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Still going strong


A miracle of modern technology that took just a few decades to perfect, the bicycle is still going strong. I use one several times a day, except when I’m away in Slovenia (and that’s only because the town I stay in is so small I can walk everywhere, and has quite a few streets with uneven paving slabs and steep slopes). Hardly enough to keep me fit, but it has to be better for me than going everywhere by car (luckily I don’t have a driving licence to tempt me), and it’s certainly better for the environment. Not that bicycles generate no waste at all: one of my lights needs two new AA batteries once or twice a year (the other runs entirely on solar power and leg propulsion), and a bad puncture will occasionally  (every two years or so) require the inner tube or even the tyre to be replaced. But these days the batteries are collected for recycling, and so, I imagine, is the rubber. All in all, the bike has a very small ‘footprint’, and it is highly energy-efficient: 99% of the force I transmit to the wheels is used.

Bicycles can keep going for decades, and are less subject to changes of fashion than most technical products. To be sure, there are now sports bikes and recumbent bikes; but looking round me as I write this, in full view of several bicycle stands, I can’t see many of either. Sports bikes have the advantage of being lighter and faster; but they have the disadvantage of forcing you to bend forwards with your neck at an angle so you can still see the traffic, and they’re usually designed without a kickstand (to further reduce their weight), so you need something to lean them against when you get off. As for recumbent bikes (‘recumbents’), they’ve never been a success, for riders are so close to the ground that they’re hard for other road users to see, and vice versa; not being able to see over the tops of parked cars not only makes you feel unsafe, it is unsafe. To make sure they’re noticed, most users of recumbents fit them with brightly coloured pennants on thin poles like the ones you see on children’s bikes; but the tops of the poles are at other cyclists’ head level, and I’m always afraid one will poke my eye out as I overtake (the poles are made of flexible plastic and are apt to wave about).

In any case, whole weeks go by without my ever seeing a recumbent – and this is Holland, where there are almost as many bikes as people. Both sports bikes and recumbents have the added disadvantage that, unlike standard bikes, they can’t easily deal with such frequently encountered obstacles as kerbs, loose paving stones or bulges in the road surface caused by tree roots (sports bikes aren’t robust enough, and recumbents are too close to the road). The one undoubted advantage of recumbents – that you’re less likely to hurt yourself if you fall off – hardly makes up for their drawbacks, which include the fact that they’re substantially more expensive than standard bikes (sports bikes are even worse).

The history of the bike began just 200 years ago, in 1817, when a German nobleman called Karl von Drais (rhyming with ‘rice’) invented the first-ever two-wheeled vehicle. He called it the Laufmaschine or ‘running machine’. In English it was soon nicknamed the ‘hobby horse’ or ‘dandy horse’; another name was vélocipède, a French word derived from the Latin for ‘fast’ and ‘foot’; and to this day the everyday French name for a bike is vélo. For a while it was also known as the draisine (in French, draisienne) after its inventor; but this name has since been transferred to larger pedal-driven wheeled vehicles that run on rails. There is currently a draisine service for groups of tourists on a disused section of railway line between a small town near where I live and another small town just across the border in Germany – a pleasant day trip in fine weather.

Although the ‘hobby horse’ – which survives to this day in the children’s ‘push bikes’ (or ‘balance bikes’) that prepare them for the real thing – was certainly a faster means of locomotion than simply walking, and could be steered (the front wheel and handlebars were hinged), it had some major drawbacks. It was terribly rigid, with an unsprung wooden frame and tyreless iron wheels, and riding it on the then invariably cobbled roads was a painful experience (despite the upholstered saddle), since every jolt and vibration was transmitted to the rider. Users therefore tended to take to the smoother but narrower pavements, putting pedestrians (who were not expecting to encounter them there) in serious danger. Worse, it depended for propulsion on exactly the same movement as walking and running: the rider’s feet were in contact with the road surface, and the whole process was tiring. Clearly something had to be done if the new invention were to be a real success.

It isn’t quite clear when the next step forward occurred. A Scotsman called Kirkpatrick MacMillan is said by some to have produced the first mechanically driven bicycle in 1839: still with a wooden frame and tyreless iron wheels, but now with pedals attached by rods to the hub of the rear wheel, which revolved as the pedals were pushed down (so there was no longer any direct contact between the rider’s feet and the road surface, and the amount of foot movement was greatly reduced – less fatigue all round). The front wheel and handlebars were again hinged to allow steering; and the rear wheel, which was used for propulsion, was slightly larger than the front one (in the absence of chain transmission and gears, this was the only way to increase the vehicle’s speed – the larger the drive wheel, the further the bicycle would move with each turn of the pedals). However, the facts of the matter are disputed, and seem likely to remain so.

The first undoubted improvement in bicycle design took place in France in the 1860s, when Pierre Michaux and Pierre Lallement designed a vehicle with pedals mounted on the front wheel – which, for the reasons just mentioned, was now slightly larger than the rear one. This had the advantage that the propulsion force could be transmitted directly to the drive wheel, which was literally turning under the rider’s feet, making him – at this stage in history it was still considered indecent for women to ride bicycles, and their voluminous clothing was unsuited to it – more aware of how the bicycle was responding; the disadvantage was that the pedals were not in the most natural position (directly below the rider’s centre of gravity) and that having them on the wheel also used for steering made the vehicle harder to control. With rubber tyres still some years in the future, bicycles of this era were nicknamed ‘boneshakers’; the whole experience must have been like trying to ride a modern bike with two completely flat tyres.

In 1869 another Frenchman, Eugène Meyer, invented tensionable wire wheel spokes (the spokes had previously been made of solid metal) that greatly reduced bicycles’ weight and allowed the development of high-wheelers, with a vast front wheel (on which the pedals were mounted) and a tiny rear one. The saddle was now almost directly above the pedals, eliminating the earlier centre-of-gravity problem; but the front wheels were now so large that the bikes were very unsafe to ride. A small protruding step on the frame was needed to help the rider climb onto the saddle (and immediately push down on the pedals in order to stop the bicycle from falling over); and the distance between the rider’s feet and the ground was as much as a metre. The slightest obstacle on the road surface, such as a pebble, was enough to send the rider flying over the handlebars, often with serious injuries – it seems that two fractured wrists were a common result, and some riders were even killed as they attempted to break their fall.

With rubber increasingly imported into Europe from colonial plantations in Asia and Africa, solid rubber wheels soon became available; and since the large wheels allowed a smoother ride, as well as far greater speed, the high-wheelers remained popular despite the hazards involved in riding them. In Britain they were eventually nicknamed ‘penny-farthings’, because the different-sized wheels recalled the very large penny coin and the much smaller farthing coin, worth a quarter of a penny – the name is derived from ‘four’ – and still in use when I was a boy (the little farthing was taken out of circulation in 1961, and the big penny ten years later, when Britain finally adopted decimal currency).

Once again, however, something had to be done if bicycles were to become a truly popular – comfortable as well as safe – means of transport; and by the 1880s the solution was in sight. First, tyres that were inflatable, or ‘pneumatic’ (to this day the French word for ‘tyre’ is pneu), which allowed a comfortable and safe ride even on bicycles with human-sized wheels (another Scotsman, John Dunlop, is credited with this invention, but it seems he was reinventing something already designed nearly half a century early by yet another Scotsman, Robert William Thomson); and finally chain transmission with gears (devised by the English inventor John Kemp Starley), which allowed high speeds without having to increase wheel size, and eliminated the need for pedals on the wheel that was used for steering. At the same time, the saddle could now be placed in between the two equal-sized wheels, greatly reducing the risk of serious injury or worse if the bicycle hit an obstacle on the road, since the rider was much closer to the ground and much further away from the front wheel.

By 1890, with all the earlier problems solved – apart from punctured tyres, which are sadly still with us – the ‘safety bicycle’ was born; and despite some relatively minor changes since then, this is the bicycle that most of us still use, almost 130 years later.

A remarkably successful piece of engineering, and one that has greatly contributed to social mobility, the emancipation of women and environmental protection. In short, a damn good thing.

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