The Competition Bicycle & The Golden Age of Handbuilt Bicycles

Michael Upchurch
The Seattle Times (MCT)

These two bike books take readers on an intriguing, historic tour of two-wheelers.

The Competition Bicycle: A Photographic History

Publisher: Vintage Bicycle Press
Length: 176 pages
Author: Vintage Bicycle Press
Price: $60.00
Format: Hardcover
Publication date: 2008

I am the dowdiest of bicyclists -- the one you see hauling his groceries while Lycra-clad speedsters pass him by.

Still worse, I'm year-and-model illiterate. When I call the repair shop to ask if my bike is ready and they ask what kind it is, all I can come up with is: "Blue."

Yet even I can't help being entranced by the two handsome coffee-table books that Seattle author Jan Heine and French photographer Jean-Pierre Praderes have brought out this year. One of them, The Golden Age of Handbuilt Bicycles: Craftsmanship, Elegance and Function is being reissued by Vintage Bicycle Press in collaboration with prestigious New York art publisher Rizzoli after initial publication in Seattle in 2005. The other, The Competition Bicycle: A Photographic History, also from Vintage Bicycle Press, is entirely new.

Heine, who edits Bicycle Quarterly, has taken meticulous care in assembling both these histories of custom-built bicycles, while Praderes' photographs make every detail of spoke, chain and handlebar pop out on the page.

The Competition Bicycle starts with Cycles Barret's "high wheelers" of the late 19th century, with their enormous front wheels limited in size only by "the inseam of the rider". It ends with a high-tech Ernest Colnago bicycle that allowed cyclist Tony Rominger to set records in the 1990s -- a decade that saw wind-tunnel tests and computer-aided design enter the bike-building picture.

Along the way, there's a cornucopia of bicycle esoterica. Among the more colorful details:

  • In the early days of long-distance racing, when so-called "roads" were often little more than paths, "riders sometimes carried pistols to ward off dogs or highway robbers".
  • In Paris until the ‘60s, newspapers were delivered from printing press to newsstand by bicycle couriers, who naturally engaged in competitions of their own -- including an organized 24-mile championship run in which each rider had to carry 33 pounds of newspapers.
  • Mountain-bike racing didn't really take off until the ‘70s and was one of the few areas in which a woman, Jacquie Phelan, of California, dominated the field. Phelan, who must have a sense of humor, later founded WOMBATS (Women's Mountain Bike and Tea Society).
  • Most bizarre anecdote: In 1975, racing champion Eddy Merckx gave his bike to the pope, who then gave it to the apparently well-known "Flying Priest", Battista Mondiu, who eventually turned it over to the Chapel of the Madonna del Ghisallo, "which is dedicated to bicycle racing."
  • Who knew?

    Heine and Praderes highlight curious bike-design variations that emerged over the last 100-odd years, including the Dursley Pedersen Racer of 1903 with its "woven bicycle seat that was not mounted on a firm post, but suspended like a hammock" (the resulting machine looks like a tubular-metal pyramid on wheels), and the eye-catching Labor Tour de France of 1910, with its wheels attached on only one side of the frame to let the rider change tires without removing the wheel.

    There's plenty of bike-wonk detail to keep the cycling fanatic satisfied. For instance: "The classic Campagnolo Record drivetrain was state-of-the-art, with cotterless aluminum cranks and the famous parallelogram derailleurs."

    Some readers -- count me among them -- could have used a glossary. But Heine's passion for his subject makes even his most specialized vocabulary comprehensible ... in spirit, if not in specific meaning.

    Book: Golden Age of Handbuilt Bicycles: Craftsmanship, Elegance, and Function

    Author: Jan Heine

    Publisher: Rizzoli

    Publication date: 2009-03

    Length: 168 pages

    Format: Hardcover

    Price: $50.00

    Image: Golden Age of Handbuilt Bicycles has plenty of info to offer, too. In some early models, Heine tells us, riders had to change gears by pedaling backward or by reaching down and adjusting the bicycle chain manually.

    By the late ‘30s, when "train tickets were expensive, and cars were not even a dream yet for the masses," bicycling became a popular leisure activity for workers in France, where unions had recently won their members a 40-hour workweek and two weeks of paid vacation. Cycling, says Heine, was one way for employees to "leave their congested, polluted cities to explore the country and enjoy nature."

    Rather than the competition racers, it was these more casual riders who demanded gears for their bikes, making them better able to cope with hills. Bike manufacturers, among them Charles Longoni, soon were making affordable bikes that were "lighter and a lot more reliable." Racers, by contrast, stuck with custom-made machines.

    While Heine and Praderes are clearly aiming these volumes at ardent bicycling enthusiasts, amateur riders should find them informative, too. They may even be prompted to go down to the basement -- as I just did -- to see what kind of bicycle they have ... and whether, perhaps, they should give it to the pope.






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