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Fifty Bicycles That Changed the World by Alex NewsonFifty Bicycles That Changed the World, Alex Newson (Conran Octopus 2013)

Bicycles are good things. They’re cleaner, quieter and compacter than cars, but I understand the irritation that many people feel towards them. Bikes and pedestrians often compete for the same space and not all riders are considerate. But bike-ophobia isn’t a rational prejudice: for destruction and deadliness, bikes are to cars rather as the common cold is to cholera. Like trains, they’ve changed the world for the better, not the worse, because they don’t impose huge changes on cities and the countryside or poison the psychology of those who use them.

This book is a celebration of man-powered two-wheeled transport. It looks at fifty world-changing bikes, from the Laufmaschine of c. 1817, which had two wheels but no pedals, to the electric bikes of the early 21st century. These bikes, with their sophisticated long-life batteries, have finally ended what might be called “bicymplicity”. Bicycles were a machine that people could understand at a glance and repair for themselves in a few minutes. They’ve been a cheap and reliable form of transport right around the world for well over a century.

But how much have they actually changed the world? One big way may have been that they expanded the horizons not just of travellers but of suitors too, particularly in a big country like France. Exogamy became easier, so bikes may have changed our genetics and not just our muscles. Perhaps that exogamic assistance helps explain the popularity of cycling in France. But Great Britain has dominated the sport in recent years, as this book describes and illustrates: there’s a photograph of Chris Hoy, insect-eyed in a cycling helmet, celebrating his gold medal in the “London 2012 Olympic Games men’s keirin final” (pg. 103).

Chris Hoy at the 2012 Olympics

Chris Hoy at the 2012 Olympics


Where has this British success come from? The book doesn’t have much text and doesn’t provide much of an answer. Nor does it explain some other patterns that are obvious as you look through it. Cycling is a very white sport, even though bikes are very popular in China:

The Flying Pigeon is synonymous with China. Since the first Flying Pigeon was produced in 1950 more than 500 millions units have been made, making it not just the most popular bicycle ever produced, but the most popular vehicle ever. (“Flying Pigeon PA-02, c. 1950”, pg. 34)

That page also notes that “China’s reformist leader Deng Xiaoping defined prosperity as ‘a Flying Pigeon in every household’.” The definition of prosperity has changed in China since then, which is why the country has such a bad problem with pollution. Bikes don’t pollute and don’t cut us off from the natural world. In fact, they have almost become part of it. As you’ll see reading through this book, bike frames have evolved almost like skeletons and in the extreme environment of BMX competition they’ve even lost their seats, becoming a minimalist combination of wheels, pedals, chain and handlebars.

Bikes can take us further out into the natural world too, as the page about mountain biking describes. Like skateboarding, mountain biking began in California and there’s a good picture of two young men, bikes at the ready, gazing down into a mist-filled, pine-covered valley. But I don’t think bikes are the best way to travel through a wilderness. They churn up the ground less than motorbikes but more than boots. Walking is still the quintessentially human way of moving about on the earth’s surface. Or perhaps you could say quintessentially hominid. In which case, perhaps we’re at our most human on a bike.

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