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Free Wheel: An Oral History of Bicycle Design Free Wheel: An Oral History of Bicycle Design
Culture

Free Wheel: An Oral History of Bicycle Design

by Michael Embacher

January 25, 2014

As a collector, cyclist and architect, my fascination with bikes lies in their simplicity—it’s the most basic translation of human energy into maximum mobility. The bike remains the most efficient method of transportation on Earth, and in times of energy efficiency and environmental compatibility, it's also one of our most sustainable products. It allows the purest experience of the landscape and the body. And that’s not all: cycling is great fun. It is also a very democratic product: unlike with cars, even reasonably priced bikes are beautiful.

But the bicycle isn’t just a means of getting around or a piece of sports equipment. It is also a manifestation of human creativity and clever ideas, and an example of wonderful handicraft and design. Although the principle of the bicycle has been in existence for more than a century—during which time it regularly underwent rapid transformation—the criteria for construction have remained unchanged. The bike is one of the most uncompromising designs that I know: it must be light, yet offer great stability. And although enormous forces are involved in cycling, most bicycles are extremely graceful and elegant constructions.

I am not a bicycle historian and also not a typical curator or collector. But today, I have collected 210 bikes, all of which are completely ready to ride, and 45 of which are currently on view in the exhibition “Free Wheel” at Design Museum Holon. I love bicycles because I find the product appealing. When I began to collect professionally, I was like a lot of other collectors: whenever a bike of mine was stolen I bought a new one. As the thefts became more frequent, I bought only used ones. With every new acquisition I began to realize how many different bicycle constructions and technical details are actually involved in bike design.



I have collected everything out of the ordinary: racing bikes with fine details; folding bikes with strikingly clever mechanisms—or those that fail in a particularly magnificent way; touring bikes produced with particular care; racing bikes without brakes that are reduced to pure speed. Below is a roundup of a few of my favorites, some of which cannot be allocated to any particular category.  

Richard Sapper’s Zoombike

Born in Munich and residing in Milan, Sapper developed his featherweight folding bike. The folding mechanism is reminiscent of an umbrella and can be folded up just as quickly – in one second. It was first used at the Frankfurt Autosalon in 1989, and today about 60 Zoombikes have been produced.




Alexander Moulton's  Moulton Bicycles

For the British Motor Cooperation and later for Dunlop, Moulton developed the idea of the rubber suspension. Here, a major role was played because of his friendship with Sir Alec Issigonis, whose best-known creation was the Mini, equipped with rubber suspension elements. The separable Moulton bicycle with its rubber suspension is, just like the Mini, a product of its time. It was developed during the first energy crisis of the post-war era—the Suez Crisis in 1956—which imposed petrol rationing in England. The economical Mini and the Moulton bicycle both responded to the repeated fear of oil shortages. Until this time 16-inch high pressure tires and the full suspension for the bicycle did not exist.


 

Mike Burrows' LOTUS 108

Burrows achieved world-renown fame with the Lotus time trial bike when it was used by legendary bicyclist Chris Boardman to win a gold medal at the 1992 Olympic Games. After this success on the race track, the street version LOTUS 110 was produced.

Image via colinchapmanmuseum.org.uk

CAPO Elite

This bike is one of the most interesting in my collection because it represents a successful cross between an ice-skate and a bicycle: at the back a wheel specially made spikes provide the drive; at the front, a runner is used to steer. This runner ensures absolute directional stability, even where other bikes would slide. I bought it from a Viennese man, who often rode on the frozen Lake Neusiedlersee near Vienna with his wife. I wanted to know what it is like to ride an ice-bike and I tried it out: it was very cold and foggy, the ice covering the Neusiedlersee was a single white surface, identical to the white sky. I could not find the horizon and felt as if I was riding to infinity. This is probably what reincarnation looks like.

BSA Paratrooper

This was a military bike developed especially for British army parachutists in WWII. 60,000 of them were produced and used, for instance, on D-Day. The bikes were thrown out with their own parachute, fixed to the running wheel. Upon hitting the ground they retracted into the saddle tube and the fork tube, which reduced the impact of the landing.


Image via blog.denevnik.hr

BIANCHi C-4

I have chosen this ultra-modern bike as the “logo” for my collection as it is probably the most spectacular piece. The design strongly reminds me of Star-Trek, because it represents a futuristic vision of a bicycle. Its usefulness for everyday life is limited, as there are no braking surfaces on the disc wheels. It was made with the help of a technology that in the 1980s was revolutionary—the NJC (No Joint Construction). Success for the BIANCHi C-4 arrived as early as 1987 when the Bianchi team was able to compete in the Giro d’Italia, proving it was ahead of its time with the carbon monocoques.



Images courtesy of Design Museum Holon
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