Back in the day, bicycles had no suspension systems, no brakes, only one speed and bike seats were simple sawed slabs of lumber. What you got was "boneshaker" with a front wheel that came up to your chest and a rear wheel that barely reached your calf. It's been a long and circuitous inventive process that brought us from there to today's comfortable, sleek and featherweight bicycles.
The horticultural staff that developed the "Tour de Fleur" theme for the annual March spring flower show this year at Madison's Olbrich Botanical Gardens brought together 13 classic bikes spanning 140 years of bike design and posed them amid its always outstanding indoor display of spring flowers.
The oldest was the 1869 Michaux Velocipede. It featured heavy wooden spokes, direct drive pedals mounted on the front wheel and a saddle made of wood.
The Columbia High Wheelers, also called Ordinaries or Penny Farthings, had four- to five-foot diameter front wheels and a 18-inch rear wheel. These became popular around 1880. The tires were solid rubber, although later pneumatic tires and other refinements were added. The bike that was "planted" in the Olbrich exhibit dates back to 1888.
You have to jump ahead 30 years, then 60 to see the advent of balloon tires, chain drives, coaster brakes, two-tone paint jobs and a two-speed rear hub. The ride, safety and looks of the bicycle were starting to resemble the bicycle of today. It was still a heavy, somewhat cumbersome machine back in the 1940s and '50s, but designers were starting to get it, particularly in England, where Raleigh developed its three-speed bikes. They were called "English racers" on this side of the pond. From 1960 to 1986, the Schwinn "Varsity," with its drop handlebars, 10 speeds and hand brakes, was selling by the millions.
In the last 50 years, developments have come in at least two waves. =Cutting edge materials - first aluminum, then carbon fiber - have made for super-light road bikes, culminating in machines like the Trek Competition Road Race model ridden by Lance and the U.S. Postal Service team.
In 1979, Gary Fisher was cobbling together "klunkers," bikes that could handle the rugged downhill trails of Mt. Tam in Marin County, California. The mountain bike crept into the scene beginning in the 1980s and turned the cycling world on its ear. A 1996 replica of Fisher's original Klunker was shown hopping over a bed of yellow blooms at Olbrich.
What's next? Two bikes featured in the flowers may give an indication. A hybrid design not at all like the hybrids we talk about for commuting and weekend recreation has emerged for the sport of Cyclocross, where riders pedal on- and off-road and at times shoulder their bikes across streams, over barriers and through mud holes. The Raleigh RX 1.0 vaulting a "Tour de Fleur" barrier at the display shows a machine that weds ideas from road and mountain bikes to produce a lightweight racing bike that'll go anywhere.
A very different hybridization, this time of construction materials, is Wisconsin company Organic Bikes Caleb bamboo road bike. Using the "world's strongest bamboo" from Vietnam for some of the tubing, the Caleb signals a more organic, renewable approach to bicycle construction. The Caleb debuts early this year. Want one? Olbrich is holding a fund-raising raffle, and the winner will get to take the $2,250 Caleb home. Tickets can be purchased at the gardens until June 30. The drawing takes place at 9 a.m., July 1. Check it out at www.olbrich.org.
James Sajdak is an English teacher in Madison, Wisconsin.
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