What's Cool In Road Cycling

Fast Beauties Beautifully Photographed

Aside from rigorous sessions on the trainer this winter, nothing rejuvenates the desire to actually ride like a good book on cycling. PEZ’s resident book-nerd Les Reissner discovers another gem for the bike-nerd in The Competition Bicycle: A Photographic History.

– By Leslie Reissner-

At this time of year cyclists eagerly await the splendid and generous gifts they will surely receive from long-suffering loved ones. Not extra inner tubes (the grim, practical equivalent of socks-and-underwear gifts) but something to tide one over the long winter months, preferably without making the effort required of painful training DVDs but without the expense of a new custom frame (although that might be nice). Perhaps a really good book given over to cycling history would fit the bill. Funny you should ask…

Seattle’s Jan Heine is well-known for editing “Bicycle Quarterly,” a magazine primarily devoted to randonneur bicycles and honouring the celebrated French ‘constructeurs’ such as Renй Herse. Vintage Bicycle Press has already produced one fine book devoted to these builders in “The Golden Age of the Handbuilt Bicycle” but in his latest effort he has expanded beyond this rather specialized niche and embraced bicycle racing history in its widest chronology. The newest publication is the truly superb “The Competition Bicycle: A Photographic History.” I will begin by saying that I have read many fine cycling books this year but this is among the best. It simply belongs on the shelf of all cycling enthusiasts.

Mr. Heine describes thirty four different competition bicycles, from an 1880s high-wheeler to Tony Rominger’s 1994 Colnago Hour Record bicycle. They represent the then-state-of-the-art for contemporary cycling. In some cases they showcase technology that ran into a dead-end, such as in the unusual Dursley Petersen Racer of 1903, with its hammock-inspired seat and strangely triangulated tubes.

A Lefty fork from 1910!

Other ideas have had new life: the strikingly weird 1910 Labor Tour de France’s single-sided attachment arrangement for the front and rear wheels is echoed in the Cannondale “Lefty” fork of today, although the doubled-up chainstays and dual top tubes have stayed in the past. And other bicycles may seem fairly pedestrian to us but were the actual weapons of choice for legendary Tour de France competitors including Gino Bartali, Fiorenzo Magni, Renй Vietto, Fausto Coppi, Eddy Merckx and Greg LeMond, complete, in some cases, with sweat stains, dents and tires shredded with age.

No book on bicycles would be complete without one of Eddy Merckx’s bikes.

I recognized some of these bicycles as they have been on exhibition at the famous Madonna del Ghisallo chapel devoted to cyclists high above Lake Como in Lombardy but here they are separated from the cluttered surroundings of the chapel and one can focus on their details without distraction. This is made easy by the exceptional photographs of Jean-Pierre Pradиres (whose work was also featured in “The Golden Age”) and one can enjoy the profiles and closeups that reveal details of these fascinating machines.

The book, which is admirably designed and printed, begins with an index to the bicycles, cleverly done as the bicycle featured in each chapter is shown in a small photo for easy reference. It proceeds in chronological order and each bicycle is usually accompanied by a few economical but carefully-written paragraphs of Mr. Heine.

Sometimes the bicycle is the focus but where the rider is known, information is provided about him or her as well. While the Tour stars are familiar, there are pieces on less-known riders. Highlights include Frank Bartell and his 1935 Hour Record bike simply based on a Six Day racer; US Champion Doris Kopsky’s elegant silver track bike, built by her father Joe in 1937; and the arsenal of bicycles–road, track, stayer–used by pro racer Georges Baudin in the 1950s. Stayer racing, which is track racing paced by big motorcycles, is not well-known anymore but remains an impressive fixture of European Six Day events. M. Baudin’s Bastide stayer bike, with its smaller front wheel and reversed fork, looks identical to the other Bastide stayer bike featured in the book although that is three decades older.

The technological progression of competition is fascinating. The book describes the three variants on shifting used by the Italians in 1948/49, all of which seemed to require a combination of unusual dexterity and extreme optimism. Aluminum makes an appearance as a frame material early on, with two French bicycles, the c. 1939 Caminargent and Vietto’s Barralumin of 1948, featured. Aerodynamic concerns show up on the not-so-successful RAAM Melton/Huff of 1982 and the more notable Hour Record bikes of Francesco Moser and Tony Rominger.

Tony Rominger’s Colnago for his hour record attempt.

Rereading the book and looking closely at the photos it is difficult to pick favourites but I am sure everyone will admire particular bicycles. How could you not like the Cinelli Supercorsa, with its chrome lugs, or the peculiar aforementioned Labor Tour de France, or the impressive tandems of Delangle and Renй Herse?

Besides the bikes from the Madonna del Ghisallo (where there is a recently-opened cycling museum to handle the overflow), the other bicycle here with which I am personally familiar is framebuilder Peter Weigle’s elegant white time trial bike, with its drilled-out components as befits a racing bike from 1975. Mr. Weigle built this early in his career and raced it as a simple 5-speed in the UK while an apprentice, restoring it years later in the United States and applying his own decals.

One of the things that makes bicycles beautiful is their comparative mechanical simplicity and the fact that everything is visible. Yet the simple tubing frames can support many times their own weight, and the fragile-appearing spoked wheels are engineering masterpieces, providing strength and shock absorption, handling stresses far beyond what their lightness suggests. The bicycles in this book all have the similarities of their species but vast and intriguing differences as individuals, reflecting both their builders and their riders.

Astrophysicist Carl Sagan once remarked: “If the constellations had been named in the twentieth century, I suppose we would see bicycles.” In “The Competition Bicycle: A Photographic History” every bike is a star. Recommended.

The Competition Bicycle: A Photographic History
by Jan Heine, photographs by Jean-Pierre Pradиres
176 pp., Vintage Bicycle Press, 2008
Available through VBP at: VintageBicyclePress.com/CompetitionBook.html

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