assured, there is something for everyone here. But, it’s not an exhaustive encyclopedia — it focuses on the highlights (and some lowlights), as a true encyclopedia of bike racing would take several volumes. Throughout the book, there are diagrams, maps, timelines and tables to help illustrate some of the subject matter. My favorite? French drug slang…a colorful glimpse into the sordid past of professional racing.

I consider myself a fairly well-read amateur bike historian, and I welcomed learning new tidbits along the way. Best of all, Cyclopedia got me interested in tracking down additional bike history books to read further on some of the subjects Fotheringham touched on. For anyone interested in learning more bicycle and racing history, this is a great jumping-off point. Cyclopedia deserves a place on any bike fan’s bookshelf.

I also got a copy of Fotheringham’s Fallen Angel: The Passion of Fausto Coppi for Christmas, and so far I am enthralled. Stay tuned for a review on that and some other bikey book goodness in the coming weeks.

A Visit to the Wright Cycle Company

The Dayton, Ohio area is rich in aviation history…you may have heard of two brothers named Orville and Wilbur who were credited with inventing and flying the first successful airplane back in 1903. Those brothers, the Wrights, did all their design work and much of their testing right here in Dayton. And do you know where they did their inventing and brainstorming, fabrication and planning? That’s right, their bicycle shop…in addition to a number of other businesses, the Wright Brothers built their own line of bicycles and were able to fund their aviation experiments using the proceeds from their bike shops. Also, they recruited their shop employee/mechanic, Charlie Taylor, to help fabricate parts and the first motors used in their flying endeavors. So, it’s fair to say that bicycles were partially responsible for aviation as we know it!

The Wright Cycle Company occupied five different storefronts, most roughly within a block or two of each other, and only one remains in its original location at 22 South Williams Street in downtown Dayton. That location is part of the Dayton Aviation Heritage National Park, and I took a trip there a few weeks ago to take photos to share with you. Let’s take a look at the shop, shall we?

The Wright Cycle Company is part of the Dayton Aviation Park complex, which also contains an interpretive center, a replica of the Wright Brothers’ printing shop and a memorial to noted African-American poet and essayist Paul Laurence Dunbar. Dunbar was a childhood friend and neighbor of the Wrights, and he wrote and edited a newspaper printed by the Wrights in their printshop.

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The Wright Cycle Company as it appears today:
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The inside of the shop serves both as a replica of how the shop would have been set up back in the late 1890s as well as providing interpretive displays covering early bicycle history. Here, the sales counter has been recreated to appear as it might have when the shop was open for bicycle sales:

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As with any decent bike shop, the mechanic’s area is prominent. Here, in addition to building and repairing bikes, mechanic Charlie Taylor also spent some time fabricating parts for the first airplanes. The shop’s repair area has been faithfully recreated with period tools and machines:

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Here’s a case full of tools and accessories…the types of items a savvy bike-shop owner would encourage his customers to buy as part of the bike deal:

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This is a price list of the top-of-the-line model the Wright Cycle Company produced, the “Van Cleve” (named after a family friend). The “St. Clair” was a less-expensive model, and from what I recall, there was one other model produced by the brothers:

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For more detail of the price list, please visit the Wright Brothers Aviation virtual museum page here.

Here’s a reproduction of one of the advertisements for the Van Cleve. Van Cleves came in black or red, but custom colors were available for an extra fee:

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You’ll be pleased to know that if you choose to ride your bike to the shop, the National Park Service has provided whimsical bike racks for visitors:

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Now, here’s a bit of history on the bikes themselves: when I first moved to Dayton, I was told by a bike-collecting friend that there were no known existing Wright Bros. bikes. I found that a bit surprising, so I asked the park ranger who led my tour about that. I was pleasantly surprised to learn that there are FIVE known bikes out there…one at the National Museum of the United States Air Force at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, two at Carillon Park here in Dayton, one at the Henry Ford Museum in Dearborn, Michigan…and one other in a location I cannot recall. I’ve seen the one at the Air Force Museum with my own eyes, and it’s a beauty. I found it a bit disappointing that this Wright Cycle Co. shop only has replicas of the bikes, not the “real thing”. But, I have to say that the replicas are stunning as well.

I heartily recommend a visit to the Wright Cycle Company if you’re in the area…as well as the associated interpretive centers at the Dayton Aviation Heritage National Park complex. Visiting here reminds me of how bicycles have the power to change the world for the better.