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The Bicycle: Evolution or Intelligent Design. Part II

This is Part II of a three part series, If you haven’t already read Part I, you can read it here.

Soon after the chain driven bicycle was invented in 1885, a whole bicycle industry sprang up in Britain. Bicycles were mass produced, making them affordable for the working man. For the next 60 years the bicycle became the working man’s form of transport. And bicycle racing the working man’s sport.

Because Britain was the first to industrialize bicycle manufacture, certain standards were set, and the rest of the world followed. The half an inch pitch bicycle chain is a good example, it is still the standard today worldwide, even in countries that have always used the metric system of measurement.

Bicycle frame tubes were a standard 1 1/8 inch seat and down tubes, 1 inch top tube, 1 1/4 inch head tube. With the exception of the French who used metric size tubes, most of the rest of the world used the Standard English size tubes, even the Italians. And this would remain the standard, especially for lightweight racing frames for almost 100 years.

The horizontal, level top tube became standard. It was the framebuilder’s point of reference. All other angles were measured off the top tube, it was parallel to a line drawn though the wheel centers. (Assuming both wheel are the same size.)

Traditionally, lightweight frames were custom built, one at a time. My mentor, Pop Hodge, would assemble a frame, measure all the angles and tube lengths. Then lay it out on the brick floor of his shop. The top tube would line up with the edge of a row of bricks. There were marks scratched into the bricks where the Bottom Bracket should be, the same with the rear drop-outs, the bottom head lug, etc.

He would then drill a hole with a hand cranked drill, (He used no power tools.) and pin the tubes in the lugs with a penny nail. (A penny nail was a reference to its size.) When the whole frame was assembled, he would place it in a hearth of hot coals, (Again with a hand cranked blower.) Heat the whole joint to a light red heat, when he would feed in the brass, and braze the joint.

The first framebuilders were blacksmiths, and Pop Hodge had been building frames since 1907 built in that traditional way. He had a hand held torch that he used to add braze-ons and other small parts. It burned coal gas, from the town’s supply that was piped in to all homes and businesses for cooking and heating. The flame was boosted by foot operated air bellows.

The level top tube also had the advantage that once a person established what size frame suited them, any make of frame in that same size would fit. Even though seat angles, and top tube lengths may vary, it would only be slight and could be taken care of with a longer or shorter handlebar stem.

The main reason different makes of frames worked as long as the frame size was the same. When the saddle was set at the correct height, and the handlebars would then be automatically the correct height in relation to the top of the saddle. No one spoke of “Handlebar Drop,” it was an unnecessary measurement, as long as the top tube was level.

In the late 1950s and through the 1960s there was a huge social change taking place in the UK and the rest of Europe. Economies were booming, (Because of the WWII recovery.) and the working man was buying a car for the first time. My parents never owned or even learned to drive a car, but the younger generations were abandoning their bicycles and buying a car.

Even the racing cyclists, mostly owned one bike. They rode to work on it, which was a big part of their training. On the weekends, the fenders (Mudguards.) and saddle bag came off, racing wheels were fitted, and a time-trial was ridden.

For many cyclists, Time-Trialing in the UK in the 1950s and before was more a social event than a serious athletic event. Owning a car for the first time changed the whole social structure of the working man, and many gave up cycling completely.

The result was a huge slump in the bicycle business at all levels. Prices of lightweight frames remained stagnant for many years and framebuilders had to look to ways to cut costs. The ones who survived were the ones who moved away from building frames one at a time, and managed to produce large numbers of frames sold at a reasonable price. See top picture.

I mentioned in Part I of this series, that the standard racing frame geometry of that era was 71 degree seat angle, 73 head. To simplify the design the parallel frame was introduced, that is one where the head and seat angles are the same.

People were not ready to make a big jump from 71 to 73 degree seat angle, so a compromise was made and the 72 degree parallel frame was introduced. Advertised as a “Massed Start” or Road Racing Frame, the parallel frame had the advantage that a complete range of sizes could be made using only two, maybe three top tube lengths.

Simple jigs were used to assemble the frames, the same length top tube could be slid up or down between the parallel head and seat tubes, to build several different size frames. Maybe not the ideal set up, but it did cut the cost of building frames, and as I mentioned before the reach could be adjusted with a different length stem.

Tubes could be pre-mitered using the same angles, another time saver. By the mid-1960s the parallel frame concept was accepted by most people, and the 73 degree parallel became the norm. 73 was a better head angle, and riders soon found that the 73 degree seat was better too. Less tendency to slide forward on the saddle.

So once again here was a trend started by framebuilders because it suited them, but actually lead to a better riding bike. This series will have to run into a third part. Next I will touch on the steep head angle trend of the 1970s and how that came about, and then bring the story up to the present day.


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The Bicycle: Evolution or Intelligent design. Part I


The chain driven bicycle was invented almost 130 years ago. (Picture left, The Rover "Safety" Bicycle 1885.)

To the layman, or the untrained eye, this bicycle is basically the same as today’s bike.

But its geometry was directly influenced by its predecessor, the High-Wheeler. And that would influence frame design for the next 60 years. Indirectly it had an influence on what we ride today.

I have been riding bikes, racing bikes, designing and building bikes, and writing articles about bikes for 65 years, which is half of the period chain driven bikes have existed.

Albert “Pop” Hodge, who was my mentor, and first introduced me to the art of framebuilding, was born in 1877, and therefore witnessed firsthand the invention and early development of the bicycle. Pop Hodge was close to 80 years old when I first met him around 1953. (Picture below right.)

From what he told me, and what I have observed, back then and since, in the 130 years the bicycle has gone through a slow evolution.

During each phase, what happened previously affected the design of the next generation of bicycles.

The title of this piece has religious overtones, because like religion, much is spoken and written about the bicycle because “It is so.”

The center of the knee shall be over the pedal. But why? Because it is written. Wise men have deemed it is so.

When I started racing in 1952, we rode bikes with a seat angle of 70 or 71 degrees. We were taught that the shin of the lower leg, should be vertical. The center of the knee was actually behind the pedal. Wise men taught us that in order to pedal fast, and efficiently, one had to sit back.

In practice I soon found this was not so. When making a maximum effort, and pedaling at maximum revs, I found myself sliding forward on the saddle, which was uncomfortable, distracting, and had the effect of the saddle being much too low.

The term “Riding the Rivet,” is still used today to describe a cyclist making a maximum effort. The term was around when I began racing in the early 1950s when saddles were leather and actually had rivets to hold the leather to the saddle frame.

To understand why seat angles were so shallow back then, one has to go all the way back to the predecessor of the chain driven bicycle, to the “Ordinary” or Penny-Farthing bicycle. (Left,)

This was the first “Enthusiasts” bike. One had to be an enthusiast, as well a young, fit and agile athlete just to mount and ride one of these.

Today’s cyclist might think it a problem to make an emergency stop with their feet clipped in. Imagine making an emergency stop on a High-wheeler, and you are sitting over five feet above the ground. One had to dismount in a hurry, or fall over.

When the chain driven bike was invented in 1885 it was not immediately accepted by the enthusiast. These enthusiasts were the hard core “Roadies” of their day. The high-wheeler or Ordinary was still much faster. It wasn’t until pneumatic tires came into being in 1888 that the chain driven bike became faster and was accepted by the enthusiast.

These enthusiasts were the experts of the day, and what they learned riding the Ordinary influenced them and carried over to the chain driven bike. The Ordinary was limited by its simplicity, as to where the rider could sit, for example.

Imagine if your handlebars were directly above your bottom bracket. There would be no other choice but to sit some considerable distance back behind the pedals. When the first “Safety” or chain driven bike came into being, it was designed so the handle bars and the saddle were positioned in relation to the pedals exactly the same as its predecessor the High-wheeler. Making a seat angle of around 69 degrees. (See picture above.)

(Above.) Two different bicycles, but the exact same rider position. Note the rider's shin is vertical, a positioning "Guide" that would last another 60 years into the 1950s.

Below is a typical racing bike of the 1950s. Louison Bobet's 1954 Tour de France bike. Its shallow seat angle can be traced back to the High Wheeler of the 1800s.

A generation of “Experts” who had learned to pedal on the High-wheeler, then taught the next generation who became the following generation’s experts, and so on for the next 60 years and into the 1950s when I came along.

There was another factor that maintained this notion that seat angles shall be shallow, and an important one. This I would learn from framebuilder Pop Hodge. Frame lugs were heavy steel castings, and they were limited in the angles that were available.

It suited lug manufacturers to make their product in a limited number of angles. In later years thinner pressed steel lugs became available and it was then possible to alter an angle slightly. But not so prior to the 1950s.

73 degrees was established as an ideal head angle sometime in the 1920s or 1930s. This is still the norm today, and in the past when I have experimented with steeper or shallower head angles, I found no improvement.

Building frames with a head angle of 73 degrees, and a seat angle 2 or 3 degrees shallower, suited the framebuilder. With the head tube steeper and the seat tube leaning back away from that angle, as the framebuilder built a taller, or larger frame the top tube automatically became longer, which made the framebuilder’s job easier, and suited the taller rider.

This article is based on a talk I recently gave at the Philly Bike Expo, and will have to be written in two parts. In the next piece I will explain what happened after the 1950s. How the 73 degree paralell frame, still a popular design today, came about. The reason may surprise you. 

Two main factors determine frame design, throughout history and even to this day. Experts who simply re-cycle information that was written by previous generations of experts. And framebuilders and manufacturers doing what is easiest and most profitable for them.

Read Part II.


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The Silver State 508.

Regular readers of this blog will have no doubt noticed the ad in the right hand column of this blog, for the Silver State 508, some of you may have even clicked on it to find out more.

This tough ultra-marathon 508 mile bike race with a cut-off time of 48 hours, has been successfully run using four different courses for the last 31 years.

The race started in 1983 when it was first run on a 102 mile loop in the Hemet area, a little town in the Southern California desert, southeast of Los Angeles. Three years later the race moved to Arizona and was run on an out-and-home course from Tucson to Flagstaff and back.

In 1989 in search of safer and quieter roads, the event became the Furnace Creek 508, and was run for the next 24 years on a route from Santa Clarita, California, through Death Valley to Twenty Nine Palms. The race would still been there to this day had not a brand new Death Valley Park Superintendent taken over.

This new DV Parks Chief would soon put a stop to this nonsense of people running and riding bikes through Death Valley, someone might die. After all, it is called “Death” Valley…. Duh.

Actually, people died in the past because they were on foot and ran out of water. Cyclists and runners know to drink water, and have helpers to make sure they have a good supply. Don’t you just love these politicians who take over and decide we need to be protected from ourselves?

In spite of the organizers having the support of the California Highway Patrol, and the Death Valley, and Lone Pine Chambers of Commerce, and Congressman Paul Cook, their pleas to continue on this course fell on blindfolded ears.

And so the race became the Silver State 508, (A nice ring.) The Silver State being Nevada. This year’s race was moved to yet another classic America Frontier Region, and was held on the quiet Northern roads of that State.

Held this year on October 5 – 7, on an out-and-home course starting and finishing in Reno. The event drew 141 riders from 16 American States, plus Canada, Italy, Mexico, Philippines, Slovenia, and Switzerland. Next year, Adventure Corps, the organizers are hoping for an even bigger entry.

The 2015 event will be held 2 weeks earlier, September 19 - 21, it is hoped that some of the chilling desert night temperatures will be a little higher. The race is in the form of a time-trial.

If you have ever thought about trying one of these Ultra-Marathon events, Adventure Corps also puts on a 308 mile event, with a 24 hour qualifying time, held at the end of May. In fact for rookies, finishing the 308 is one if the best credentials to have for acceptance to ride the 508. They also have Century, and Double-Century Rides.

If the 24 hour and 48 hour qualifying times seem generous, bear in mind that both these events take in some serious mountain climbing. Some reaching over 7.000 feet. Check out the website it is interesting reading.


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My Philly – New York City Trip

I just got back yesterday from a weeklong trip to Philadelphia and New York City.

It came about when I was invited to speak at the Philly Bike Expo, held at the Convention Center there. (Pic left, Broad Street entrance.)

My wife and I decided to travel on to New York for two and a half days after, to take a mini-vacation.

My wife had never been to New York, and I had never been back since 1980 when I worked for Paris Sport in Ridgefield Park, New Jersey, and was located just 7 miles from NYC, just over the George Washington Bridge.

Philadelphia is a very nice city that I would like to visit again and spend more time there. It seems they have a great bike culture. It was a pleasure to see bikes mingling with motorized traffic in what appeared to be a somewhat orderly and cooperative fashion. Not too much honking and yelling that I witnessed.

My previous memories of Philadelphia was from 1980 when I rode my last bike race there. I had come from England the year before, where bike races where a safe and friendly social event that combined fun and exercise for riders of all levels.

I found in the US, at Category 4 level anyway, people had no clue what racing was about and thought that bike racing was a contact sport like football. People were actually trying to knock me off my bike. In my mid-forties I realized I was not going to make it back up to Cat 1 or 2 again, and US style Criterium racing was not for me. I hung up my racing wheels and concentrated on building bikes from then on.

I gave a talk at Noon on Saturday (Pic above.) with a somewhat tongue-in-cheek title of, “The Bicycle: Evolution or Intelligent Design.” I had what I thought was a pretty good size and attentive audience. I will have to write about the content of my talk in a later article, as this one is about the actual trip.

I got to meet Bike Snob NYC, who gave a talk on Sunday. We had corresponded by email before but never met. I envy this young man for his ability to poke fun at the cycling culture with impunity. When I try to do it I get blasted as a retro-grouch or a curmudgeon.

Rant alert: For me cycling is fun. For that matter life is fun, and I find too many people take both way too serious. The bicycle is one of the simplest and yet most efficient machines that mankind has ever built. You push one pedal down, and the other side comes up. The further you stray beyond that concept, the more you stray into the realms of bull-shit. Just ride the damn bike, lighten the fuck up, and don’t over think it or get too technical. (End of rant.)

On Monday we traveled to New York, and that evening took the subway over to Brooklyn to meet with Patrick Gilmour. Patrick is an Irishman, and a few weeks ago was walking by Teddy’s, a quaint old bar that dates back to the late 1800s. Parked outside was a ‘dave moulton’ track bike. Patrick, being a regular reader of this blog, and owner of a Fuso, thought, “There’s something you don’t see every day.”

He snapped a few pictures and emailed them to me, and I posted them here. Later he found out the bike belonged to “Fast Eddie” Williams  something of a legend among New York bike messengers. Eddie started as a messenger back in 1983. Incidentally the year I built his track frame.

On Monday I got to meet Fast Eddie. (Picture above.) At least 6’ 6” tall this 61 centimeter frame fitted him as if I had built it for him. He had bought the frame at a swap meet back in 1998. He knew nothing of its history or about me for that matter, but knew enough to see this was a quality frame. He also knew enough that it was worth the $700 he paid for it, and built it up with Campagnolo Super Record components.

Eddie had questions like, ”Why is this bike so fast?” I explained that it was designed and built to be raced on the track. Its slightly steeper angles and tighter fork rake made it handle quicker. A track rider has no brakes and relies on fast reactions to get out of trouble and to change direction quickly in a sudden attack.

Built in Columbus PS (Pista Sprint.) Tubing, much thicker and heavier that other Columbus tube sets. Not a particularly light frame it would be extremely responsive when its rider makes a sudden effort.

Whilst I would not recommend that people ride brakeless on the streets of New York, I can see where this particular bike is a perfect match for Fast Eddie operating as a bike messenger. With the physical ability to ride at the speed of motorized traffic, he relied on fast reflexes, acceleration and maneuverability to stay out of trouble rather than stopping power, much like a track rider.

On Tuesday evening I met with Alpheus Clendening who took me to his home in Queens, NY. Alpheus has a pretty unique collection of five frames and bikes I built. He has a 1983, 57cm custom ‘dave mouton’ bike that was originally built as a showpiece for “Buds Bike Store” in Claremont, CA. It has a very special paint job, which involved a lot of painstaking masking, and striping with auto striping tape that was subsequently “Buried” under 10 clear coats, then sanded and re-cleared again to ensure a smooth finish. (Pictured above.) This paint finish later inspired the Fuso decal design.

Alpheus owns a 1990 Fuso, Columbus Max frame. This was another showpiece that was built for the Interbike Show. It was featured on a poster, a copy of which I have hanging over my desk. (Above.) My copy is signed by Antonio Columbo, (Son of the Columbus founder.) And Valentino Campagnolo. (Son of Tulio Campagnolo.) Right after the 1990 Interbike Show the bike was sold and I never saw it again until last Tuesday evening. The frame is currently stripped down for a rebuild, pictured below with me holding it.

Others in the collection are a 1987 30th. Anniversary model Fuso Lux frame in mint condition. Red and Yellow fade paint. (Picture below.) Another is a first year production Fuso bike with a two-tone blue finish, one of the original four different color schemes offered.

The final bike is an extremely rare Fuso Mixte, ladies model. One of a kind originally built for a friend in trade for decals and brochures printed by their company. (Picture below.)

In addition to the Alpheus Clendening collection, his brother Daniel has a 1st, Generation Fuso bike that is also a 3 digit early first year production model. I would have liked to hook up with the other owners of my frames in the New York area, but there was not time in this brief visit. Maybe next time. As it was, for me, two very memorable evenings spent with some pretty special people.

Finally in writing this piece I am once more amazed by things that occur in life by coincidence. In February 1983 I built a total of nine custom frames that month. The first was the showpiece one that Alpheus has in his collection. The second is a frame owned by original owner Chuck Schmidt, of Pasadina, CA. A picture of this bike adorns the cover of my new book. I knew these two frames were twins, built on the same jig setting. 

What I didn’t realize until I wrote this article, was that the number 3 frame that I built in February 1983 was the track frame that Fast Eddie now owns. That just blows me away. Am I in the Twilight Zone?


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Working Bike: Fast Eddie

At the end of September I wrote a piece here about a track bike I built, now being used by a New York City bike messenger. I have since learned more, the bikes owner is Eddie Williams, AKA Fast Eddie.

Fast Eddie has been in the bike messenger business since 1983. Coincidentally the year this frame was built. He and other Bike Messenger cohorts were riding fixed wheel track bikes on the street long before it was fashionable, in fact they were mostly responsible for starting the whole trend.

Eddie has confirmed that he bought the frame from the original owner Jim Zimmerman. Jim had raced it on the track and the colored ribbon hanging from the bike’s saddle is a prize ribbon he had won, and Fast Eddie asked if he could keep it when he bought the frame. It has adorned the bike’s saddle ever since.

These pictures snapped outside Teddy’s in Brooklyn where Eddie now delivers food, presumably fast. Not fast food, but good food delivered fast. The rear fender is a nice practical touch on a rainy evening.


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