Book Review: The History of Cycling in Fifty Bikes

history-cycling-50-bikes-bookContinued cold has made for little cycling but more reading, so here’s a review of my latest cycling book, The History of Cycling in Fifty Bikes, by Tom Ambrose.  As with many of my book reviews, this will be somewhat tepid.

I’ve been asking myself why I’ve been so critical in my reviews.  Lots of people write very positive things about almost anything they come across.  Clearly, I am not like those people.  It would seem I have high standards for my literature.  Whether those are fair or not I shall leave to you, Dear Reader.

One of my favorite authors is Bill Bryson.  He started out in life as a travel author, but even in those days he had a unique ability to tell a story rather than simply catalogue his destinations.  While describing a place, he weaves its history and its idiosyncracies with its modern-day charms, finally adding large dollops of humor to create a very entertaining and informative read.  Bryson has since taken on other subjects, including how the American version of English developed and the not-so-modest “A Short History Of Nearly Everything.”  Even these seemingly dry topics he makes interesting through his story telling ability.   Because of Bryson, I now understand why Bostonians speak differently than Virginians and how scientists know what the Earth weighs without ever putting it on a scale.  On a very good day, I hope this blog approaches some of Bryson’s characteristics.

So when I crack a binder on a book giving the history of cycling in fifty bicycles, I am hoping against all hope I do not get fifty separate, unrelated stories, but rather one long story, full of oddities and interesting facts that I was previously unaware of.  I’d like a few large themes that connect the smaller stories in a way that helps explain how we ended up where we’re at.  While not required, humor would be a pleasant addition.

In short, I’m looking for Bryson.  That’s not what I found, so I should probably just leave it at that and talk about other aspects of the book.

The Quadricycle - imagine if this version won out!

The Quadricycle – imagine if this version won out!

Ambrose begins (logically enough) at the beginning of cycling.  After a short chapter where he discusses “proto-bicycles” – good ideas that never quite caught on due to a lack of materials or technology, he picks up the story where most authors do, with the Draisine (1817).  In addition to well-known bikes such as the Velocipede and the Boneshaker, and Penny-Farthing, Ambrose includes other lesser known bicycles such as the Macmillan Pedal Bike, The Facile, and the Salvo Quadricycle.  He points out that there were widely different views on what a human-powered machine should look like, including how many wheels, the manner of propulsion, and the steering mechanisms.  It made me begin to wonder what is the first bike that had all the attributes we have come to understand in a typical bicycle.  I began to look for the first bicycle with brakes, and gearing that we would recognize in today’s machines.  More on that search later.

La Francaise Diamant

La Francaise Diamant

As the story moves into the 20th Century, things become a little confusing.  The focus of each chapter becomes less about the bicycle being highlighted and more about a famous person associated with it.  The bike’s influence on history, it would seem, is significant only because of the man who rode it.  La Francaise Diament is a case in point.  In a single paragraph it is pointed out as being typical of the bikes used in the first Tour de France.  A nice picture of the bike is provided for reference.  The next five pages are devoted to that first race with nary a mention of the bicycle again.

Automoto advert - it suggests you won't notice the Pyrenees with this bike

Automoto advert – it suggests you won’t notice the Pyrenees with this bike

I could see bicycles maturing with each story – pneumatic tires are introduced and primitive gearing is employed.  I could sense that we were getting close to the bicycle I was searching for and I was intrigued with the possibilities of The Automoto, the bike ridden by Italian legend Ottavio Bottecchia.  Ambrose builds the case that the Automoto was the center of the French bicycle industry and would be the first choice for many Tour riders throughout the 1920s.  The text acconpanying a picture of the brake pads states distinctive design features were used throughout the Automoto and another picture includes the statement, “Automoto combined fine engineering with a particularly Italian attention to detail.”  Sadly, no further information is given on the bicyle.  The four pages in this chapter are given to the career of Bottecchia.

After interesting diversions onto unusual ideas like the Velocar (which eventually would lead to recumbents) The Hercules (designed specifically for women), the Bartelo (first sprint bike), Schulz’s Funiculo (first mountain bike), my interest in the “first modern bike” was piqued again with a chapter on derailleurs.  The conversation eventually moves to the Campagnolo Derailleur, introduced in the 1940s.  This appears to be the first modern derailleur.  Then again, maybe it was pointed out on the next page when “modern parallelogram movement replaced the sliding bushing.”  Not much is given as an explanation for this seemingly important change, nor is it made clear what bicycles actually used the technology.

Merckx and his Ugo de Rosa

Merckx and his Ugo de Rosa

The pattern of highlighting the careers of the legends through their bikes continues.  Fausto Coppi’s story is told by referencing his Bianchi.  Eddy Merckx’s career is reviewed under the chapter supposedly dedicated to his Ugo De Rosa, and Tommy Simpson is discussed in detail under the chapter dedicated to his Peugot PX-10.  Each of the cyclists are discussed in detail.  Their bikes less so.

A chapter is spent on mountain bikes, featuring the Breezer Series 1 (1977).  BMX racing is covered by The Haro (1982).  By the time the author gets around to the super aerodynamic Lotus 108 (1992 – Chapter 39), the chapters are beginning to blur together.  I was curious to see my humble Madone made the list as the subject of Chapter 42, along with its infamous rider, Lance Armstrong.  The book was published after the revelation of Armstrong’s misdeeds, but the author skirts the issue by stating, “his recent fall from grace is all the more spectacular given his many achievements…”  An interesting notion, that.

Ambrose wraps things up with a few chapters devoted to bike share programs, city bikes like The Gazelle (which was invented in 1940 yet makes its appearance near the end of the book).  The final chapter looks to the future by examining some experimental designs in use today, such as square-wheeled bikes, origami bikes, etc…

Fittingly, there is no conclusion or summary.  The reader reaches the last chapter on futuristic designs and…  you’re done!  This is a fitting way for a book like this to end.  It’s simply a compendium of bicycles, fifty of them to be precise.  On this simple level, the book works well, apart from some shoddy editing.  Sadly, the book could have been much more than fifty separate chapters.  It could have been a cohesive, informative, and entertaining review of cycling history, combining the key bits of technology and the people who invented them or rode them in a gripping story.

I wonder what Bill Bryson is writing about these days.  Perhaps he would appreciate a suggestion…

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15 thoughts on “Book Review: The History of Cycling in Fifty Bikes

  1. It’s a shame if the book doesn’t deliver on the promise of the title, one that would make me buy it if I saw it. It’s just the sort of thing I’d be interested in. The early days of velocipedes are fascinating. I came across a slim volume in a used book store last year that was quite good, “Discovering Old Bicycles” by T.E. Crowley. There was one peculiar contraption briefly described that I had to follow up on ( http://tuckamoredew.wordpress.com/2013/09/29/the-military-multicycle/ )

    • Somehow that post got by me – thanks for the link! I’ve read of similar attempts by the British to put teams of cyclists on “multicycles” designed specifically for use on railways. Apparently, they did reasonably well in the Boer War.

  2. I fear that (mostly) there is very little editing left in the publishing world and (mostly) it’s about the bottom line. Many fabulously wonderful writers have greatly benefitted from equally fabulous editors and the reading public has benefitted from the frequently close, sometimes edgy relationshop between them. I believe the publishing world rarely supports that now. So, pull the editors out of the picture, and only the very best of best writers (Bryson among them) come up with books that are truly transporting to read.

    This was a good, thoughtful, review, thanks!

      • The demise of editors is unfortunate, but at least the downfall of the major publishers has opened some new markets. A lot of these laid off editors now work freelance with self publishers and do quite well. I considered self publishing a book and was surprised by the amount of support available.

  3. Count me in as another big Bryson fan. Even though I realize he’s not an expert on the subject’s he’s tackled (Shakespeare, Everything), like you said, he does tell a good story along the way. He has inspired me in many ways.

    For what it’s worth, I’ve been sour on any of the histories that are told based on any sort of iteration. For example, I tried to read The History of the World through 6 Glasses and found it bland and uninteresting. The premise of this cycling book doesn’t sound thrilling.

  4. I prefer books, even on cycling, to have humor as well. Joe Kurmaksie the metal cowboy fits the bill. Information, and fun plus plenty of adventure. Bummed this one didn’t pan out, when I saw the cover I was intrigued. But not so much…

    • Well, it would make sense if it was called “50 greatest people who changed cycling,” but that’s not the premise of the book so things get a little confusing. Sometimes its all about the bike. Other times the bike is an afterthought despite being the name of the chapter. And rarely does one chapter smoothly transition to the next one.

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