It's All About the Bike
The Pursuit of Happiness on Two Wheels
By ROBERT PENN
Copyright © 2010 Robert Penn
All right reserved.
Handing over a bank note is enough to make a bicycle belong to me, but my entire life is needed to realize this possession.
'Well, you don't look like a complete bag o' rags,' Brian Rourke said, in his soft Potteries burr. He was standing back, with one hand clamped on his chin and the other upturned on his hip, looking at me astride my bike. Lithe, energetic and refusing to acknowledge his seventy years, he was a good advert for a life spent cycling. 'Jump off the bike now while I fetch a few things.'
Brian Rourke Cycles occupies a converted squash centre in Stoke-on-Trent. Downstairs is a smart retail bike shop. Upstairs, the old bar has been transformed into Brian's office, where he carries out all the bike fittings. It is a shrine to the sport of road cycle racing. There is a wall of framed bike magazine covers, with riders on Rourke frames leading races; there are photos of Merckx, Gimondi, Kelly and other giants of the sport; iconic Tour de France images; Mario Cipollini's actual 1998 Tour de France bike; a row of silver cups and other pieces of arcane memorabilia. To the right of the door is a merino wool World Champion's jersey worn by Tommy Simpson, the lionhearted anti-hero of British cycling who collapsed and died with drugs It's All About the Bike and alcohol in his blood during the Tour de France in raging 113°F heat on 13 July 1967.
On the opposite wall is a photo of Brian beside Nicole Cooke, the outstanding British road cyclist and Olympic champion: 'She's been coming into the shop since she was 12,' Brian said. 'Won four world junior championships on Rourke frames. Wonderful girl.' Less prominent is a photo of Brian as a younger man, tilting into a corner, gripping the handlebars, staring ahead, looking hungry, racing hard.
'Yes, yes, I raced a bit,' he said, bustling back into the room. Actually, he raced a lot. In his prime, he rode for the Great Britain team in three Milk Races and was National Champion. Carlton and Falcon both offered him a professional contract but there was no money in it then. 'I packed it in, in 1967. Pity, really, but I can't complain.' Racing's loss was the frame-building industry's gain: Brian has been designing and fitting customers to hand-built bicycles almost ever since. In that time, he has never run out of orders for his bespoke bikes. I estimated he must have been through the fitting process some 5,000 times.
Frame-builders from the golden age of British bespoke bicycles in the mid-twentieth century, men like Harry Quinn of Liverpool and Jack Taylor from Stockton-on-Tees, could, I'd been told, size you up as you walked through the door of the workshop. Their experience was such that they needed just one look at you to know the dimensions of the frame you required.
A more reliable fitting or sizing method dating from that time and still popular now is to take body measurements and interpret them into a frame size. Inside leg (crotch to floor), torso, arm, femur, forearm, shoulder width, shoe-size, height and weight all go into the analysis. In this way, the experience of the person doing the fitting and designing of the frame is, again, crucial.
Today, for both professional athletes and amateur riders with deep pockets, there are various high-tech fitting methods that entail a scientific approach to the biomechanics of cycling. They involve motion capture systems that process data taken from anatomical points on a rider, providing a real-time view of the riding position and pedal action at different workloads. The rider being fitted usually sits on an adjustable jig or 'size-cycle', a simple frame mounted on a machine that provides traction when you pedal.
Of course, for the majority of people, buying a bicycle involves a 'fitting process' that is over in under fifteen minutes: the man in the local bike shop sits you on three different bikes, one after the other, takes your credit card while you pedal once round the block; you return and pay. Job done. Brian's fitting method is different; it's what first drew me to him. There are no more than a handful of frame-builders left in
Britain: perhaps a dozen businesses and another dozen hobbyists. On a wet weekend in March, I'd set off to visit as many of them as I could. I criss-crossed the country from Bristol to Bradford via Derby, Leeds, Sheffield and Manchester. In the garage of a suburban semi, I watched Lee Cooper fabricating elegant steel frames for the London fixed-wheel market. Neil Orrell showed me one of his distinctively designed track frames, and photos of a bike he'd once built for a 7-foot man. At Pennine Cycles, Paul Corcoran told me how the shop's founder, Johnny Mapplebeck, had fallen in love with Italian racing bikes when with the Eighth Army during the Allied campaign in Italy. When he was discharged, he began making frames with names like Scelta dei Campioni ('Choice of Champions') and Re della corsa ('King of the Race'), names that must have sounded exotic in post-war Yorkshire. At Bob Jackson Cycles in Leeds, frames were being boxed to ship to America. I met the ebullient owner, Donald Thomas. He liked his Bob Jackson bicycle so much that he bought the company.
At Mercian Cycles, where three frame-builders work full-time in a workshop that can't have changed in half a century, Grant Mosley told me how the clientele had changed: 'They were all club lads when I started. Following the decline in the 1970s, it was just the diehards you know, the socks, sandals and beards brigade. Today, it's young professional people.'
It was a delightful journey, fuelled by innumerable mugs of tea. Everywhere I saw pride in workmanship, and a connection to the tradition of British craftsmanship that has set standards worldwide for a century. I would have been happy to have a bike from all of them, but as I was after only one bike, I picked Brian Rourke Cycles.
It was easy to justify. Brian was a racer, not only as a young man but also as a 'veteran'. In fact, he'd won the National Vets Championship aged 40 and again at 50. Racing bikes are in his blood. I wanted a racing bike. Jason, Brian's son and the man who would weld my frame, had a knowledge and passion that was clear. I liked the lads who worked in the shop. I thought not only will I get the most exquisitely built frame, but the process of being fitted, watching it being made and painted, and then having the bike assembled at Rourke Cycles, would be good fun. Above all, Brian's experience fitting people to bicycles and designing frames is unequalled.
Brian likes his customers to bring their current bike into the shop. He then adjusts or 'sets up' this bike so they are 'bang on' the right position. Often, customers are sent away to ride the new set-up, to ensure it's comfortable. When everyone is happy, measurements are taken from the bike, as the guide, and Brian designs the new frame. It's simple and practical. It relies heavily on his experience. 'Some customers, they just want to give me the dimensions of their existing bike down the phone and have us build a bike. I won't do that. Who's to say they haven't been riding the wrong bike for years? I like to have a good look at everyone first,' he said.
In the two hours I'd been in the shop, Brian had raised the saddle of my Wilier racing bike by tiny increments, three or four times, and shifted it back a centimetre on its rails; he'd replaced the handlebar stem for one 20 mm longer; finally, he exchanged my handlebar for a new one a classic shaped bar with small 'D' loops, 'so your hands can reach the brake levers more easily,' he said. In that time, my position on the bike had changed significantly. I could feel it. My back was straighter. My weight was more evenly distributed. The new position felt more aerodynamic, more aggressive and, perhaps surprisingly, more comfortable. The bike looked better too: the longer stem and the new handlebar somehow made the machine look better proportioned. It was like placing a painting in the right frame, I thought.
The methodology behind the fitting process was simple enough: 'Bum, hands, feet three contact points with the bike,' Brian said. First he got my saddle height exactly right. Then he adjusted the saddle backwards, to get me in a position to obtain the maximum leverage from the pedals. Finally, he worked on my hands.
Standing back again, dropping his long metal ruler to the floor and scribbling some notes, Brian said: 'You were a bit stuck on the bike before, plonked there like a brick. That's looking good now. Take the bike away. Come back in a month and we'll go for a ride together. I'll want to know how it feels. If you're going to have a handmade bike, you want it to be yours, don't you? It's got to be exactly the right fit, right for you, not for anyone else.'
This goes to the heart of why anyone would want a hand-built bike: it will fit perfectly, like a bespoke suit from Savile Row. There are several other significant advantages with the benefit of expert advice, you get to choose the ideal frame tubing diameters, wall thickness and butting lengths, which will fine tune the feel of the bike; importantly, you get a frame designed for the type of cycling you propose to do, where you propose to do it and even your riding style; you get to select the best components you can afford and the colour the frame will be painted; also, you get to savour the process of acquiring the frame; lastly, when the bike is complete and you're out on the road, the machine will turn heads. But really, it's all about having a bike that fits you perfectly, a bike that will provide years of pain-free cycling. Most large bike manufacturers produce between five and eight different sizes in each model of bike. The human race doesn't come in five, or even eight sizes.
To make his point, Brian had wheeled his own racing bike into the room. The frame was built by Jason. It was a beautiful bike, of course, but something significant happened when Brian jumped on to it, catching his weight on the pedals and his shoulder against the wall. The bike changed. It fitted Brian so perfectly that it came alive. It responded to his every move, as he shifted his hands briskly around the handlebars and transferred his weight back and forth.
Perhaps more surprising was that Brian changed too. Jumping on to the bike took thirty years off him. When he thrust his hands into the 'D' of the handlebars and sunk his torso across the top tube, his eyes flamed. He was ready to chase down a breakaway from the peloton in a race or launch a sprint for the finishing line. Just sitting on the bike, just being on his immaculate, bespoke bicycle summoned such powerful emotional memories that three decades of toil and wear were erased from his demeanour in a trice. The bike was a source of youthfulness and it was thrilling to witness.
But that wasn't the point. The point was made when Brian stepped off the bike, swung it round and wheeled it across to me. It was breathtakingly light, well balanced and delightful to hold in my fingers. But when I hopped on to it as Brian had done, there was no transformation. It didn't look special under me. I didn't feel special on top of it. Although Brian and I are the same height and roughly the same weight, we are physically different in many other ways. Our arm, torso, shoulder, leg and thigh measurements are unlikely to be the same. It was Brian's bike: it made me want my own more than ever.
There is a simple grace about an unadorned bicycle frame. Looking at the row of bare, handmade frames hanging on the wall of Brian's shop, something struck me: though they were all made from different types of tubing, painted to individual specifications with different dimensions and angles, and would be built up into different types of bicycle and ridden in very different ways over varied terrain by diverse humans, they were all in one fundamental way alike. The frames were all the same shape: diamond.
The first diamond-shaped frame bicycle the Rover Safety was manufactured in 1885, in the unloved city of Coventry. It was called the 'safety' because the wheels were the same size and small, the rider's centre of gravity was over the centre of the bike, and he or she could touch the ground with both feet: in short, it was safe to ride. It was the first modern bicycle something we'd recognize and be able to pedal today.
The 'inventor', John Kemp Starley, later said in a speech to the Royal Society of Arts:
The main principles which guided me in making this machine were to place the rider at the proper distance from the ground ... to place the seat in the right position in relation to the pedals ... to place the handles in such a position in relation to the seat that the rider could exert the greatest force upon the pedals with the least amount of fatigue.
It was almost exactly what Brian had been saying to me all morning. Where a rider's hands, feet and backside are placed on a bicycle for maximum efficiency, control and comfort is a matter of basic ergonomics, which has been essentially unchanged over a century.
These principles led Starley to design the lightest, strongest, cheapest, most rigid, most compact and ergonomically most efficient shape the bicycle frame could be. By 1890, 'every maker worthy of the name' in Coventry, Birmingham and Nottingham was producing a safety model. The safety swept away every type of bicycle that preceded it: velocipedes, high-wheelers, dwarf ordinaries, the Facile, the Kangaroo, tricycles, tandem tricycles and quadricycles were obsolete within a few years. The ultimate form of the bicycle had arrived.
Other safety-style bicycles were designed and patented before the Rover, but making the bicycle user-friendly animated Starley: his design was the best. He was also a good businessman and recognized the potential in the machine early on. In 1889, he adopted limited liability. In 1896, he floated J. K. Starley & Co as the Rover Cycle Company. The capital financed the construction of the largest cycle works in Coventry, then the global centre of bicycle manufacturing, and enabled him to survive the first big downturn in the industry at the end of the 1890s.
In 1904, Rover moved into car manufacturing, which was so profitable, so quickly, that the company dropped the bicycle arm of the business altogether. Starley himself had died suddenly in 1901, aged 46. Every cycle firm in Coventry closed their works on the day of his funeral, which was attended by 20,000 people.
Perhaps the mourners had the prescience to know the Rover Safety was a transport phenomenon, and that the basic shape of the bicycle would remain unchanged for the whole of the twentieth century. Contrast the Wright Flyer, the world's first powered aircraft built by Wilbur and Orville Wright (both bike mechanics, as it happens) in 1903, with, say, Concorde. Or take Karl Benz's four-stroke vehicle powered by a gasoline engine, also invented in 1885, and compare it to a contemporary Formula 1 racing car.
In both modes of transport, aeroplane and motor car, the vehicles have changed almost continuously. With the Rover Safety, however, the modern bicycle arrived virtually perfectly formed. Today in aeroplanes and automobiles and countless other mechanical devices there are numerous design variations and opportunities for improvement. With the bicycle, there is one absolute shape. Sir Isaac Newton said we make advances by standing on the shoulders of giants. No one has been able to climb upon Starley's back.
I've had nineteen bikes. This number includes neither bikes that I've owned for less than a month, nor the bikes I've never bothered to lock up. Out of those nineteen bikes, eighteen were built according to the principles of the Safety. The only exception was my Raleigh Tomahawk. The 'ape-hanger', hi-rise handlebars, different-sized wheels, odd-shaped frame and spongy saddle with backrest may have been as cool as the Lone Ranger, but riding a Tomahawk was like pedalling through molasses, dragging a dead pig. Like its big cousin, the Chopper, the Tomahawk was designed in response to the dirt-track roadster bikes popular in the USA in the late 1960s. For the manufacturer, Raleigh, the Chopper opened up a new market in children's bikes, and it marked a shift in the company's philosophy; the bicycle became a consumer goods product, rather than a valid form of transportation. Though remembered fondly, the Chopper was a toy, not a bicycle. It's the worst example of the collapse in confidence in the real value of the bicycle that happened in the 1970s.
The principal structural function of the bicycle frame is to 'maintain integrity' under loads, to have the strength and rigidity to hold the wheels in place and support the rider, and to absorb the rider's efforts in pedalling, braking and steering, as the machine rolls forward. The triangulated, tubular diamond frame remains the best structure to do this. An architect or engineer would describe it as a 'truss structure': the diamond frame is a variation on the super-strong 'seven-membered' truss, a common element in structural and mechanical engineering. Trusses on the roofs of buildings apply the same principles.
Excerpted from It's All About the Bike by ROBERT PENN Copyright © 2010 by Robert Penn. Excerpted by permission of BLOOMSBURY. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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