It has transformed societies, liberated women, empowered youth and can even help Parkinson's patients. It inspired inventors like the Wright brothers and Henry Ford and spawned industrial production. About 100 million US citizens and a billion people around the world have it. It can be mastered by 3 year as well as ninety year old people as well as some circus monkeys. Once you mastered it you never forget. It allows humans to outrun even the fastest land animals. It is simple to fix but its physics are so involved that it took the industrial age to invent it. It can carry 18 times its own weight, doesn't have emissions, is whisper quiet, super energy efficient, can transport one or several people as well as cargo, can pull trailers and move through snow, water and run on smooth or rugged terrain including steep hills. It precedes the automobile and even today remains a transformational force in many parts of the world. In 24 of 27 European countries it outnumbered cars in sales in 2012. In Copenhagen 40% of all commuters use it to get to work.
"in 1890 it was nothing less than a general intoxication, an eruption of exuberance like a seismic tremor that shook the economic and social foundations of society and rattled the windows of its moral outlook" Irving A. Leonard, When Bikehood was in Flower, (Seven Palms Press, 1983)Of course, all this alludes to the bicycle. Over all the current hoopla about the bicycle as an "alternative mode" causing a "cultural war" (really, aren't cars and bikes operated by the same species?) we tend to lose sight of the wonders that the simple machine has brought to the world in its 150 or so years of history.
|The bicycle as women's liberation tool|
The bicycle as a mechanical device and extension of the human body can not only provide efficient transportation but also great joy and satisfaction. As with skiing, surfing or even hiking, only those who have experienced the emotional power that can come from these activities can truly understand it. This may explain why some hate everything that has to do with the bicycle while others are extreme bike nuts. I am not sure that writing can overcome this gulf, but I will give it a try.
May it be of help that I don't strictly belong to either camp and only own a simple $350 mountain bike without suspension, disc breaks or any other fancy gear and yes, my 1965 boyhood bike as well. May it further help that I don't ride in spandex and mostly even shun the helmet. My preferred mode of bicycling is regular clothing, even the office outfit. But I have been a lifelong bicyclist and can attest from experience that most of what I stated in the intro is true. The bicycle can be transforming.
|this would have been the 1955 catalog from which my|
parents ordered their rides and this is how the bikes would
have looked, headlight, repair pouches, skirt protector, hood
ornament (the horse) and all.
How liberating the bicycle is for those who can't have an automobile, I recall from my own time as a child in a small town without much public transport and young parents who simply didn't have the money for a car. So in 1955 they bought two touring bicycles from a catalog, single speed, black (as the Ford Model T and everything else metal was originally) with a front break in the shape of a simple rubber block that the break lever would press down on top of the tire. Two steel seats, not unlike vintage tractor seats, installed on the frame right behind the handle bar, would provide an additional space on each bike for my brother and me and off the whole family could go. And off we went, my mother and I in breakneck speed downhill for shopping, on Sundays we would go on trips just as if we had a car. Should a tire go flat, the bikes came with a leather pouch installed on the frame that contained the patches and the glue as well as the necessary wrenches to loosen the wheel or get the tire off the 28" rim. For rain we had special ponchos that would drape over the handlebar and keep rider and child pretty dry. The wheels had fenders and for blankets or picnic supplies there was a rack on the back of each bike. Should it get dark before we returned home, the bikes had little "dynamo" generators which would run a head and taillight. That did slow us down because the wheel turning the dynamo produced friction.
As soon as I was tall enough for my own bicycle I bought first a used one and later a brand-new one from Bauer. The latter was so sturdy that it survived nearly 50 years and is still in use for my downtown errands in Baltimore today. The electric dynamo is still there and the headlight is still hardwired to it, but I prefer the new LED lights that don't put so much drag on the wheel.
|my 1965 Bauer, still in use as city bike|
Today's kids who have a full day of organized activities and whose parents chauffeur them from place to place may not be able to imagine what new liberties my first bike opened up for me as a child. All of a sudden pretty much the entire small town with a population of 50,000 was open to my explorations! No longer could I see only what my parents showed me. I took advantage of this in all seasons and, of course, I also rode the bike to school, regardless of weather.
|Efficiency of various modes of transport|
Another liberating element of the bicycle is its mechanics and the ability to fix it without help. Today where so many things became electronic (which means without mechanics), it is fascinating how nuts, bolts and chains as tangible items, assembled correctly, translate into power. Cars became so complicated that even mechanics often can't do anything on them, but the bicycle remained accessible. Especially the derailleur chain shifter bikes, even if they have 21 or more speeds, are straight forward. The internal hub shifters (initially limited to three speeds, now up to ten) are another story. Their planetary gear system with many internal parts I took it apart once, but never succeeded to get fully functional again. Bike repair, indeed, has become a tool for teaching, empowerment and even job creation in de-industrialized poverty stricken cities as well as developing countries. These quotes from a TV report (click for film clip) about a Baltimore bike initiative show how a bicycle repair workshop brought life lessons to a local highschool. The testimony shows that the joy of tinkering with machines has not subsided.
Millions of Americans, of course, had similar experiences with their Schwinns, the pride of Made in America
|the "safety" bike as we know it today|
was invented in 1885 by British inventor John Kemp Starley
and had a steerable front wheel,
equal sized front and rear wheels, pedals and a chain.
“The test of the machine is the satisfaction it gives you. There isn't any other test. If the machine produces tranquility it's right. If it disturbs you it's wrong until either the machine or your mind is changed.”Pirsig's quotes really relate to the motorcycle, but they apply so wonderfully to the non motorized two wheeler, that I use them anyway. For the bicycle and the motorcycle satisfaction comes from the relative simplicity with which the rider can defy the fundamental law of gravity. No ox cart or horse drawn cabriolet, no matter how sophisticated those had become, had ever provided the elation of gliding along on two wheels.
― Robert M. Pirsig, Zen And The Art Of Motorcycle Maintenance
|Spandex and helmet are not the|
only way one can ride a bike
The bicycle in its current configuration (with two equal sized wheels, pedals and a chain) is as an invention which isn't much older than the automobile in spite of its simplicity. But it came out with enough of a head-start to be the most popular means of getting around for a decade or two. As noted it stimulated social progress for everyone previously not privileged enough for the means of transportation of the time. Hence this assessment from the famous Susan B. Anthony:
"Yes, I'll tell you what I think of bicycling," she said, leaning forward and laying a hand on my arm. "I think it has done more to emancipate woman than any one thing in the world. I rejoice every time I see a woman ride by on a wheel. It gives her a feeling of self-reliance and independence the moment she takes her seat; and away she goes, the picture of untrammelled womanhood." 1896, The Life and Work of Susan B. Anthony, Volume II, by Ida Husted Harper
The bicycle amplified the range of human reach significantly without any of the ills and complications that the
|tool for daily errands of all kinds|
|and mail truck|
Of course, to explain balance and stability rather complex physics need to be mastered, likely the reason why the Romans had invented plumbing and hot water heating but not the bike.
“In a car you're always in a compartment, and because you're used to it you don't realize that through that car window everything you see is just more TV. You're a passive observer and it is all moving by you boringly in a frame.The ability to stop anytime, to smell, hear and listen, the speed, low enough to digest what is passing by but fast enough to get the distance of most daily trips without too much exertion and time, are the main reasons why I still use the bicycle at work and for recreation. A downtown run to the bank or trip to a meeting is far quicker by bike than by car and takes out the pesky question of parking. Along the way I discover what is going on, stop for folks I know to have a quick chat. For getting a feel of distant places to be master-planned, I throw the bike in the trunk of my station wagon (no dis-assembly or expensive racks needed) and take the bike out for rides. This way I surveyed architecture, towns and many sites, camera in hand, more thoroughly and faster than any other method would allow. A weekend ride through the woods provides the work-out that we all need without putting up with a gym or organized sport. Coming back from a bike ride in nature always puts you in a good mood.
On a cycle the frame is gone. You're completely in contact with it all. You're in the scene, not just watching it anymore, and the sense of presence is overwhelming.”
― Robert M. Pirsig, Zen And The Art Of Motorcycle Maintenance
In some kind of renaissance there is much talk these days about the bicycle as a serious mode of transportation. Cities across the globe are trying to give this frugal vehicle some space back and another lease on life. Since the bicycle's heyday in the late 18-hundreds, curious shifts have occurred. Initially a means of transportation for all (there wasn't much else except the horse and carriages and some steam trains) the car eventually turned the bicycle into the choice of losers or for the young and the poor, neither able to operate or own a car. Now, especially in the US, the tide has completely turned. In an interesting but silly twist, the bicycle now is not seen anymore as a transportation tool for the poor or for children. Instead, it became a symbol representing urban elites. Indeed, towns and cities with high levels of education and income are bike friendly and poor rural areas are not.
Americans can't imagine themselves doing what the Dutch and the Danes do: use the bike in daily life. But
|The electric (assist) bike is already quite popular|
Klaus Philipsen, FAIA
updated for additional links (4/18/14).
CBS Baltimore: Baltimore Bike Experience
The History of the Bicycle, (Animation)
The Science of Cycling
Bicycling helps brain connectivity in Parkinson patients (also here)
Bicycles improve lives in Africa
Women on Wheels
Is there such a thing as a feminine way to ride a bike?
The bicycle version of the sleeper car