Tuesday 27 March 2007

Book Review: The Bicycle, by Pryor Dodge

Out of print but worth looking for

In 1988, when living in China, I bought a Shanghai-built Yongjiu ("Forever") bicycle. Reputed to be a copy of a 1936 Raleigh, or a 1938 Legnano, depending on which expert it was, the Yongjiu is clearly from another era: massive steel tubing, rod-operated brakes, a wide, brown sort-of-leather saddle with lots of springs underneath, one speed. It was almost brand new and very inexpensive, so I thought I was buying a bit of history and a nifty souvenir. It looked great, with its deep black enamel finish and chrome flourishes. And it had a sturdy rack, suitable for carrying furniture, or ducks to the market.

After returning to Canada, I had the opportunity to ride the Yongjiu to work once when my regular commuter bike, an elderly Gitane ten-speed, required some major repairs. The five kilometer trip was interminable. The bicycle was awkward and ponderous. It was undergeared for load-carrying, meaning I had to spin at much too fast for comfort. But the bike was so heavy that even speed bumps took on Matterhorn dimensions. The brakes did not appear to slow what little forward progress there was, although I could hear them working. And I had to ride with my feet pointed outwards to prevent my knees from being whacked by the handlebars on every revolution of the crank. And everyone at the office who saw the Yongjiu was enchanted by it.

Mr. Dodge in Paris

This fascination for old bicycles seized Pryor Dodge at an early age. His epiphany was seeing Cantinflas ride a high-wheeler in the film "Around the World in 80 Days" and the result has been many years of collecting old bicycles and related paraphernalia. And this wonderful book, which traces the development of the bicycle from Baron Karl Friedrich Drais von Sauerbronn's Laufmaschine ("Running Machine") of 1817 to the velocipede, with its cranked front wheel, to the elegant but precarious high-wheeler and, finally, the safety bicycle of 1886. The last thirty pages are devoted to the bicycle in the Age of the Automobile, but you can tell Mr. Dodge's heart is not really into relating the story of the BMX or mountain bike.

No, Pryor Dodge loves bicycles from before 1900, when an inventive madness swept the world and the bicycle took so many whimsical forms. One can savour the details of the 1884 Kangaroo geared high-wheeler, the steam-powered velocipede (!), the bamboo bicycle or the bizarre Coventry Rotary Tricycle, whose appearance defies description but which is beautifully illustrated in one of the many superb photos that grace this book. The text, which is somewhat overwhelmed by the quality of the images, is full of interesting facts, conveyed in a clear and attractive style. The photos of bicycles are supplemented by images of posters, medals, club uniforms and other amazing things.

The collection on display

It seems that Mr. Dodge is a generous person and his wonderful collection has not been hoarded away. Instead it has toured the United States and appeared in numerous museums. However, he has not updated his website since 2002 and I am not certain of the collection's current status. I hope that it has been kept together but given what must be its extraordinary value he may perhaps have cashed in his investment. A few years ago the National Museum of Science and Technology in Ottawa, Ontario had a display of bicycles and I am certain that if they were not all from Mr. Dodge's collection, some of them must have been.

For anyone with any feeling for bicycles (or gorgeous books), "The Bicycle," which has been published in at least three languages, is a must. It was published by Flammarion in 1996, runs 224 pages and has 341 illustrations. I purchased mine for half-price a few years ago, but now that it is out of print copies are going for around $45. A few years ago I saw stacks of the German edition being sold as remainders for a song. The book is worth seeking out and a fine addition to any collection of cycling books.

And on page 193 is a photo of people in Shanghai riding to work on their Yongjius.

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