Wednesday 14 January 2009

Bikes: The Wheel Story

Following my very successful visit to the soon-to-be-deeply-lamented Pedaling History Museum near Buffalo, I have been reading quite a bit about the history of the bicycle. I understood that our own Museum of Science and Technology in Ottawa had a very good collection but that it was almost never on display. I had seen an excellent collection there in 1998 but did not realize then that the artifacts were part of the permanent collection as opposed to loan items.

Reading Glen Norcliffe’s excellent “Cycling to Modernity,” about Canada’s encounter with the bicycle and its social and economic implications, was fascinating. That book refers to the museum in Ottawa and to the collector, Mr. Lorne Shields, whose generous donation of the major part of his own cycling collection, makes up the basis of the holdings. So it was with some delight that while reading my local bicycle club newsletter I saw that there would be a temporary exhibition, “Bikes: The Wheel Story,” at the museum until June. To recover from a very heavy workload at the office over the last three weeks, I had elected to take today off. My first plan, to go cross-country skiing, had to be scratched as the temperature was -26°C/-15°F for a good part of the day (-38°C/-36.4°F with the wind) and although it was very sunny this is frostbite country. So instead after my workout at the gym, I went to the museum which is right around the corner from the fitness centre.

The Museum of Science and Technology is located in an industrial park in a large industrial building. To say that it lacks character is charitable but as the artifacts are indoors and protected. It actually works quite well for the four enormous, and actually quite beautiful, steam locomotives at one end of the building. However, the bicycle exhibition is occupying one of a number of very empty areas in the rest of the building and after visiting the Pedaling History Museum it would be hard to admit that this was not a letdown.

It looks like a bike, but it really isn't!

There is an attractive sign for the exhibit as you enter the area. To the left is a cleverly-designed structure that allows you to pretend you are on a high-wheeler: it is a steel skeleton with handlebars, and behind it is a photo image of the bike. Nicely done, although I am sure that you would not have quite the same feeling of being on an ordinary as at the other museum, which uses an actual bicycle that is anchored.

Straight ahead is a large display case with four bicycles in it, with quite good signage in French and English. The case has a c. 1818 hobbyhorse, a quite superb velocipede (boneshaker) from 1869 and two high-wheelers: one is an Ariel, made in Coventry by James Starley (Starley & Smith) in 1870 and looking pretty primitive, while the second is a taller ordinary made by BSA a few years later and far better constructed. There are some very nice graphics at the back of the display case.

Moving counter-clockwise, the next large display case has another Starley bicycle, the famous Rover safety bicycle, introduced in 1885, with this example c. 1888. There is also one of the strange Coventry Rotary tricycles and two other bicycles, one being diamond frame model form 1905 and the other a typical hybrid of the last decade. The viewer is invited to compare these last two and note how similar they are in spite of the century dividing them.

CCM delivery bicycle
Photograph ©2005, Canadian Museum of Science and Technology

The next display case is devoted more to working bicycles, with a “low gravity” cargo bicycle joined by a folding bicycle used by Canadian paratroopers in World War II (unfolded, unlike the one I looked at in December in Buffalo) and a CCM light delivery bicycle from c. 1932 that had been used for business for three decades in the Ottawa area. This last bike had received a Pixie auxiliary motor in 1940 to assist on hills but unless they were making deliveries in Gatineau Park I am not sure where in Ottawa you would find a big enough hill to warrant such help.

CCM Targa (front) and 1926 Flyer (behind)

The final case was devoted to CCM, the iconic Canadian manufacturer of bicycles established in 1899 through the merger of the cycling operations of four large manufacturers: H.A. Lozier, Welland Vale, Goold and Massey-Harris (the last perhaps more enduringly famous for farm machinery) as the bicycle industry faced a price crash due to extreme overproduction. CCM stood for Canada Cycle & Motor Company, and eventually it split into two firms, with one manufacturing bicycles and the other hockey equipment. Although a famous name until its bankruptcy in 1983, it may be justifiably said that CCM was no innovator, with few patents to its credit. It did produce a very good racing bicycle, the Flyer, which was competitive for several decades on both the track and the road. The museum’s example is from 1926. The other CCM bicycles on display are a Boy Scout model from 1936 (a promotional tie-in with the movement), as well as a Gendron model from early in the company’s history.

In front of the more interesting Flyer stands a CCM Targa, a relic from the 1970s bicycle boom which is described on the case label as “well-constructed,” which is unlikely given its low-end parts and heavy tubing. There was a CCM “Tour de France” model which was much better but I am quite certain I never saw one of these while growing up. CCM still exists as a brand owned by Group Procycle in Quebec, which also owns the Rocky Mountain and Miele brands and at one time had the rights to the Cycles Peugeot name in North America. (Another Canadian firm based in Quebec, Dorel Industries, owns Cannondale, Schwinn, Mongoose and GT, besides making futons and furniture!).

The Ariel (front) and the BSA high-wheelers

There is a pair of interactive items, one demonstrating how gearing works and the other dynamo lighting, and an additional display case shows parts. And that’s pretty well it for “Bikes: The Wheel Story.” If it is the only thing at the museum you plan to see it is probably not worth paying $7.50 for this alone. I know that there is far more in the collection and it is a shame that only eleven bicycles were chosen and that the remainder of the considerable empty space was not used up. It would have been interesting, for example, to have a display devoted to Toronto-based Cervelo and aerodynamics, or more on the sporting elements of Canadian cycling.

There is a far nicer permanent display on canoes, which are probably more deeply ingrained in the Canadian psyche than bicycles anyway. Regrettably, in the section on “Canoes and Celebrities,” there is a quote from a 1970 book by then-Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau that says: “Travel 1,000 miles by train and you are a brute; pedal 500 miles by bicycle and you remain a bourgeois; but paddle 100 miles in a canoe and you are already a child of nature.” I like canoes, but the pretentiousness–it burns.


Will said...


I love these sorts of museums.

BTW, I will buy you a case of beer if you send a photo of you riding a penny farthing; ;)

One day I should hurry up and post about my visit to the cycling section of the Olympic museum in Lausanne -- interesting.

Sprocketboy said...

Although I will do almost anything for beer, I have a feeling that riding a penny-farthing falls outside the realm of acceptable risk! I have heard that the museum in Lausanne is very good so I would certainly be keen to see something on that.

Anonymous said...

I owned a "tour de france" CCM bike back in the 80s - the ladies version..was the best bike I've ever had.

Can't find one that's comfortable like that anymore..what a shame.