TCS Daily


Kentucky on Two Wheels

By Ralph Kinney Bennett - September 16, 2003 12:00 AM

Last weekend I was in Harrodsburg, Ky., joining a couple hundred fellow bicyclists of all ages as we rode 120 miles through the hilly Kentucky countryside in the annual Bike Trek to Shakertown.

This charity ride, sponsored by the American Lung Association of Kentucky, is like numerous other rides, runs, walks, swims and whatever, that are put on all over the country to raise money for various good causes. Meanwhile we faced a physical challenge and had a lot of fun.

Anyone who regularly reads TCS knows that I'm a car nut. So they may be surprised to know that, although I am 62, I ride a bike 16 to 20 miles just about every day. I could go into a lot of reasons I enjoy biking, but the bottom line is, when I'm pedaling out some country road I feel like a kid again.

Many friends and acquaintances marveled that I elected to ride up and down hills 60 miles each day this past Saturday and Sunday, but actually there's not that much to it. The bicycle is the most efficient land vehicle man has ever devised, vastly more efficient than walking.

With my old GT Nomad hybrid bike on a reasonably flat stretch of road I can expend about 100 calories and cover three miles in 12 minutes (a 15 mile per hour pace). If I were to walk briskly at, say, 4 miles an hour, it would take me 45 minutes to cover three miles.

That makes my bike five times more efficient than walking. I know, I know, you can endlessly massage the math on examples like that. But a modern bike is irrefutably the efficiency king for greatest distance traveled per weight per unit of energy expended. And when you start thinking Lance Armstrong energy levels, special 16-pound bikes and a few downhill stretches, it's Katy bar the door.

While enjoying the Kentucky countryside and the company of fellow cyclists I indulged in one of the most interesting interactions of man and machine. Bicycles are a symphony of design and technology, and it's all right there, nothing hidden -- frame, wheels, handlebars, cranks, pedals, brakes chain and gears. All these components are the result of a remarkable and rapid evolution over the past 180 years.

When I was a kid I used to deliver papers and to zip around Rector, Pa., pretending I was a motorcycle messenger with Patton's Third Army on my big old balloon-tired "American bike." It had no gears; just pedals affixed to a single chain wheel. To stop the thing you just reversed your pedals, engaging the New Departure brake inside the rear axle.

Those old "cruiser" bikes weighed about 50 pounds. We pedaled them up the many hills in the area, totally unaware of such a thing as gearing. We just "stood on it" and pedaled, more and more slowly up a long hill until, sometimes, we had to get off and walk the rest of the grade.

Sometime in the late 1940s, my twin brother came into the possession of an "English bike." It was, as I recall, a Raleigh. It was pretty worn out and it looked thin and anemic beside our beefy American bikes. It had slender tires that seemed to always be going flat, strange little chrome levers under the handlebars that you squeezed to put on the brakes, and strangest of all, a little metal thumb switch on the right handlebar. It protruded from a matchbook sized metal housing upon which were embossed the words "Sturmey-Archer."

Little steel wires, cables actually, ran from that housing along the tube frame to the rear axle. The bike had three gears. Once you got the hang of it, it was easier to ride up a hill. But it seemed so strange and delicate and we never seemed able to adjust it correctly. Both of those bikes of my early days were a far cry from the ones we ride today, but it is amazing how much of basic bike technology was perfected more than a century ago.

The generally accepted "father" of the practical bicycle is Baron Karl Von Drais de Sauerbrun, from the German state of Baden. Sometime between 1812 and 1816, he harnessed the wagon technology of the day to build his famed "Hobbyhorse." He must have had one hell of a set of goneys, because this was pre-athletic "cup" days and this 100-pound contraption was nothing more than two wagon wheels held in line by a long wooden rail with a rudimentary saddle on it.

The front wheel was steerable, and the good baron propelled himself along by pushing off on alternate feet. There were no pedals, no brakes and very little comfort. But it was faster than walking, especially downhill.

While we were fighting the Civil War, various European mechanics and inventors were working on perfecting the "two-wheeled horse." A French father and son, Pierre and Ernest Michaux came up with the "Velocipede" (speed plus foot. Get it?), the first bike to transmit power to the wheel with pedals. These pedals were attached to the front wheel (like a kid's tricycle today).

Pedals were a huge advance. A Scotsman named Kirkpatrick Macmillan had tried a complicated system of a rods and levers to transmit power to a bicycle's rear wheel back in the 1840s. The rider pushed his feet up and down on a sort of treadle to get the thing going. Too complicated.

Michaux's Velocipede had the same drawback as a kid's tricycle. There was no multiplication of power -- one turn of the pedal meant one turn of the wheel. That's why the front wheels on bicycles began to get bigger and bigger, culminating in those quaintly ridiculous "high wheelers" you see in old Victorian prints or photographs.

The man behind these high wheelers was James Starley, an Englishman from Coventry. Velocipedes had wheels of around 30 inches diameter. Starley grasped that the bigger the wheel the pedals were attached to, the farther it would go in a single revolution. Ultimately, the bikes made by Starley in the 1870s had 60-inch front wheels.

A vigorous biker, pedaling sixty revolutions per minute, could get one of Starley's bikes up to about 10 miles an hour on a smooth stretch of road. It seemed very fast at the time. But the "ordinary," as Starley's bike came to be called, was a landmark for far more than its distinctive profile and potential speed. It incorporated some of the most important technology in bicycle history.

The industrial revolution was producing a rising stream of products and manufacturing technology around this time. By 1867 wheel technology had taken a huge leap forward with the advent of the ball bearing and the use of solid rubber "tyres." The Starley bikes incorporated not only these advances but also the use of a light tubular steel frame and, most important of all, tension-wired wheels -- one of the most elegant engineering feats in the history of mobility.

Pre-Starley bicycles had heavy wood or iron wheels with about 16 heavy radial spokes. They were difficult to "true," not terribly stable in a bicycle application, and very heavy to be strong enough to take the shocks of rolling under load. James Starley invented a stronger, stiffer (more stable) and much lighter wheel by spoking it with thin, strong, steel wire pulled tight under tension from the wheel rim into the hub.

This made for an amazingly better ride. But then Starley improved his wheel even more. He came up with tangential spokes. Take a close look at a bike wheel to see what I mean. The spokes don't all radiate from the center of the wheel hub like a classic wagon wheel. They are "laced" from the outer circumference of each end of the hub in alternating tangential pairs running out to the wheel rim.

We are so used to seeing bike wheels we don't comprehend what an astonishing device the tangentially-spoked wire wheel is. It vastly improved stability (keeping the wheel rim centered over the hub and axle), absorbed bumps in the road and could easily carry a hundred or more times its own weight.

Now innovations came cascading one after another to enhance what Starley had started. H.J. Lawson, another Englishman, invented the first chain-driven bicycle in 1874. The familiar "classic" geometry of the bike was beginning to fall into place. Lawson's invention -- cranks and pedals attached to a sprocket with a roller chain running from the sprocket to the axle of the rear wheel -- meant the rider could now position himself comfortably at a point between the wheels. The gear ratio -- between the pedal sprocket (now known as the chain wheel) and the smaller rear axle hub -- meant the wheels would revolve more than once with each revolution of the pedals. Thus, a faster bike. It also meant the two wheels could be the same size and much smaller, bringing the rider down to a lower, safer center of gravity.

It was James Starley's nephew, John, who capitalized on the Lawson invention and devised what is considered "the first modern bicycle." The Rover Safety Bicycle of 1885 had the classic profile that exists to this day. Its diamond-shaped tubular steel frame, chain- and sprocket-drive, and same-sized wheels with tangentially mounted wire spokes, became known around the world. Bicycling burgeoned as a means of travel, a sport and a popular recreation.

In 1888, Scotsman John Dunlop's invention of the pneumatic tire made bikes swifter, lighter and more comfortable. In 1902 came the Sturmey-Archer 3-speed gear hub. In 1905 a two-speed derailleur gear changer appeared. But it was not until 1933 that the world-famed Italian bicycle racer Tullio Campagnolo devised the first dependable derailleur.

The derailleur, which moves the chain back and forth between rear sprocket wheels of different sizes to change gears, now dominates biking. It has been improved greatly over the years, particularly by the Japanese. The high speeds and hill climbing versatility of bicycles because of gearing has contributed immensely to their continuing popularity. That 3-speed Sturmey-Archer set-up on my brother's old bike has given way to sophisticated derailleurs delivering up to 27 speeds.

I saw a lot of this technology flashing past me as we rode in Kentucky this past weekend. But in the past years, my 21-speed Shimano has enabled me to climb every hill on the trek without ever having to dismount.

I had a good time this weekend, and I enjoyed the people, the countryside, the cold drinks and camaraderie at day's end, and most of all, the remarkable fusion of old technologies and ever-improving new ones -- the bicycle.

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