used with permission
The ‘bicycle’ as we now know it—two-wheeled, ‘diamond’-framed, ridden in an upright position, and driven by one or many gears—has not significantly changed in almost 110 years.
Design embellishments have flourished, in gearing systems, brakes, and suspension, but when the original ideal bicycle came into the world with John Starley’s Rover ‘safety’ bicycle in the late nineteenth century, it became so popular that it proved an ideal was born that could not be bettered. The original ideal lives on to this day.
Couple with Healing bicycles: State Library of Victoria Digital Collection:
used with permission
The genesis of the fastest and lightest carbon-fibre track bike available in the world right now started the day Starley’s safety bicycle went into production, in 1886. And Starley’s safety bicycle is alive and well, in today’s modern form of the ‘fixie’ or single-speed.
Paul and Charlie Farren, of the Vintage Cycling Club of Victoria, have a vast collection of vintage bikes, but their daily riding is embedded firmly in the present of modern design. Their cycling passion straddles a century of cycling history.
Paul says: “The fixed-wheel bicycle of 1909 in Melbourne is not very different from what can be seen around Melbourne now.” Industrial designs of all types marched on, but it seems the ubiquitous bicycle in a sense has just stood still. But that isn’t such a bad thing.
At the beginning of the twentieth century, when bike manufacturers in Coventry and Chicago flooded the Australian market with affordable bikes, people took up cycling because the bike suddenly became a viable economic alternative to personal transportation.
In the early 1900s, single-geared, single-braked, sprung-saddled bikes were suddenly very cheap, coming easily within the buying power of the average worker. The middle classes had already abandoned the bicycle and fallen in love with the motor vehicle, indulging themselves with a machine that was far beyond the financial reach of the lower working classes.
The Pashly Guv’nor : what’s old is new again
Economic forces drove the turn of the century boom in cycling for ordinary working people in that the humble bicycle became instantly affordable for the average worker, yet the current boom in cycling we are experiencing right now is pushed largely by the commuting public realising that the utilitarian benefit of cycling daily is cheaper than any other personal transport alternative. The swings and roundabouts of a national economy still figure prominently in the take-up of cycling.
What really gets a person into the cycling life, and keeps them on a bike, even if personal economic fortunes change, is style—doesn’t sound like much, but style matters to those of us who are really passionate about cycling. This is style expressed in two tones; not only engineering style, but, most importantly, the cultural style inexorably related to it, laid over it, like icing on a cake.
Paul Farren says: “Since the 1820s, bicycle design has always gone hand in hand with style. Style has almost pushed the design of bicycles more than the practical nature of their usage. People always want to look good on the bicycle they’re on – it’s very naked out there on a bike compared to any other form ofwheeled transport.”
Isn’t the modern single-fixie the most wondrous of cycling machines?
Cycling’s current acme of bicycle style in daily, utilitarian use is the ‘fixie’, or single-speed bike, often embellished with fluorescent paint jobs, garish rims, and accessorised spokes. This ‘fixie’ design essence is not too dissimilar from a turn of the century ‘safety’.
Paul again: “Utilising a simple and elegant design aesthetic on a daily basis, the fixed wheel people are trying to say something to the public about themselves as individuals through their cycling.”
Take a look at the seamless yet purposeful way any bike messenger weaves his or her way through city traffic, all the while tapping out a metronomic cadence on their single-speed bike, the bike tricked out with spoke tickets and fluoro rims, and you’ll see Paul’s point. It may look like a style statement, but it’s also a hard day’s work in the saddle.
I also love track cycling for its hard-working and honest engineering simplicity, and for the fact that track cycling is more financially accessible than it’s road-racing cousin. And it’s pure, too. Put aside any thoughts about performance ‘enhancement’ when you’re at a track cycling venue, and what you’re looking at as the cyclists fly around at high speed, with no brakes, is that in combining the mechanical advantage of a human powered machine of pedals/chains/sprockets/high pressure tyres with a track that can be banked up to 42 degrees – you get damned fast, just a bee’s whisker away from crashing, high-speed entertainment. And if you can get on a track bike for the first time and give it a go. It’s the closest thing to flying, without leaving the ground.
So I reckon there is a line that connects turn of the century Safety bikes from Coventry, with today’s single-speed/fixed gear messenger bike, and track cycling. Being single, on a bike, is keeping history alive.
The track bike, even now, is living cycling history