Four men on top of the world

October 18, 2013

While waiting for the elite women’s race to reach Florence (and I swear to God this is the very last time I’ll mention our trip to the World Championships) Jen and I wandered into a bookshop. We left with a book that goes by the hyperbolic title Fifty Bicycles That Changed The World. I’m not sure that a Brompton is on a par with penicillin, but then again the book is part of series put together by the Design Museum which also includes Fifty Typefaces That Changed The World and – hold on to your fanny packs – Fifty Bags That Changed The World. By “change the world”, I think what they probably mean is Fulfil A Purpose Particularly Well At A Specific Point In History.

Fifty Bicycles is a slim hardback with thick pages. It displays an image of each bike on the right-hand side and explanatory text on the left. You could say the format is a grown-up version of a Ladybird book.

Fifty bicycles that changed the world cover

It’s actually a cracking little read. You can get through it in an hour or so and learn about the major innovations in the 200-year history of bike design as well as some odd cul-de-sacs designers have wandered down, such as Denmark’s architectural Dursley Pedersen which encompasses no fewer than 21 triangles in its frame. It’s basically a bridge on wheels.

Author Alex Newson has squeezed some great little nuggets into his no-nonsense descriptions. The BSA Airborne bike for paratroopers came with its own parachute. The design for the Raleigh Chopper was doodled on a transatlantic flight, literally on the back of an envelope. To entice the more sybaritic consumer, an advert for the Sturmey Archer Roadster from the 1930s featured a cartoon of a chubby chap pedalling away while merrily smoking a fag.

I was particularly taken by the photo for the Penny-Farthing, which cheerfully attempts to show that it’s the ideal means for delivering mail. Which I suppose it is, if the recipient happens to be standing on the third step outside their front door at the very moment the postman trundles past.

fifty bicycles that changed the world penny-farthing

But the picture I keep returning to is right at the front of the book. It’s an uncaptioned shot of four men on a mountain. Emotionally and geographically, they look like they’re on top of the world, as might you be if you were about to invent mountain biking, which I assume they are on the cusp of achieving judging by their klunker-looking bikes and the landscape.

Howie Hammerman Otis Guy Chris McManus fifty bicycles that changed the world

I know very little about MTB history, and I only recognised the guy on the right as Joe Breeze because there’s a picture of him on page 51 next to the entry for the Breezer Series 1. His name was enough to prod Google Images into surrendering the names of the other three and the location. They are (left to right) Howie Hammerman, Otis Guy, and Chris McManus, and they are on top of Kent Rock, Mount Tamalpais, California, in November, 1977.

I like the expressions of the two on the left: grown men displaying a childlike joy – which, ultimately, is the state to which all cycling should aspire. Did 50 bicycles really change the world? Maybe not. But these four bikes certainly changed their world.

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