Steel Driving Man

Jan Heine, with photographs by Jean-Pierre Pradéres
The Competition Bicycle: A Photographic History
(Rizzoli Books, 2012)

In the beginning, it was mostly about being tall. The bicycle racers of the 1860s cornered around a horse track on high-wheeled boneshakers, and since the gear ratio was determined only by rim diameter, they pushed the highest wheel they could get their inseams around. If one thing hasn’t changed since then, it’s the fact that speed comes from the cyclist, not just the bicycle design or the weight of materials. With that in mind, the perusal of The Competition Bicycle, a recently reissued book of bicycle photography and racing history by Jan Heine and Jean-Pierre Pradéres, suggests that past experiments in bicycle design are part innovation and part novelty, and that a search for linear progression is almost beside the point.

All early bicycles ran on a direct drive, first with the pedals cottered onto the front axle, then with a fixed gear spinning on the crank and rear hub; the Tour de France racers were stubborn to adopt the derailleurs that accommodate multiple gears. When the freewheel was invented, they rode on flip-flop rears with a lower gear for climbing and coasting, preferring to stop, get off the bike, remove the wheel, and reposition the axle in the fork ends. This was mainly because early chain tensioners were dangerous, and shifting was a procedure that took as much skill as driving a big rig, though racers did adopt the new technology when it was made safe. By the 1960s, when derailleurs ratcheted for easier use, and Americans seemed bent on rediscovering the frontier, the United States joined the road racing craze.

This story would be neatly wrapped if it stopped here, but for the subsequent waves of fixed-gear revival. Fixed gears make no sense on the road from a speed perspective because they just don’t go fast. But people feel faster on fixed-gear bicycles—especially those without brakes—and feeling faster and being faster are both more important than radical bicycle design.

Still, it’s great fun to look at some of these two-wheeled oddities, beginning with the trussed Pedersen of 1903, a quadrilateral break from the traditional diamond, composed with a network of long thin tubing and a saddle strung like a hammock. The Pedersen is still occasionally produced, but the original design pictured in the book, with handlebars fixed directly to the forks below the headset to reduce steering flex, has long been abandoned. Then there was the 1910 Labor Tour de France, an otherwise conventional diamond frame that, amazingly, featured just one fork and one side of rear stays, allowing racers to fix a flat tire without removing the wheel which, Heine points out, proved to be more unwieldy in practice than design.

Gritty archival photos of the racers themselves are dropped into the book next to Pradéres’s fetish-friendly portraits of the bikes they rode. Among the stories Heine tells are that of René Vietto’s sacrifice for team leader Antonin Magne, who won the 1934 Tour de France; and of the rivalry between Bartali and Coppi, whose followers represented a polarized Italy, yet who worked together with a third teammate—each on a different style bicycle—to sweep the race. Then there’s the story of Doris Kopsky, an American racing champion who won the first Amateur Bicycle Association’s Girls’ Division race in 1937. The race was open to women of all ages and was renamed in 1954. Doris’s father was Joe Kopsky, a steel worker, cyclist, and the inventor of cartridge bearings. He built his daughter a sleek, chrome track bike with custom-designed geometry and lug work that would attract any of today’s steel-frame enthusiasts.

Perhaps the most surprising bike in the book is John Marino’s 1982 space-age Huffy, built by South Carolina frame builder Mike Melton with airfoil tubing. Equipped with countersunk spokes and internal cables, it was a far cry from the little red Huffy purchased for me at the local Kmart four years later. The Marino bike’s excess could have been avoided by looking to Peter Weigle’s unexpected and heavy wheeled triumph in British time trials. A later example is the steel-riding Rominger’s 1994 defeat of Moser’s hour record, held for ten years. Heine credits Moser’s engineers for understanding that his bike would benefit more from aerodynamics than weight reduction at speeds over 50 mph, but when you’re that fast, what difference can a gram or two really make? Pradéres’s photo of the glaringly futuristic Moser bike on the book’s cover suggests that we may have reached a critical mass. No wonder so many racers have reached back in time to build bikes with good old steel and silver brazing, and ride the way bikes are meant to be ridden: fast and simple.

Contributor

David Varno

DAVID VARNO's writing has appeared in BOMB, Cleveland Plain Dealer, Electric Literature, Paste, Tin House, Words Without Borders, and elsewhere.

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