I’ve been reading a book by David Herlihy about Frank Lenz, the “Lost Cyclist”. The book sometimes gets a little lost itself in cataloging the various tales of Lenz and other travelers but what has been most interesting to me was the early development of cycling culture and the machines they rode.
The Lost Cyclist by David Herlihy
Frank Lenz started his riding life on a “standard”, as opposed to a “safety”. The standard bike was the one with the big front wheel many of you will know as a Penny-Farthing. I doubt Lenz, an American, would have used that term (which uses British currency to liken the large front wheel to a penny and the smaller rear wheel to a farthing). In a world before anyone had the forsight to use gears (and yes, your fixie has gears) to change your pedaling ratio the massive font wheel was needed if you wanted to pedal faster than walking pace.
Two men on a “standard” or “Penny Farthing” bike.
What is most noticeable when you look at the photo above is how precariously the men were perched on top of their steeds. The big wheels helped riders cope somewhat with the hard tyres (it would be a few years yet before John Dunlop developed pneumatic tyres for bicycles) and surmounting large obstacles but all too often the front wheel hit something that made the whole bike stop and the rider was thrown down from his lofty perch.
There’s a toughness to the fixie culture that says something along the lines of, “I’m so kick-arse I have no brakes.” Imagine having no brakes, few properly sealed roads, no soft tyres and a fall of several metres from the saddle. Frank Lenz, the lost cyclist of the book’s title, used to hook his feet under the handlebars and lean back on the seat to make his body flat in order to get an aerodynamic position. Now that was hard core and this guy, in comparison, is just a poser:
Bad-arse or just dumb-arse?
When the “safety bike” hit the market and started gaining popularity many of the older wheelmen left the sport in disgust. The safety bikes were essentially the predecessors of todays fixies, except along with having no gears and no brakes they had no tyres also, not at least nice soft squishy ones. Pneumatic tyres were soon to gain ground but the first riders of the safety did so while being shaken to pieces.
The photo below gives you a pretty clear idea of what the first safety bikes looked like:
Curious as to what a safety bike would look like, I found the above photo on a wiki entry. You can see the spindly frame and the rudimentary brakes. What I couldn’t work out at first was what the pegs on the front wheels were for. The book explained, they’re for resting you feet on when you’re rolling down a hill so fast you can’t keep up with the pedals. That sounds jolly nice until you think of the consequences of meeting a cow or other large and immobile obstacle halfway down the hill. That funny looking front brake is barely going to slow you down before you smash into it with your feet desperately trying to grasp the flailing pedals.
In 1888 Dunlop started making the first pneumatic tyres for bicycles and while they added a layer of comfort and speed that bikes were surely missing they didn’t gain wide acceptance overnight. Punctures were then as now a big problem. But so much more so before nice little puncture kits became available from bicycles stores that (didn’t yet) dot every suburb. Many people still clung to the standard bicycle for many reasons (including comfort) but sadly they were being trounced in local races by people on safety bikes riding on pneumatic tyres. In disgust at the effete interlopers beating them at their own sport hardened wheelmen hung up their large front-wheeled bikes for good. In effect, todays fixies were too soft for these men.
We’ll have to think of what we can do to beef up our own sport/sub-culture. Apparently removing the brakes isn’t enough, not in comparison to our forebears. Maybe we should all try cycling nude: