As any bike rider will know, friends and family love to buy you books about bicycles and cycling. As a child of the internet age, I am particularly appreciative of these gifts because they so frequently open my eyes to things that I might not have otherwise encountered. From the whimsy of the NYC Bike Snob series and the semi-serious rules of the Velominati, to the wonderful and captivating histories like Pete Jordan’s Story of the Amsterdam Cyclist, there is certainly no shortage of quality bike-related literature. I must admit that I am also quite partial to the occasional illustrated book as well; here, though, the pictures do the talking, and they can give fascinating insights into the dreams of designers and the lives of riders.
In spite of the wealth of literature, there is, however, one passage that stands head and shoulders above the rest in terms of the way that it captures how I feel about riding a bike. The passage I’m referring to is succinct and refined, and even contains a politely restrained little jab at motor vehicles. It comes from Elizabeth West’s Hovel in the Hills (1977), and goes as follows:
When man invented the bicycle he reached the peak of his attainments. Here was a machine of precision and balance for the convenience of man. And (unlike subsequent inventions for man’s convenience) the more he used it, the fitter his body became. Here, for once, was a product of man’s brain that was entirely beneficial to those who used it, and of no harm or irritation to others. Progress should have stopped when man invented the bicycle.
The bicycle has, of course, been reinvented to varying degrees since the first recognisably familiar double-diamond ‘Safety Bicycle’ appeared in the 1880’s. And this is probably a good thing…
The subtitle of West’s book is ‘An account of the Simple Life’, and she clearly believes that the humble bicycle is a natural part of a streamlined existence. That said, however, modern times call for modern bikes, and in a world of cars we need a bicycle that is more than just a dandyhorse-style toy for the posers to pootle about on. What is called for is a rugged transporter; something fast and strong, but also comfortable and easy to use.
What is called for is something like this:
This is a handmade custom build by Rob English. Dubbed the No-car-kitty-cargo, it really has everything that a good cargo bike needs to serve as a wholly adequate replacement for a car. In terms of design, it is undoubtedly complicated, but without ever having seen one in the flesh I can be fairly certain that the ride would be both simple and pleasurable. Big tyres, intuitive gears, automatic electric assist, carbon belt-drive, intelligent weight distribution – all these parts come together in a beautiful harmony to make this bike probably the most advanced of its kind in the world. It takes an independent pioneer like Rob English to bring together so many different elements and blend them so expertly to produce such a feat of engineering.
As a handmade bike, it doesn’t really have a price tag, as such. However, you can expect to pay upwards of $10,000 for something like this (if you are prepared to join the 3 year waiting list, that is). If I had the readies, I’d put my name down immediately, but sadly the modest stipend of a PhD student doesn’t stretch quite so far. *inconsolable weeping*
Some of you might be curious as to how I can be so sure that a bike I have never ridden is really worth raving about. Well, apart from my faith in English’s workmanship, and the no-expense-spared approach to components that he is using, I actually ride a bike very similar to his one already. In fact…
Of all the bikes that I have owned, this one is by far the greatest. I intend to do a thorough analysis of what makes this bike excellent in due course, but for now it will suffice to say that Rob English has determined the very few ways in which it could be improved and has built them into what I believe to be the ultimate city bike. In short, his bike has a greater load capacity, elegantly integrated electric assist, wider tyres, titanium tubing (in places), and a carbon belt drive. The only places where I believe my bicycle to have the edge are in the Brooks B67 saddle and matte paint job departments…
In conclusion then: while I admire Elizabeth West’s wholehearted endorsement of the humble bicycle, I am pleased to see that bicycle technologies and innovations are still keeping up with the times, and still providing practical, safe, healthy, and environmentally-friendly transport solutions for millions of people around the world, even after all these years.