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Talking of Bicycle Evolution

Posted Mar 04 2010 4:55am

My recent talk here in Charleston (Part of a bicycle lecture series.) was well received, with about 80 people present.

The subject of my Power Point presentation was The Evolution of the Bicycle over the years.

In preparing for my talk it occurred to me that it was 1950 when I got my first lightweight bike, in other words, 60 years ago; I started racing two years later.

The first chain driven “Safety” bicycle, the Rover was built in 1886; this was 124 years ago. I realized my involvement with bicycles was for almost half the time the bicycle as we know it has existed.

Furthermore, people who influenced me early on were around at the beginning of the bicycle’s history.

A.J. “Pop” Hodge, (Picture above from 1952.) the man who was my mentor was born in 1877 and at the time he first showed me how to build frames was older than I am now. He began building frames in 1905; Pop died in 1966 at age 89.

The bicycle has no clear single inventor; no Thomas Edison or Alexander Graham Bell. Rather a number of people simply improved on an idea that had been around probably for centuries in the form of a child’s toy; a pretend horse on wheels that the child sat on and pushed themselves along with their feet.

It wasn’t until this child’s toy became an adult toy around 1820 that people no doubt discovered when coasting downhill, one could lift their feet from the ground, and actually balance and stay upright on two wheels.

What does surprise me is that it took another 30 or 40 years before someone added a simple crank to the front wheel, thus turning a toy into a viable form of transport.

One has to realize the only other practical form of personal transport up until that time was the horse.

The bicycle was a machine that would take you where you needed to go, and you didn’t need to feed it, or even saddle it up or hitch it to a cart.

From that point on the evolution speeded up over the next ten years as the front drive wheel became ever increasing in size.

People realized the larger the wheel, the more distance traveled per wheel revolution, resulting in more speed. The only limitation was the length of the rider’s legs.

The high wheeler was the first enthusiast’s bike; cycling became an athletic sport. In fact a person had to be an athlete, and have a certain amount of bravado to even mount and ride one of these somewhat dangerous machines.

Some of these high wheelers weighed as little as 19 lb. Comparable to a lightweight bike today. Bicycle racing became a sport, and speeds well in excess of 20 mph were achieved. The one hour record was over 20 miles.

When the Rover “Safety” bicycle came along (Right.) it opened up cycling to those less brave, or athletic; including older people and women.

However, it was heavier and no faster than the Ordinary, and was not immediately accepted by the real enthusiasts.

It wasn’t until the pneumatic tire was invented that the Safety bicycle became faster, and the high wheeler gradually died out.

Its influence on bicycle design however, would remain for the next 60 years or more.

Because the steering was near vertical on the Ordinary the only place a rider could sit was some distance back behind the pedals. About 70 or 71 degrees to be exact, and seat angles on racing bikes would remain there up until the 1950s when I started racing.

There was no rhyme or reason for a person to sit that far back behind the pedals, other than enthusiasts who really thought they knew what they were talking about, said it was so.

Saddles were set low by today’s standard and “Ankling” was preached.

Old style Ankling which is what I speak of here, is a style of pedaling where the heel goes down at the start of the downward pedal stroke, and up on the up stroke. (Picture left.)

This is a direct throw-back to the High-wheeler. Cranks then were relatively short in order to make the wheel diameter as large as possible; the pedaling motion was mostly an ankle movement. Riders of the old Ordinary did develop huge calf muscles.

By the 1950s cranks had become longer and although Ankling was still taught and practiced, when pedaling at high revs, it became impossible to maintain. Not only that, at maximum effort the rider found himself slipping forward on the saddle because the seat angle was so shallow.

I remember phrases like “You have to sit back to pedal,” and “Good climbers ride sitting down.” These were almost religious mantras, which at the time should not be questioned. 

In my next article I’ll explore this theme of evolution into more recent years

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