Better by design

With nearly eighty bicycles on display, in the Design Museum’s Cycle Revolution exhibition, enormous variety is the initial impression.  Even among those created with a single purpose in mind – going very fast around a track for a short space of time – design technology has moved in leaps and bounds.

The bicycle on which Eddy Merckx set cycling’s hour record in 1972 is a simple affair, little different from the retro ‘fixies’ favoured today by cycle messengers and hipsters.  Indeed, the flat orange of its tubing and spare lines might turn heads in Hoxton.  Spotting any connection between Merckx’ bike and contemporaneously raging space race is impossible.  Even the sinuously curved frame on which Francesco Moser finally bettered the Belgian’s effort in 1984, is more Art Nouveau than jet age.

Only with Chris Boardman’s Lotus Type 108 bike, on which he won gold in the pursuit race at the Barcelona Olympics in 1992, does carbon fibre appear.  Its monocoque frame might pass for a prop from the set of Star Wars.  It is a look that is common to most of the modern performance bikes on display – most of which have done service in the professional peloton.  Tom Donhou’s ‘100 mph bike’ of 2013, however, has a dash of the home-brew aesthetic; It has the look of a bicycle welded to a steel pizza, so large is its front chain ring.

The collection that hangs from the gallery’s walls encompasses designs intended to satisfy a far wider assortment of needs than that of speed alone. The requirement to transport luggage, children and groceries determines the form of the cargo bikes in one corner of the exhibition.  They have racks, bags, platforms, covered load carriers and, in some cases, even passenger seats.

Jeremy MIles’ Boxer Rocket was shaped by its creator’s desire to transport his children and picnic necessaries from home to beach.  With an aesthetic that is somewhere between Chitty Chitty Bang Bang and Jules Verne, he is clearly envisaging rather more dramatic journeys – at least of the imagination.

The small wheelers include Brompton’s, Moulton’s, two Stradas and a Bickerton.  They serve the cycling tribe who has benefitted from the some of the most exciting recent design advances.

Sir Alex Moulton realised that dinner-plate sized wheels had advantages of weight and efficiency, Harry Bickerton created a market for bicycles that could be stowed.  And Andrew Ritchie, father of the Brompton, sustained brilliant and relentless engineering innovation over decades.  His now ubiquitous bicycles have a good claim to be the UK’s pre-eminent domestically-manufactured consumer good.

It is not just the bicycles that are on show either.  There are accompanying displays of clothing – including a sample from Sir Paul Smith’s enormous collection of cycling jerseys and camping equipment used by Lawrence Bond while road testing his prototype cargo bike on a 5,000 mile unsupported global circumnavigation.  Urban design also gets a nod, in a series of profiles of cycling cities and most interestingly the suggestion from Lord Norman Foster that cycleways could be constructed above London’s railway lines to reconnect the capital for pedalling travellers.

Inevitably, though, in a design museum, it is the manufactured objects that receive the greatest attention.  Yet, despite the diverse forms in this collection, take a step back and it is easy to make the case that these bicycles are actually remarkably alike. Taking the starting point of the Rover Safety Bicycle of 1888 – the only pre-1970s bicycle in the exhibition – it is intriguing to consider how much these machines have in common.  All but a couple allow a rider to travel in a broadly upright position, turning pedals below them on cranks that are that are mostly 17 cm in length.  Nearly all have handlebars to the front, two wheels and a saddle that looks pretty much indistinguishable – at least to those who are not bicycle-design obsessives.

Indeed, despite 130 years of design innovation, nearly every bicycle here is powered by a chain, the links of which are exactly half an inch apart.  For all the bells and whistles, the Rover Safety Bike, perfected in Coventry by James Starley, has been an extraordinarily stable design.

Might this explain why in two separate nationwide popular votes to decide what was humankind’s greatest innovation, the bicycle came out tops?   Perhaps it is its substance, simplicity and stability of design that has won it such dedicated devotees – qualities that the motor car, computers and electricity lack?

Another possibility is suggested, or at least inferred, elsewhere in the Design Museum’s exhibition.

Beside one of his somewhat impractical looking bicycles, a video plays of Danny MacAskill performing a palpitation-inducing range of tricks and stunts on collapsed walls and buildings of Epecuén – a former lake-side spa village near Buenos Aires in Argentina.

From the 1920s until 1985, tens of thousands of holidaymakers packed into the boarding houses and hostels of Epecuén to enjoy the salty waters.  Then, freak weather conditions caused the village to flood and for quarter of a century, 33 feet of water immersed the buildings.  Since the waters receded in 2009, just one former inhabitant has returned.

It was the same year that MacAskill shot to fame. With his flatmate filming him, he performed stunts all over the townscape of his then home town, Edinburgh.  He rode along the tops of railings, jumped between buildings and used apparently vertically standing trees as ramps from which to perform loop-the-loops.  His almost unbelievable acrobatics made him an instant YouTube star.

What was hinted at in his preceding videos, is far clearer in his Argentinian outing.  His stunts are similar, but the effect of their being performed on the seemingly bombed-out remains of a human settlement make a more profound point than a mere daredevil display. He is using his bicycle to, reimagine and rehumanise this desolate place of destruction.  Impressive as his agility and athleticism are, it is in fact his reengagement with the ruined townscape that is most striking.

MacAskill is an outlier.  But surely his high-octane antics demonstrate something more profound about the bicycle itself?  Whether it is built from mild steel, wood or carbon fibre, whether designed for speed, stealth or as a beast of burden, its real magic is the way that it allows us to connect with topography and townscape?  Whatever impulses drive the development of cities, however the countryside is criss-crossed by roads, the bicycle allows us to make those places our own and on our own terms.  Unlike other forms of mechanised transport, however, the bicycle remains a lesser part of the travelling experience than the environment through which we pass itself.

Thrilling as is Cycle Revolution’s parthenon of cycling innovation, the best way to experience the bicycle’s real magic is to hire a set of wheels from outside the Design Museum and start to explore the riverscape and the dense network of streets that crowd its banks.