Arts feature

The bicycle may have triumphed but it’s far from perfect

26 November 2015

3:00 PM

26 November 2015

3:00 PM

It’s extraordinary that it took civilisation so very long to discover the benefits of putting little wheels on suitcases. We knew how to fly before we realised it was no longer necessary to huff-and-puff baggage by hand.

Even odder, steam and electricity were well understood before anyone got around to developing the ingeniously simple pedal-and-crank mechanism, an invention of decisive importance, which turned the ludicrous, wobbly old hobbyhorse into today’s smooth and sensible bicycle. Its eventual triumph over all our sensibilities can be seen today when, at some practical cost to the general mobility of the capital, London is being effortfully retrofitted with cycle lanes while oil-fired traffic is perpetually stalled in a noxious smog of its own making.

Cycle Revolution is the very last exhibition at the original Design Museum in Butler’s Wharf before it moves ambitiously, perhaps overambitiously, to new premises in a repurposed Commonwealth Institute in Kensington. So there is something both autumnal and prospectus-like about it as an event. In this way, it provides an interesting opportunity to wonder about both the nature of design exhibitions in general and the status of the bicycle in particular.

Designers and politicians are equally drawn — and with unusual passion —towards the bicycle. It is tempting to make a connection between pedal-power and democracy what with the bicycle’s historical associations with suffrage movements, women liberated into bloomers and social mobility of the real sort. After all, states with the most immaculate conception of social democracy — Holland and Denmark, for example — have specially vigorous bicycling cultures. But so too does the People’s Republic of China. When Dave wanted to appear as a man of the people, he got on his bike for a photo shoot. And so too did Corbyn, although they were dressed rather differently. With conflicting data like this, it’s tricky to posit a reliable theory.

The fascination of designers and architects is easier to explain. In a bicycle, materials are explicit and details unavoidable. What’s more, the frame and the wheels, viewed in profile, are like a diagram of static and dynamic forces: form was following function in a bicycle long before that misleading trope became a slogan. For example, in 1910 Joseph August Lux, a member of the Deutscher Werkbund, published a book called Ingenieur-Ästhetik, which contains an important essay called ‘A Bicycle is Beautiful’, one of the key texts inviting us to appreciate the aesthetic thrill of unadorned machines.

And, of course, the better sort of architect and designer has twinned senses of social purpose and environmental hygiene that use of a bike advertises most efficiently. Thomas Heatherwick likes to make an entrance on a silly recumbent bike. Step into the lobby of FCB, an award-winning and ecologically alert architectural practice, and you see a floor jammed wall-to-wall with folding Brompton Bikes. There must have been 50 there last time I visited.

Or take my friend Alex Lifschutz, designer of, among many other things, the Hungerford pedestrian bridge, who goes absolutely everywhere on his Brompton folding bike. But nowadays he can disdain the binman’s yellow hi-vis because Dashing Tweeds of Sackville Street has sold him a very smart, well-cut wool jacket with reflective yarns woven into the fabric. He sits in restaurants twinkling very brightly. The contrast to Corbyn, who, on his bike, dresses like a sewer-maintenance engineer in an oversized biohazard suit, could not be clearer.

Cycle Revolution contains the ur-bike, the Rover Safety Bicycle of 1888, a machine where all the elements of the modern machine first coalesced and became more than the sum of the parts: pneumatic tyres, comfy seat, triangulated frame, symmetrical general arrangement and brakes. That this spectacular synthesis led, eventually, to the ignominiously failed Rover car company is a melancholy gloss on British industry and its weak grasp of progress and feeble powers of application.

But the Design Museum does not speculate much on history or theory or go in for analysis of any sort. No mention is made, for example, of the fact that as early as 1891 Baudry de Saunier was able to publish a history of the bicycle and by 1907 Paris’s Grand Palais could put on a show called Retrospective du Cycle, suggesting, perhaps, that a century ago the bicycle was being eclipsed by the automobile. How exactly did we get to le monde à l’envers?

Instead, the Design Museum has attempted categorisation in the pop-anthropological fashion that Peter York begat and everyone else copied, but without his wit or originality. We have four ‘tribes’. Chris Hoy, the Olympian pedal pusher, is a representative of the ‘High Performers’ while Shanaze Reade, a BMX champ, examples the ‘Thrill Seekers’. A global search determined that one Lucy Granville should personify ‘Urban Riders’ while Lawrence Brand of Porterlight Bicycles did a demonstration run to Kyrgyzstan and won representation as titular head of the ‘Cargo Bikes’.

I am not sure I needed more of this.

There are some wonderful machines on show. Eddy Merckx’s 1972 ethereal all-metal record bike looks like an ancient relic and makes a fine contrast to Bradley Wiggins’s 2015 equivalent, a bravura exercise in swooping carbon fibre. You can see radical modern curiosities, including the Velocino, a recreation of an absurd Mussolini-era Italian design, and the Kolelinia Half bike, which threatens to be as annoying as kickboards if only they can crowdfund it.

There is the protoype of the world’s most successful folding bike, whose ingenious geometry was worried out on the kitchen table by Andrew Ritchie as he gazed, intermittently, at Brompton Cemetery. Then, with even more of an aroma of death, there is the 1969 Raleigh Chopper, a perfect example of the British disease: docile infatuation with Americana combined, lethally, with rubbish management and shoddy quality. Raleigh-branded bikes were, in the end, made in China. As if to demonstrate the relative decline of British bicycle expertise, you can also ponder, in the sepulchral calm of a museum, London’s Boris Bike …manufactured in Canada and designed by Canadians.

The installation of Cycle Revolution is the work of Urban Salon and does not altogether successfully answer the question I set myself when Terence Conran and I opened the Design Museum in 1989: ‘How do we make exhibits of everyday things look different from how they’d look in a shop?’ Certainly, there is lots to enjoy on display in the Design Museum, but so, too, is there in the spectacular Pinarello showroom on Lower Regent Street, a coruscating real-world shrine to the cult of the bike.

I felt there was too much slavish adoration of the bike here. Bicycles are not perfect. Nature was a tough negotiator and, in exchange for the magically efficient translation of pedal effort into forward motion, she insisted that bicycles should be difficult to clean and impossible to store. In every sense, they take up a lot of space. Besides, in this year of their symbolic triumph, with memorial roadworks and a major exhibition, we know that clean bikes excite just as much antisocial behaviour in their riders as dirty cars do in their drivers. Just saying…

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