Saturday, 10 January 2015

Book Review: "Beyond the Finish Line"




Unlike other sports that take place in a confined environment—the tennis court, football stadium, or cricket pitch, for example—bicycle road racing is open to the elements and events take before a diverse backdrop featuring geographic highlights of many countries. Add to this ever-changing weather, different road surfaces, colourful jerseys and colourful personalities and the rolling circus atmosphere provides the photographer with limitless opportunity.

Philipp Hympendahl is a commercial photographer working for one of the world's leading detergent companies in Germany but when he is not taking snaps of soap boxes or whatever he might do there he turns a passionate lens on bicycle racing. His aim is not that of a typical sports journalist. Rather than capture the well-known champions and classic races, he and Tim Farin, who has contributed short essays, state in their introduction to their recent book “Beyond the Finish Line” that “they enourage their audience to take a different view: to relax, to observe, to feel the beauty of the moment, the emotions and actions, all of which leave room for imagination.”

So what we have is a kind of art book, with cycling as a unifying theme. There are no captions to the photos, although the event is indicated (“Tour de France 2013,” “Paris-Roubaix 2014,” “Amstel Gold 2013” to note the famous ones; “Circuit Race Baarlo 2014,” “Arctic Race of Norway 2014 (!),” “Boxmeer “Daags Na De Tour” 2013” to name the less obvious). The photos are all of a technically high standard and include close-ups of fans, long shots of the peloton in action, moments of intense action and others of serene reflection.



For those having experienced the thrill of pro racing in Northern Europe, many of these photos will be highly evocative. Particular favourites would include a gentle downhill between the crowd barriers, the rolling hills of Limberg ahead, during the Amstel Gold race; or Paris-Roubaix in 2012, with a lone rider challenging the pavé, emerging from the darkness on the right side of the photo. Another superb photo shows the group speeding along the cobbles through the Arenberg Forest, a kind of divine light shining down, spectator-witnesses in near-darkness. Many of the photos are not necessarily realistic but have been treated to highlight elements. For example, the grey starkness of Mont Ventoux set off only by some red Carrefour banners and the red of the weather station tower at the top.



In addition to the evocative photos, there are some charming short essays by Tim Farin about the pleasures of cycling, mixing the joys (and pains) of the amateurs with the world-weariness of the professionals or observations of their lives. The pieces are not linked to specific photos but are a scripted counterpoint to the images.

Tim Falin (right) and Philipp Hympendahl (left)
In addition to the photos taken primarily in 2012-2014, there is a wonderful image of the 2001 Tour on the Alpe d'Huez, “La Photo,” which was printed in an edition of six in the massive dimension of 1.80 m x 2.30 m. It was shot on a large format camera and one of the prints can be seen the Tour of Flanders Museum in Oudenaarde, Belgiium. There are still some prints available and after enjoying “Beyond the Finish Line” one might be tempted to clear up wall space for this artwork.


Beyond the Finish Line” with photos by Philipp Hympendahl and text by Tim Farin
126 pp., hardcover, Edition.Hympendahl, Düsseldorf, Germany, 2014
ISBN: 978-3-00-046552-9
Available from the publisher at www.edition-hympendahl.de/en/ for 29.00 Euros and shipping

Also available through the website are fine art prints of many of the photos featured in the book.

Friday, 9 January 2015

Slaying the Badger: A Documentary About the 1986 Tour de France

ESPN has provided the entire 2 hour version of "Slaying the Badger," about the contentious 1986 Tour de France wherein 5-time winner Bernard Hinault reneged on his promise to support teammate American ace Greg LeMond, who went on to win anyway.  The movie is very good and as much as I admire Hinault's excellent athletic results, he does not come across very well here.  Make particular note of the press chat after the Alpe d'Huez stage at 59:00.  LeMond, in the Yellow Jersey, looks on in complete shock when Hinault says that the race is not over yet.


Thursday, 25 December 2014

Book Review: The Bicycle Illustrations of Daniel Rebour


Every subject has its celebrated artists: think of Michelangelo and the human form; Audubon and birds; Stubbs and racehorses; Warhol and soup cans. Of course, our sport is no exception and while many will argue that Frank Patterson's pen-and-ink bucolic English scenes of early 20th century tweed-clad gentlefolk smoking pipes while relaxing in front of a thatched-roof pub are the finest (and dreamiest) representations of what we cyclists imagine life to be, it is a disappointment that Mr. Patterson was not a cyclist himself and hardly even left his cottage, mostly never seeing the places he drew. So we must look across the Channel for inspiration and here we find the indisputable master of technical drawings of bicycles, their parts and accessories: Frenchman Daniel Rebour. His thousands of drawings are scattered throughout old magazines, catalogues and other publications seldom seen, with the most notable collection being in a Japanese book published in 1976. But now Cycle Publishing has issued a superb hardcover book featuring 2,000 of the master's drawings with brief captions in English to charm all of those with a love of vintage machinery and classic draftsmanship. Captions are by Rob van der Plas, a mechanical engineer himself, with contributions by Frank Berto, another engineer whose vast collection of cycling magazines was a primary source for the illustrations in the book.


Daniel Rebour was born in LeHavre c. 1908 and studied technical illustration in Paris, graduating in 1928 and soon finding work as a test rider and illustrator for a motorcycling magazine. During the Second World War he illustrated car parts catalogues and then moved to Biarritz. Directly after the war a friend approached him about joining a new magazine, Le Cycle, as an illustrator and technical editor. The first issue ran in September 1945, with the magazine appearing as a weekly, then bi-weekly and finally monthly. It continued until the collapse of the French industry after the mid-1970s bike boom, with the last number coming out in December 1975. The detailed drawings continued but now mainly found themselves in catalogues, including those produced for André Bertin, Réne Herse and the VAR tool company. Bertin imported components from several Japanese manufacturers, including Shimano and SR, and so the selection in the book extends beyond classic European products to include the then-new ones from Asia. Rebour published into the 1980s and passed away in 1991. 


The book comprises work representative of the entire period of Rebour's output from the 1940s through the 1980s, arranged in 28 chapters divided into components (derailleur gearing, drivetrains, pedals and clips, rim brakes, etc.), accompanied on the lower half of each page with drawings of entire bicycles. The latter includes many of the race-winning mounts of famous cyclists of the epoch including Ferdi Kübler, Eddy Merckx, Jacques Anquetil, Raphaël Géminiani, to name a few. There are many familiar names—Campagnolo, Simplex, Huret, Shimano, Peugeot—and many that are obscure or forgotten entirely now, such as Narcisse, Jeunet, Follis, Cardinale, that vanished when the once-dominant French industry faded.


Rebour seems to have drawn everything and beyond the obvious (Campagnolo Super Record parts, Brooks saddles, Wolber tubulars) he included folding bicycles, pumps, lighting, motorized bicycles, clothing, shoes and tools in his repertoire. 


The drawings, beautifully rendered and providing more detail than photographs, present a fascinating array of technological change over nearly four decades. A gold mine to restorers, “Rebour” is a pleasure to simply browse through and revel in a period before carbon fibre, electronic shifting or, apparently, colour printing.


“Rebour—The Bicycle Illustrations of Daniel Rebour”, compilation and texts by Rob van der Plas and Frank Berto
Cycle Publishing, San Francisco, 2013
288 pp., illustrated, hardcover (second, corrected, printing), suggested price US49.95
ISBN 978-1-892495-71-6

For more information, visit www.cyclepublishing.com

Wednesday, 24 December 2014

The Retz Bicycle Museum in Austria


The world of cycling is truly diverse, encompassing sports, transportation, technology and social history. Set at a human scale, many of its stories and artifacts have been lost over the last century but much too has been saved. In Europe many of the mainstream state museums, such as transportation wing of the Deutsches Museum in Munich, give short shrift to the two-wheeled past but one finds a surprising number of rather eccentric little museums heroically taking up the slack. Pezcyclingnews has already taken you to museums in Belgium, Switzerland, the Netherlands, Italy and Germany but today we introduce you to yet one more, this time in Austria.



Retz is a town of 5,000, located in Lower Austria directly on the Czech border and some 80 kms northwest of Vienna. Dating back to 1180, the town has has seen its fair share of events, including being destroyed during the Hussite Rebellion in 1425 and then again in the 17th Century during the Thirty Years' War. Located in the Austrian Wine District (Weinviertel) it boasts one of the finest and largest market squares of any place in the country and the Gatterburg Castle, constructed between 1660 and 1670. In the basement of this city castle you will find the Fahrradmuseum Retz (simply “the Retz Bicycle Museum”) and its jovial proprietor/manager, Herr Fritz Hurtl.



 

Austria was of course once much more than Austria alone, ruling over a vast multicultural and multilingual empire until 1918 so it should be no surprise that the country once boasted a significant industrial base which included the manufacture of bicycles. In its collection numbering more than 90 examples the Retz museum covers the history of the bicycle from the days of the hobby horse/Laufmaschine craze of the 1820s up to racing bicycles of the 1980s with a particular emphasis on Austro-Hungarian brands. Some of these names still resonate even in the English-speaking world of models exported in the bike boom of the 1970s: Puch, Steyr, Austro-Daimler.



The basis of what you see in the museum, which includes not only complete bicycles but also accessories, pictures, advertising posters and parts, came from the collection of Herr Hurtl. With a band of supporters an association was formed and space was found in the castle cellar. In 1999 the museum was opened to the public and operates daily in the afternoon from May to October. Herr Hurtl is a great enthusiast and is delighted to discuss the finer points of the collection (although visitors may wish to note he does not speak English and his German bears a very strong Austrian dialect!). He was concerned that the museum may have to eventually relocate, something that seems to be a common problem for these small museums. The lease with the castle landlord was due to end in 2013 but is continuing for the moment but the association, “Verein 's Fahrradl im Schloss," would like to have a permanent location of its own. The current space is not wheelchair-accessible and lacks space for special exhibitions.


Walking through the museum one sees a number of very early two-wheelers, including a replica of Baron Drais' 1817 Laufmaschine, considered to be the first bicycle (at least in the German-speaking world!), and several others from the Iron Age of Cycling. There are some nice highwheelers as well but the major part of the collection covers the safety bicycle, in its myriad forms. There are bicycles with weird suspension systems or peculiar drivetrains and one is again reminded of the myriad avenues, many of them leading to dead ends, of technological innovation that characterized the development of the bike. In addition to the well-known Austrian brands mentioned, there are some quite obscure ones such as Burg, Jacobi and Miesenstöck along with French, Czechoslovak and German models. Particularly pleasing is the Bismarck bicycle with its two-speed bottom bracket transmission.



In the walls of the cellar there are niches which have been used to highlight objects of special interests. One of these features a Puch “Waffenrad” from 1915 and is devoted to the Puch story. Founded in 1889 in Graz by Johann Puch, the company was a successful manufacturer of bicycles under its “Styria” and “Puch” brand names. The first Paris-Roubaix race was won on a Styria bicycle ridden by Josef Fischer in 1896. In 1900 operations were expanded to include mopeds, motorcycles and even cars; by 1908 the company was already producing variable-gearing bicycles. By the time of the founder's retirement in 1912 the Puch factory was producing 16,000 bicycles annually. In 1928 the company merged with Austro-Daimler and subsequently again with Steyr in 1934. Post-World War II the company produced a very wide range and Puch bicycles were ridden to many race successes by Austria's best cyclists in Team ASKO Knittelfeld in the 1970s and 1980s but the collapse of the US export market post-1975 led to disastrous losses. The company was sold to the Italian firm Bianchi in 1987. The merged group is now part of the Swedish Cycleurope group, which includes other historic brands including France's Gitane and Sweden's Monark and is owned by the Monegasque royal family. The “Waffenrad” name is still used by Puch but the bicycles do not have the unique style of the model featured at Retz with it beautiful chainring!



The museum is packed with interesting artifacts although one must admit that the racing component is a bit weak. Nonetheless, everything is accessible (Herr Hurtl will move bikes for you if you want to take some photos—take that, Deutsches Museum!) and the whole project is one of great charm. It is worth the short trip from Vienna and provides the opportunity not only to enjoy the museum but also the very attractive town and the Weinviertel, whose attractions are quite obvious.


Fahrradmuseum Retz
Verein " 's Fahrradl im Schloss"
Schlossplatz 5
A-2070 Retz
Österreich / Austria
Tel: 0664/ 6431791
Skype +43-664-6431791
website (primarily in German, but with English and Czech sections): http://www.fahrradmuseum-retz.com/
The museum is open daily from 14:00-17:00 May to October but can be visited otherwise by appointment. Admission is 3 Euros for adults.

Book Review: The Race Against the Stasi


Bike racing is hard, very hard if you add up everything from the hours of training to the exhaustion of sprinting and climbing to the anxieties of actual competition to the too-real risk of crashing Now imagine that cycling could give you everything you wanted—fame, money, the unbridled admiration and affection of fellow-citizens, the chance to meet the girl of your dreams. But if things go wrong you will be deemed a traitor, not only to your sport but also to your nation. Those close to you will live under the preying eyes of Europe's most feared secret police and members of your family will have their own lives irrevocably changed for the worse. Welcome, then, to the world of a top East German cyclist, Dieter Wiedemann, who defected, for love, to West Germany in 1964 and the primary subject of Herbie Sykes' latest book “The Race Against the Stasi.”


The book opens with an excellent 20 page summary of the importance of sports and particularly bicycle racing and particularly the Peace Race in the so-called German Democratic Republic (GDR), a country considered to be the most efficient and/or ruthless of Stalin's Eastern European puppet states. Two of those countries, Poland and Czechoslovakia (as it then was) came together to run a high-level bicycle road race in 1950 after two years of planning and in 1952 the pariah GDR was able to participate in what had now become a Prague-Warsaw-Berlin axis. The timing was not ideal as the relationship between the three countries was ragged, socialist fellow-feeling aside. The Poles and the Czechs had suffered greatly under German invasion and occupation during the World War II and some six million ethnic Germans had only recently been expelled from those countries in a massive example of “ethnic cleansing” which may have resulted in a million civilian deaths. Furthermore, the GDR could not boast the stability (or eventual prosperity) of its larger western half and in June 1953 a strike by construction workers in Berlin escalated rapidly and was only put down by Soviet tanks, a precursor of what was to happen three years later in Poland and Hungary and in 1968 in Prague. GDR citizens poured out of the country, heading west, a hemorrhaging that would only end in August 1961 with the construction of the Berlin Wall. 

The GDR had wanted to field its own Olympic team for the 1952 Helsinki games but was blocked by West Germany and the IOC, which had called for a unified team. Seeking some kind of sport legitimacy, authorities turned to the Peace Race, which was an event outside the remit of the Union Cycliste Internationale (UCI). Everyone likes to win and for East Germany participation in the Peace Race was the beginning of a “diplomats in track suits” policy. Success in sports was meant to showcase the superiority of the socialist system to the decadent warmongering West. That success was to be astonishing for a country of 18 million once admitted to the Olympic games under its own name in 1968. Fueled by systemic doping, primarily anabolic steroids, East German athletes routinely finished second in the Olympic medal table. In 1976 the country took home 40 medals from the Montreal games (six more than the USA) and in 1984 actually won the most medals at the Winter Olympics in Sarajevo. Of course, the price of this success was horrific physical damage to its young athletes but winning at all costs was more important in the self-styled “Workers' and Farmers' State.”


The Peace Race was an invaluable propaganda tool for the regime and the crowds it attracted (admittedly often through obligation) outranked those of the purely commercial Tour de France. Usually ending in a stadium for maximum visibility, the Peace Race “was a perfect vehicle for cultivating both patriotism and social control. Schools and factories piped radio broadcasts of the race around their buildings, and took pride in contributing prizes for the cyclists. On the day of their stage entire towns and villages would engage, pupils and workers bussed to the roadside to form part of the spectacle. Everybody felt an obligation to attend, because to do otherwise was perceived as an abrogation of civic responsibility.”





It became known as “the Race of Millions” because of the spectators and was the highlight of the East Bloc sporting calendar. Tour de France winners were just seen as great cyclists whereas Peace Race victors like the GDR's double winner Gustav-Adolf “Täve” Schur were turned into symbols of the state, pin-up boys for socialism. Billed as an amateur event and attracting numerous non-East Bloc participants (including the individual and team winners from the United Kingdom in 1952) the race ran until the fall of the Berlin Wall and the end of the Cold War pretty much ended its significance as Eastern Europe's best riders turned pro and headed for the Tour de France and greater sporting glory. Although some big names went on to win the race post-1989 (including Jens Voigt, Michele Scarponi and Steffen Wesemann) it became a mere shadow of itself and fell off the calendar entirely after 2006.

One of the most famous sections was "the Steep Wall" in the small town of Meerane in Thuringia, which pitches up to 13%.  Here is 8 mm film showing the 1960 Peace Race passing through:



With its sporting success in the Peace Race paving the way, the GDR set up its sports support structure through the establishment of local clubs and it was via the one near Chemnitz (renamed Karl-Marx-Stadt and now once again Chemnitz) that Dieter Wiedemann, born in 1941, began his upward climb in East German cycling ranks. A lathe operator, he was soon identified as a good prospect and by May 1960 he was instructed to stop working at the factory and train full time with state support. He was provided a superior wage and the equipment he required and he hoped to be on the prospective 1964 Olympic team, which would be a joint one with members from both Germanies participating. In addition his goals were to do well in time trials at the national level as well as the Worlds, which then offered an “amateur” component as well as professional one. Of course, it is obvious that the East German riders were not amateurs in any way as they were paid a generous living wage by the state and trained and raced full-time, an arrangement followed in other East Bloc nations.

This smooth advance which saw Wiedemann as part of the successful national time trial team with his club in 1960 was interrupted in July when the young racer met an attractive girl from West Germany who was visiting relatives nearby. A correspondence ensued but it seemed clear that the building of the Berlin Wall meant that the couple, living only 300 kms apart but divided by the Cold War, would never get together but circumstances changed.


In spite of its claimed moral superiority, the GDR was rife with corruption and favoritism. Wiedemann, in spite of promising results, was beginning to be passed over in favour of riders from Berlin and the club there under the patronage of a very senior Party member. He did get to ride in the 1964 edition of the Peace Race, standing on the final podium in third place, but decided that he would wage everything on the Olympic trials, the first of which would be held across the border in Giessen and defect. His intention was to marry his Sylvia and to become a pro racer. Although the book makes an effort to raise the suspense (there were Stasi (Staatsicherheit or State Security) agents accompanying the team), Dieter Wiedemann more or less took out his bicycle for a training ride and did not come back. As a quiet apolitical person his defection was completely unexpected.

Dieter Wiedemann's reason for defecting to the West: Sylvia
His subsequent history is not very remarkable. He did get married and for three years he rode as a pro for the Torpedo team, including the 1966 Tour de France where he rode up Mont Ventoux following Tommy Simpson, whom he saw collapse onto the road. He was a good support rider but left racing at 26 to work for component company Fichtel & Sachs, the owner of the Torpedo team, as his family grew.

Dieter Wiedemann as a pro racer in the West
What is remarkable to our eyes is the result of his defection. In a series of file entries we see the anger of the GDR unleashed, official resentment that one of its specially-treated golden boys had turned traitor. His father lost his job as a mechanic for the racing club in Chemnitz and his younger brother, a very promising young athlete who may have been a better rider than Dieter, was drummed off the team, ending any possible prospect of a cycling career. An impressive number of nasty neighbours and informants filled the Stasi files with their venom, and one of the main gripes was that the prizes Dieter had been awarded should be returned to the state. He did arrange to have his bicycle sent back as that was demanded as well. His father was not allowed passage to West Germany for the wedding and even when an amnesty was granted following a high-level agreement between the two Germanies in 1972 Dieter and his family were able to visit Chemnitz but were still subject to Stasi surveillance and in fact there was still a file entry for 1982, 18 years after he left. The relationship with his family in Chemnitz became strained and he and his brother remain unreconciled.

The Race Against the Stasi” features an interview style that is highly readable and includes comments from Dieter, his family and friends as well as a number of East German cycling stars, including the famous Täve himself. Schur, who has been denied entry into the German Sports Hall of Fame for his refusal to admit the widespread use of performance-enhancing drugs in the GDR although his own teammates have confirmed it, became a Member of the German Parliament (Bundestag) after reunification and served for the PDS (the successor to the old East German Communist Party) from 1998-2002. He was voted East German Sports Personality of the Year nine times in a row (1953-1961) and Greatest East German Sports Personality of All Time.

Dieter Wiedemann's story might be atypical in that he had received special favour by the GDR but the book is illustrative of the pettiness of the authoritarian state and how little it valued its own citizens. The story of the Peace Race and its aftermath, the effects on its star athletes and their families, as revealed in “the Race Against the Stasi” suggests that Western commercial pro races like the Tour de France, for all the cheating and corruption there might be, are only bicycle races. The Peace Race was in many ways far worse: a mendacious manipulation of public sentiment, parading its supposed high morals, with no concern for its athletes except in how they might best serve the state that was so unworthy of their sacrifice. A different history and well worth the read.

The Race Against the Stasi” by Herbie Sykes
399 pp., ill., hardcover
Aurum Press, London, 2014
ISBN 978 1 78131 308 4
Suggested prices for US and Canada are US$27.99 US, C$29.99; in the UK it is 18.99.
The book can be purchased through a variety of US and Canadian vendors and for more information go to: http://www.qbookshop.com/products/218994/9781781313084/The-Race-Against-the-Stasi.html

E-Bay Steel Bicycle Christmas!

Pretty well every cycling enthusiast I know like to surf through E-Bay.com to find parts, clothing and complete bicycles, even if sometimes this is just window shopping.  Bicycle stuff is ideal for auction as buyers are all around the world and parts can be shipped easily enough.  Sometimes there are real prizes to be found and since it is Christmas Eve I have found three delicious things, any one of which would find a welcome place under my tree tonight.

First up: a very nice restored 1976 California Masi built by legendary framebuilder Mario Confente as an example of his craftsmanship.  It has been restored by noted builder Brian Bayliss and can be purchased from its current owner in North Carolina for US $12,500, including a lot of nice Masi memorabilia.  Shipping worldwide is a reasonable and very specific US$ 495.07.


If this bicycle is too recent for your tastes or you prefer classic randonneuring, E-Bay will not let you down as there is an excellent unrestored 1973 Rene Herse classic available today and the auction price of US$14,750 not only buys you this rare piece of French craftsmanship but also includes two tickets to the 2015 Colorado Bike Expo.  The shipping cost of US$900 gives one pause, however.


These bicycles are the price of an excellent used car but for those with more elevated ambitions, here is a bicycle that costs the price of an excellent new car but is a lot less practical.  It is one of multiple Tour de France winner Miguel Indurain's Pinarello time trial bikes and dates to the first half of the 1992 season.  Apparently Big Mig likes to hold onto his bicycles so it is unusual to come on the market.  Even if not ridden at the Tour, it seems like a bargain to me at US$74,999.  Happily shipping is only US$1!


There has been a tradition in stories or movies of having a bright-eyed child unwrapping a shiny new two-wheeler on Christmas morning.  Think of the thrill that one of these would bring!

Book Review: Roads Were Not Built For Cars


The usual books stacked next to my comfortable wingback chair in the oak-panelled library for review lean towards accounts of great races, great (and sometimes not-great-at-all) athletes, startling training methods, startling diets, irresistible tourism ideas and lots of road-going technology, both old and new. But occasionally a book comes to us that does not fit into any of these categories and not only informs us of previously-unknown facts but might have an importance extending beyond cycling enthusiasts. One of these books has to be “Roads Were Not Built for Cars” by Carlton Reid, an exceptionally well-researched book whose very title is fightin' words. This might be ammunition against those motorists (we have all experienced them) who loudly proclaim that cyclists have no right to use public roads but the author unrolls a fascinating story whose details occasionally surface but the greater history has certainly been lost, or buried.


In 2013 Mr. Reid put out an appeal on a crowdfunding site and obtained pledges from 648 people, enough to conclude his massive four year research effort with a book that totals 170,000 words and in electronic format includes 580 illustrations and more than 10 videos. Yes, an electronic version: the book was conceived for iPad iBooks and is available in that way as well as via Kindle and an ePub version. A softback version was sent to subscribers and a hardback edition sold out in six hours. A revised edition will be published in 2015. So the most modern technology (crowdfunding, e-publishing) has been used to present a story that covers the period from the high-wheeler era and the start of the safety bicycle to the fading of the two wheeler from the consciousness of the motorcar-obsessed world. We find ourselves perhaps on the leading edge of a great new bicycle revival but Mr. Reid's book informs us of an unknown world that existed only less than 150 years ago and shows how our current world could have been much different.

A predecessor of Mr. Reid, Karl Kron, published a book in 1887 entitled “Ten Thousand Miles on a Bicycle” which was also crowdfunded by subscribers. Although Mr. Kron's massive 800 page book may be one of the dullest creations ever put to paper, one cannot but approve of the quote from that book that Mr. Reid uses to introduce his own work:

The bicycle is an index to the existence of good roads, just as certainly as the good roads themselves are an index to the existence of a high degree of civilization in the locality possessing them.”

The theme of this important book is the history of roads and in particular the importance of cyclists in developing the excellent roads we take for granted today. The author, who is British, focuses primarily on the UK and US experiences centred on the 1880-1900 period but also provides a good account of the history of roads before then, from the construction of the straight Roman streets to the turnpikes of the 18th Century. But the first surprise he reveals is that by the time bicycles had appeared on the scene in a significant way roads, once used by horse-drawn stagecoaches and mail express wagons, had been rendered obsolete by the railway and grass now grew on once-busy thoroughfares. It would have amazed contemporary observers that the mighty railroads would be supplanted by road vehicles but, as the author reminds us, the Age of Motorcars may be just as doomed to end due to overcrowding, construction costs and environmental effects and what we see is irreplaceable may not be so.


The first cyclists were wealthy, able to afford their expensive machines, and wealth means influence. Many of the early cyclists were professionals and the ranks of Parliament including more than a few, both in the Commons and the House of Lords. They demanded smooth, dust-free roads and passed legislation that reorganized jurisidiction over roads, once seen as completely local, and mandated their maintenance. Serious lobbying occurred on both sides of the Atlantic and very considerable success was achieved.

New technologies arrived to make the construction of these new roads possible and we are given an overview of them, from asphalt to macadam to, surprisingly, wood. One thinks of cities like London offering primarily cobbled streets (“setts” rather than “cobbles, technically) but in fact many of the city's thoroughfares were made up of hardwood blocks which may have been smooth to travel over but in the Age of Horses not very sanitary at all and probably not that durable under iron-shod wheels.

Although the proponents of Good Roads were at pains to indicate that the roads would benefit everyone from city-dwellers wanting to travel to farmers moving produce, there was certainly a degree of self-interest. One of the primary sponsors of the movement in the United States, the colourful Colonel Albert Pope, was the head of the Columbia Bicycle Company, one of the largest such enterprises. However, the efforts by the League of American Wheelmen in the United States and the Cyclists' Touring Club in the UK showed what determined teamwork could produce. For example, the city of Hagerstown, Maryland (not Pennsylvania, as indicated in the book) offered roads, in 1889, of “a very superior quality:”

...eight superb limestone pikes radiate from Hagerstown...while intersecting pikes and cross roads form a network of thoroughfares for wheelmen that realizes the stereotyped phrase of cyclers' paradise. These pikes are of that smooth sand-papered kind that entrance the wheelman, while his surroundings of scenery and sweet odours from nature's garden make his runs veritable trips through fairy land...

In addition, the asphalted streets of Washington, DC, were seen as worthy of emulation elsewhere. There were wonderful projects planned, including an elevated bicycle highway in California.


But this remarkable state of affairs had a dark cloud on the horizon. The groundbreaking work (in every sense) of the road lobbyists of the LAW and CTC was soon to be overtaken by a new user of the road. The motorcar, which was not distinguished by sweet odours from nature's garden but was rather characterized as a murderous “stinkwagon” arrived noisily on the scene—driven for the most part by those same people who had been early adaptors of the bicycle! There was a great ruckus and attempts to ban cars. The author details how the lawful rights to road usage were once determined but arrogant motorists simply forced other users off of the roads as might became right.

Leading the group is C.S. Rolls, of Rolls-Royce note, who moved from bicycles to fast cars and utimately, but fatally, to aircraft, perishing in the crash of his Wright Flyer in 1910
Where once pedestrians, cyclists, streetcars and other modes of transport flourished, all fell before the onslaught of the mighty car. And now we come to the interesting idea behind the book: all the efforts of cyclists, those two decades of raising money, printing pamphlets, lobbying legislators and even building demonstration road sections, to ensure the acceptance of good roads, roads that were invaluable to all settlements they passed through for the common good, have not only been forgotten but history has been rewritten. For example, the author cites the self-congratulation of the Ford Motor Company in 1927 when, marking the building of the 15 millionth Model T, it claimed that the Ford car “started the movement for good roads.” This claim was to be repeated across the country. It was ironic in that Henry Ford's first car, the Quadricycle, owed much more to the bicycle than the carriage, as was often the case with pioneer automobiles. Henry Ford had been a keen cyclist and as the author points out in a fascinating appendix to the book almost every major figure in the automotive business had some connection to bicycles. These included Henry Leland, who founded both Cadillac and Lincoln; Albert Champion of spark plug fame and winner of the 1899 Paris-Roubaix bike race; Louis Chevrolet; the Dodge brothers (who once had a bicycle business in Windsor, Ontario); the Opel brothers (whose father, Adam, refused to consider constructing “stinkwagons for the rich” and now has a car named in his honour); Peugeot; Pierce-Arrow; Rover; Rolls-Royce—the list is impressive.

Promotional image for the powerful League of American Wheelmen (L.A.W.)
Not only did the automakers take advantage of the roads that were the work of the cycling lobby, but they also were able to use many technologies that were first developed for the two-wheeler, including spoked wheels, pneumatic tires, ball bearings, differential gearing and chain drives. With the advent of trams and buses, and eventually motorcars, the decline in cycling became precipitous. In 1898 there were 103,293 members of LAW; within seven years that number had fallen to 2,874 even though cars were not yet widespread. But as the car ascended, the bicycle, once seen as the very symbol of modernity and progress, became a second-class citizen on the very roads it had once made possible. It is only in recent years that bicycles have regained some of that lost status and may play a more important role in our transportation (and fitness) future than anyone would have thought. Of course, there are countries such as Denmark and the Netherlands where the use of bicycles is already widespread but these other examples are beyond this book.

Roads Were Not Built for Cars” is a fascinating book, describing the development of much of the world we see outside our doors if we live in an industrialized country. But it is also a warning about the dangers of twisting history, of forgetting why things are the way they are and in that respect provides much food for thought. Perhaps in a century people will be amazed at the idea that we once found 1.24 million annual deaths due to motorized traffic acceptable (war kills less than half a million), along with horrific air and noise pollution, the asphalting of our countryside, the need to support otherwise unpalatable dictatorships to ensure our fuel supply and the primary source of anthropogenic climate change in order to have two-and-a-half ton SUVs with one obese person in them sit in gridlocked traffic. As much amazed as they would be by the decline of passenger railroads or the disappearance of stagecoaches, perhaps.


Roads Were Not Built for Cars,” which surely can be said to break new ground in cycling history, shows us not only the highway from the past but also how we might want to consider how we view the future. So the next time you are out cycling that smooth asphalt, think of how it came to be and salute those brave wheelmen, now forgotten, who made it once possible. But watch out for those cars.


Roads Were Not Built for Cars” by Carlton Reid
580 pp., copiously illustrated

Available from Amazon.com in Kindle format for a mere US$ 8.74 but also available through iTunes as an iBook for US$25.99 with complete illustrations and notes. There seem to be all kinds of formats available, all at different prices, so for more information just go to: www.roadswerenotbuiltforcars.com

The Joy of Retro

The rediscovery of vintage bicycles has brought new enthusiasts into the fold and it was fun to watch this video highlighting the difference between modern and classic bicycles, the latter being one of Stephen Roche's race-winning mounts.  There are definite disadvantages to old technology.  The brakes in the pre-dual pivot era were not very good; the hairnet "helmet" is completely useless and even though it might ruin the look I use a modern helmet whenever I ride; and the clip-and-strap pedals are not very good as to be effect the straps have to be tightened up enough that they are difficult to get out of quickly.  And, yes, the gearing sometimes seems crazy to me.  Several of my bikes came with a 44-tooth chainring as the small one!

On the positive side, friction shifting seems to work well with the short cable run, there is nothing too difficult to work on, the frames tend to be comfortable and offer a smooth ride and the aesthetic value of these colourful bikes is superior to lookalike carbon bikes, although style is of course always a matter of personal opinion.   Steel bikes evoke a classic era not only in racing but touring as well and it is a good thing to see that what was once perceived as obsolete is making a comeback.  Retro rules!


Friday, 14 November 2014

The Road Uphill: Film Showing in Ottawa on November 16

On Sunday, November 16th at 1600 hrs at the National Archives in Ottawa the European Union Film Festival continues with a screening of the Luxembourg documentary about the Brothers Schleck, who have carried the nation's banner in pro racing for the last few years.  Although Frank continues to race, Andy announced his retirement from racing last month at the age of 29 as he has not been able to fully recover from injuries sustained over the last few years.  A brilliant prospect once and the official winner of the 2010 Tour de France after Alberto Contador's disqualification, Andy always seemed fragile and his palmares were never what they might have been.  Lots of second places (twice at the Tour de France, once at the Giro) but never quite the complete rider somehow.

Book Review: Bike Mechanic—Tales from the Road and the Workshop


 The big stars of cycling: the race winners stand on the podium on the inevitable three steps, waving to the crowds, kissing podium girls, throwing bouquets around and spraying innocent bystanders with champagne. But the riders on the podium are only the most visible evidence of a pro team and now a book has come out that shines a bit of light on those that never end up mentioned, unless a chain breaks at a bad moment: the mechanics.

Guy Andrews' and Rohan Dubash's new book, “Bike Mechanic: Tales from the Road and the Workshop” is a welcome addition to the cycling library if only because it offers an unusual point of view. Well, it is also praiseworthy for the really good photographs, most effective in classic black-and-white, by Taz Darling. There are masses of books about celebrity racers and an impressive number that deal with famous bicycle brands or artisanal builders but nobody has had much to say about bicycle mechanics before. This book goes some way to addressing this gap but it might be better to consider it as a book about the management of the mechanical aspect of cycling. The structure of the book is unusual, with the opening section, “On the Road,” dealing with pro racing while the second section (“Hardware”) and the last (“the Bike”) move away from this to a nuts-and-bolts discussion (literally) of bicycle maintenance.

The first section, which makes up less than one-third of the book, includes excellent race photos as well as short accounts of life as a pro race mechanic. This is enjoyable and illuminating. We know that the racer gets the credit when the race is won but when the race is lost through a technical failure the opprobrium attaches to the previously-ignored mechanic. The book mentions two specific cases, both involving chains: David Millar's coming apart as he was about to commence what should have been a stage-winning sprint at the Vuelta; the 2010 Tour de France when Andy Schleck's jammed at a critical moment.


We learn that in the Good Old Days racers usually had only one bicycle and mechanics were freelancers who showed up at races. Today's mechanics are faced with pro teams that have upwards of 200 bicycles plus masses of spares to account for. Each racing bicycle is built to the idiosyncrasies of picky pros and the mechanics need to stay abreast of this. Then during the race itself the mechanics are either moving the big truck to the next stage location or sitting in a team car, preparing to leap out for a quick wheel change or on-the-fly adjustment. When the racing is done each day and the riders off for their massages, the mechanics are busy washing, lubricating and adjusting the thoroughbred machines in time for it all to be repeated the next day during a typical stage race.


The authors have included interesting snippets of interview with mechanics, some background on the arrival of Shimano components on the European pro racing scene, an examination of a typical UCI World Tour team service course (in this case the Omega-Pharma-Quick-Step one)--laconically described as the “team garage;” a vivid description of riding along with the neutral support mechanics of Mavic and Vittoria. There is an account of the huge team trucks and their valuable contents and a chapter on bike washing. For those who have not seen pro race mechanics in action after a race it is worth staying around for the show. This writer recalls seeing the mechanics at the HEW Cyclassics race in Hamburg hosing down expensive racing bicycles at top speed and stacking them in team station wagons as if they were firewood.

The second section of the book moves us into the esoteric world of the bicycle workshop, with its range of specific-purpose tools. The photographs are the highlight of this section and even those with no mechanical aptitude will feel motivated to at least consider doing some work if one could only get one's hands on these beautiful items. Even tools that most of us will never use (head tube facing tools, anyone?) look irresistible here.


The last section of the book covers the complete bicycle and provides advice on how to maintain your mechanical steed in the same way that pros do. There are explanations and suggestions for everything from tire installation to cleaning in a clearly-written and well-illustrated fashion. However, this book is not to be confused with manuals with exploded assembly diagrams (thinking of Leonard Zinn's here) and for really specific instructions you need to go elsewhere.


So the book is a bit of this and a bit of that—and I would have loved more “Tales from the Road”-- rather than a comprehensive look at the experiences of bike mechanics or a how-two book for those aspiring to be one. But the modest goal set by the author is easily reached:

So this book is a collection of stories with some tips and hints that we thought be useful to amateur mechanics and road cycling enthusiasts alike. It certainly isn't comprehensive; there just wasn't space.....We hope it inspires you to get the workstand out.

The book is a joint venture between VeloPress and Rouleur so as always the publication is of very high quality and many of the photos approach art. With the cycling season coming to an end for many of us, this is an excellent read for dark winter evenings, fun to just browse through, and would be a fine gift for any cyclist, even one with or without a workstand.


“Bicycle Mechanic—Tales from the Road and the Workshop” by Guy Andrews and Rohan Dubash,
with photography by Taz Darling
270 pp., ill., paperback
VeloPress 2014, suggested retail price US$24.95
ISBN 978-1-937715-18-2

For more information on this and other cycling books, check out www.velopress.com