Book Review: Bicycle Design – An Illustrated History
- by Christopher Jones
- Published: 29 June 2014
If you are expecting one of those beautiful and glossy coffee table books with photos of amazing bikes mixed with the weird and wonderful, then Bicycle Design by Tony Hadland and Hans-Erhard Lessing doesn’t fit the bill. It is captioned “An Illustrated History” and cleverly uses original diagrams, sketches, and photography to accompany this encyclopedia of bicycle design. This text heavy book is a comprehensive overview of the foundations of the bicycle, how and why the bicycle was invented, and takes the reader on a detailed journey from around 1817 when the first velocipedes (or Draisines) were invented, through the development of all of the major parts and components of the bike, and finishes with the modern bicycle.
This is pure ‘bike nerd’ material as we learn about patent wars, knock-offs, and the key personalities behind each significant improvement (and failed crazy idea) in the history of the bicycle. The attention to detail by the authors means that this is a reference manual, an encyclopedia and, you could argue, should be compulsory reading for mechanics and bicycle designers and builders. And of course the connoisseurs, who love to know everything about bikes and likely keep a collection of classic bikes and parts, will be more than satisfied.
With over 500 pages this is not an easy Sunday afternoon read, however it will bring the same joy in knowledge. For example, looking at the drive chain of a bike, although the bike chain is standard, every so often shaft drive systems come onto the market which are promoted as the latest and greatest; however shaft drive systems first appeared in the 1890′s in the United Kingdom where the Partington Cycle Company and the Start Cycle Company both produced such bikes. Shaft drive bikes shortly thereafter appeared in the United States and France.
For any innovative bike designer or brand, you can probably question each of their new ideas, “Is this really new?” The chances are that many of the ideas for improving the bike have already been tried… and failed. I particularly like the beautiful Campagnolo Delta brakes which are described in the section, suitably titled, “Brakes”. The Campag Delta’s are truly a work of art and an original mint condition set would now be worth a small fortune. These “parallelogram” brakes however had a significant flaw, they didn’t work very well and this system didn’t survive.
There is depth to the information, but also scope as different styles of bikes are explored, such as racing bikes, mountain bikes, and even recumbents. The information on each of the cycling disciplines is concentrated on major design developments. There is far greater historical focus, rather than comprehensive details, on the modern bike which means than while we learn the history of carbon fibre, it isn’t a suitable reference book for modern carbon fibre design. Likewise, we learn about the history of bicycle suspension while modern mountain biking developments in suspension is treated only broadly, so other literature would be better suited if you wanted to learn more about current bikes, design, and setup.
The early bicycle design is particularly fascinating, for example, do you know about the connection between ice skating and early bicycles? This book also clearly describes the development of each part of the bicycle so you know exactly how the modern day bicycle came to be.
Bicycle Design by Tony Hadland and Hans-Erhard Lessing was published by The MIT Press and is available in Australia for $64 from Footprint Books:
Bicycle Design : An Illustrated History (ISBN 9780262026758)