A Review of “Bicycle: The Definitive Visual History”

This new compendium from DK Publishing richly illustrates the fascinating and at times hilarious history of the bicycle.

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“Few articles used by man have created so great a revolution in social conditions as the bicycle.” – US Census Bureau, 1990

Thus begins this comprehensive compendium of the 200-year evolution of one of humankind’s greatest inventions: the humble bicycle. The first ever machine resembling a bicycle – a crude “balance bike” named a Laufmaschine (running machine) – was built near Mount Tambora, Indonesia in 1817. From there, the nine contributors go on to convey the bicycle’s unparalleled impact on road construction and urban design, the fashion and manufacturing industries, the women’s liberation movement, popular culture, and the technological breakthroughs that laid the groundwork for both the automobile and the airplane.

Many biographies of the bicycle have been written in the past but few are so richly and meticulously illustrated. Each page explodes with vivid color, including photographs (contemporary and archival), illustrations, advertisements, maps, diagrams, posters, postcards, and badges.

For the history buff, the development of the modern “safety bicycle” is beautifully detailed, from the velocipede to the penny-farthing, from the sociable to the tandem. Special attention is paid to bicycling’s Golden Age (the 1940s), when bikes were used for a myriad of practical purposes, such as delivering letters and parcels, enforcing the law, sharpening knives, providing roadside assistance to motorists, selling ice cream, and transferring soldiers and supplies throughout the Second World War.

For the sport cyclist, eight of the world’s most iconic events are profiled, from the bone-rattling Paris-Roubaix to the brutal and brave Giro d’Italia. Undoubtedly, the need for speed incentivized racers and manufacturers to push their machines’ technological limits. The resulting components are photographed in glorious detail, often with double-page images. For those interested in the world of utility cycling, there are many examples of bikes built solely for transportation – each sensibly accessorized to make them the most practical choice for slower, city travel: chain guard, dynamo lighting, coaster brake, skirt guard, storage racks, and internal hub.

The tales behind many of their manufacturers are also told (such as Peugeot, Raleigh, and Shimano) tracing their path from humble beginnings to global success stories. Perhaps the most delightful and fascinating tales in this book are the obscure and often spectacular failures. The Huffy Radio Bike, for example, built by the Huffman Manufacturing Co. in 1955 and resembling something from The Jetsons, featured a tubetype radio in the top bar. Only 8,500 were made; it was discontinued after 18 months of poor sales. Likewise, Bowden’s Spacelander, characterized by a sweeping, space age frame and shaped from a single piece of molded fiberglass, is an entertaining sight.

Only a handful of these unusual and unpopular bikes remain, making them rare collector’s items and documenting them for a global audience all the more vital. Simply put, Bicycle: The Definitive Visual History is like having an encyclopedia at your fingertips. The various contributors worked closely with three museums (the Deutsches Fahrrad Museum in Germany, National Cycle Museum in England, and Bicycle Museum of America in Ohio) to showcase their unique collections. For that reason, this book is worth the price of admission and belongs on the shelf of every bicycle enthusiast.

“Bicycle: The Definitive Visual History” is available from DK Publishing. $30 USD, 256 pages. 2016.

Chris Bruntlett is the co-founder of Modacity, a communications and marketing firm focused on inspiring healthier, happier, simpler forms of urban mobility through words, photography, and film.

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