The History of Cycling in Fifty Bikes, by Tom Ambrose (New York: Rodale, 2013)
A two-line description on the book jacket tells readers what to expect in this artfully designed book: “From the Velocipede to the Pinarello: The Bicycles that Have Shaped the World.” The book presents its information in a manner that invites even casual readers to keep going. Each of its 50 chapters is brief, from two to six pages in length, and consists of a six- or seven-line synopsis in bold type, photos, graphics, main discussion, and brief notes set off to the side or bottom of the page. Readers can skip along or read carefully according to their interest in the topics discussed in each chapter. A bibliography, notes, and picture credits provide information for readers who want to continue their explorations into the history of cycling.
Ambrose skillfully interweaves specific information about the bicycle featured in a chapter and descriptions of other bikes that had similar characteristics or were closely related to that phase of cycling history. Several chapters feature bikes that were important primarily because of the riders who chose to use them rather than because of the technical features of the machinery involved.
Some of the cyclists are highlighted in the titles or subtitles of the chapters in which they appear. Among them are Frank Bartell, Fausto Coppi, Eddy Merckx, Lance Armstrong, and Bradley Wiggins. Competitive cycling on the international level clearly is a primary factor in Ambrose’s selection of bikes. Equally important to cycling history are the biographical sketches of people who developed new uses for bicycles or who established companies that manufactured bicycles. Among them are Jacques Schulz (early mountain climbers), Alex Moulton (folding bikes), Joe Breeze (California-based mountain bikes), Ernesto Colnago, Mike Sinyard (Specialized Bicycle Company), and Alessandro Pinarello (Pinarello Bicycles).
Four chapters focus attention on the development of components rather than bikes: pneumatic tires, lights, internal hub gears, and derailleurs. The final chapter provides a quick summary of futuristic designs.
Ambrose devotes a chapter to the Peugeot PX-10, which was one of the highly acclaimed bikes in the 1970s when I and two of my teenaged children became interested in cycling. It was too expensive for our family, and we had to be satisfied with the less expensive Peugeot PX-8. For several years I owned another bike that is mentioned in a later chapter, a Specialized Allez Epic, one of the earliest bikes using carbon fiber tubing. Although the list price was $800, it cost the family nearly twice that because my wife’s new bass recorder cost nearly the same amount.
Fifty-seven pages (out of 217 pages of text) are devoted to bikes or proto-bicycles that that led to the basic pattern of the bicycle that finally developed late in the 1800s. I was especially interested in the prominence of James Starley and his nephew John Kemp Starley during the pre-history of the modern bicycle. This early history of proto-bikes, however, does not deserve the space that Ambrose gives it. Since there have been so many interesting, trend-setting bicycles, there will always be, disagreements concerning the list to be included in a book like this.
Some of my nominations for bikes and bicycle-related technology that should have been included are these: the development of bicycle tubing by companies such as Reynolds and Columbus, the use of aluminum in bicycle componentry and tubing (as in the Alan bicycle), saddle design with an emphasis upon Brooks leather saddles, the Schwinn family in the United States, the Terry woman’s bike, the Singer or Herse bicycles as examples of touring bicycles, the Kestrel bike, which was a forerunner of the modern carbon fiber molded frames, and the Calfee bamboo bicycle.
Since we are still in the summer season when the emphasis needs to be placed on being out on one’s bike, there may be too little time to read this book right now, and it’s too heavy to carry along on bicycling trips. Cold weather is sure to come, however, which gives you time to buy your copy or make sure that your local library orders one soon. There are other good books on cycling history, but for most people Tom Ambrose’s text is the one most likely to hold their interest.