the modern iteration of the bicycle has been around for so long, that few of us ever consider quite how quickly it developed into this manifestation of genius. over only a few decades in the 19th century, heavy wooden framed dandy horses morphed into pretty much the shape we take for granted nowadays. in fact, though contemporary space-age materials would allow the bicycle to become what several designers think it wants to become, cycling's governing body insists on it retaining its inherent historicality.
the miguel indurain and bjarne riis years in the mid nineties brought to light pinarello's take on the time trial machine, itself a descendant of the lotus track bicycle that chris boardman rode to britain's first cycling gold medal for more years than most of us could remember. graeme obree's rudimental re-working of the bicycle frame to suit his own notions of aerodynamics also proved particularly effective, but once again the union cycliste international would have none of it and outlawed the whole shebang with one sweep of its official hand.
and after boardman had pushed the hour record possibly as far as it would go, using obree's superman position, it was decided that the only format worthy of such strenuous activity was that used by eddy merckx several decades previously: a double-diamond steel frame with regularly spoked wheels and track bars. it's probably just as well that the fellows in aigle were not possessed of the same authority in the 1800s, or we'd all be sat astride those wooden framed dandy horses, rolling on steel tyred wood wheels.
there was a brief moment around the eighties and early nineties when time-trial bikes featured smaller front wheels than rear, presumably in an effort to reduce the frontal area and increase speed. doing so required the top tube to slope, but rather than the current trend of sloping from head tube to seat tube, the top tube sloped the other way. those too were outlawed by the uci.
are we seeing a pattern here?
however, a bicycle comprising drastically unevenly sized wheels managed to outlaw itself before anyone in officialdom got a look-in, one that preceded the so-called safety bicycle, the latter the very embodiment of the uci's lofty ideals. officially referred to by its most uninspiring name of ordinary, most of us in less pedantic mode would likely refer to it as a penny farthing.
the ordinary under discussion in this small volume by cycle enthusiast, john bradshaw, turned out to be a cogent manufactured in wolverhampton in a factory belonging to henry stephen clarke. the cogent catalogue of 1883 listed a total of five ordinaries, but by the time bradshaw's example was made, it was the only model left. discovered in 1988 within the bricked-up pantry of a large house in abbots bromley, staffordshire, local bike shop owner mike hewlett put up the capital to purchase it from the house-owner (£500) in order that the author might consider restoring it.
john bradshaw has a lengthy palmares when it comes to the subject of restoration, including cars and motorcycles, so accepting this particular undertaking seems to have held little fear, but much interest.
while the cogent ordinary sat on display in hewlett's cycle shop, the various threads about its person were soaking in penetrating oil, so when the moment to commence restoration arrived, life was a tad easier than it could have been. it appears that henry clarke had had the clever foresight to feature bown's aeolus adjustable ball bearings in the hubs, for while the frame seemed composed principally of rust and no paint, and the spokes in the front wheel were incapable of supporting the weight of bradshaw as rider, the bearings were in such fine fettle that they were able to be used in the re-building of the bicycle.
the high front wheel, providing forward motion as well as the single gear, was built radially, with the head of each of the 72 spokes fitting into the rim, then threading into the hub. not entirely unexpectedly, there are no commercially available truing jigs for wheels of that size, so bradshaw had to make one of his own to complete the job.
were this slim volume comprised solely of the restoration narrative, well writtten though it is, there may be few takers to fill the bookshelf. however, bradshaw has gone to great lengths to research not only the history of the cogent ordinary, but that of henry stephen clarke's bicycle company. along with the accompanying illustrations, this section of the book is almost worth the price of admission alone. but it doesn't all end there.
comfortably fitting the whole book into the category of local history, bradshaw then goes on to describe his own part in fostering the local cycle fest and participation in parochial cycling matters.
self-publishing is often viewed in the same light as vanity-publishing; in some circumstances they can be one and the same. in this case, nothing could be further from the truth. we may mostly be obsessed with the variations in carbon fibre construction currently on retail offer, but it places everything in recognisable context to know from whence we are descended (so to speak). it is also worth considering whether any of the current crop of velocipedinal offerings will be as amenable to restoration in 100 years' time. somehow i doubt it.
if i have any criticism worth voicing, it's the typeface used throughout. it may not actually be comic sans, but it looks suspiciously similar. this was not a wise choice, though bradshaw's narrative is still perfectly clear. maybe it's just a designer's prejudice. and while i admire his desire for authenticity, i fear the inclusion of his notes in their original handwritten state was perhaps ill-advised. some of them are quite hard to decipher, but the constant switch from printed text to scanned handwriting was a bit on the tedious side. however, bradshaw's writing style generally makes for easy reading, and i did particularly enjoy his often self-deprecatory style.
if you have any interest in the history of the bicycle, john bradshaw's 'ordinary' is fairly close to essential.
john bradshaw's 'ordinary' is available from courtyard books in cheltenham.
sunday 19 january 2014..........................................................................................................................................................................................................