Riding an “unridable” bicycle

August 5, 2013
Pedersen Bicycle at Portland Art Museum

Pedersen Bicycle at Portland Art Museum

“But how can anyone ride it?” That’s the question I heard people ask as they stopped at the Sølling Pedersen bicycle on display this summer in “The Art of the Bicycle” at the Portland Art Museum.

The steep upward slope of the saddle strap is one obvious challenge. Another is the ungainly forward thrust of the steering tube and fork. The wispy tubing not even fastened together at some of the junctions is still another part of the puzzle.

Pedersen 2Invented in the 1880s by Danish inventor Mikael Pedersen, this bicycle was designed so that it could fit any riders of any height. A primary factor in the design is the flexible saddle, which was “suspended with a plastic-coated steel cord. When the rider sat down, the bike gained stability as a result of tensile loading on the thin, light tubes” (Cyclopedia: A Century of Iconic Bicycle Design, p. 94).

Nearly a century after this bicycle was first designed, a Danish company developed prototypes, such as the Sølling Pedersen owned by collector Michael Embacher and part of the 40-bicycle display in Portland. Although the drop handlebars and other components are of modern design, the main characteristics of Pedersen’s bicycle remain.

So does the question of how it rides.

Jan Heine, Seattle cycling expert, provides an answer in the August 2010 issue of his magazine Bicycle Quarterly. While visiting a friend in Chicago, he rode a 1980s replica of a Cheltenham Pedersen. This model more closely reproduces the early 1900s Dursley Pedersen touring bike, which was the model that the inventor manufactured after moving to England.

Heine reports that it took the better part of an hour to adjust the tension of the saddle, which on the model he rode was a woven basket rather than leather as on the model exhibited in Portland.

At the first stoplight, he was reminded that on the Pedersen there is no standover clearance. This fact, along with “the relatively high bottom bracket. . .meant a complete dismount to one side of the bike at every traffic light.“

He found, however, that once underway the Pedersen “offered a delightful ride.” The saddle swung slightly from side to side and quickly became comfortable. “And then, the Pedersen just wanted to go. Like my favorite bikes, it beckoned me to go faster. With every increase in effort, the bike accelerated with alacrity” (p. 35).

After an hour’s ride, Heine understood how Pedersens used to set speed records.

He reports that the bicycle handled very well. He could sit upright, fold his arms, and ride comfortably along a Chicago street.

Even on my modern bikes, that’s something I can’t do.

Note: In this same issue of Bicycle Quarterly, Heine also published a review of Mr. Pedersen: A Man of Genius by David Evans. Cyclopedia, the book mentioned earlier in this blog, is a beautifully illustrated catalog of Embacher’s collection of bicycles which he maintains in Vienna.

Museum Display


Portland, a place where bicycles go high art

June 14, 2013
Portland Art Museum Magazine

Portland Art Museum Magazine

Portland, Oregon, is one American city where popular culture and bicycling are intertwined. In the summer of 2013, however, the cultural style of the city’s fixation on bicycles is going high art.

Leading the transformation is the Portland Art Museum, which (as in other cities around the world) is the place where high art is displayed and the cultural aspirations of its leading citizens are expressed. On June 8, the same day as the city’s annual Grand Floral Parade, the museum opened a new exhibit entitled “Cyclopedia: Iconic Bicycle Design.”

It is the third entry in the museum’s design-oriented exhibition series (last year’s exhibit was “The Allure of the Automobile”) and will continue for three months, closing on September 8.

The exhibit features 40 bicycles chosen by Vienna-based designed, Michael Embacher, from his collection of some 200 distinctive bicycles. Embacher opened the exhibition by giving a public lecture to some 300 people in the museum’s Whitsell Auditorium.

In softly accented tones, he acknowledged his love of cycling for pleasure and personal transportation. He then explained his professional interest in bicycle design. Bicycles are simple machines, little more than a frame with two wheels in tandem and a mechanism that enables cyclists to convert their bodily power into forward motion.

Despite their simplicity, bicycles have inspired designers for more than a century. The result is a continuing stream of amazing machines, some of them pioneering new designs and techniques that have contributed to the design of bicycles in the current main stream.

A decade ago, Embacher began to collect distinctive examples of bicycle design, some because of their beauty and others because of innovative design features. Although all of the bicycles in his collection can be ridden, some of these machines have only limited practical value.

The Mercian ‘Custom’ “can only travel along mainly straight lines as, due to the short wheel base, the front tyre collides with the pedals when cornering.” The Wilhelmina Plast Itera, designed in 1984, is described as “the most bizarre bicycle ever constructed…[A]lmost all of the components were made from plastic—resulting in a bicycle that warped in hot summer weather and compromised braking.”

The exhibition in Portland, which Embacher himself designed, features a gracefully curved metal track mounted on the ceiling of the exhibition hall. The bicycles are suspended from this track and move gently in the room’s air currents. People at the exhibition can view these bicycles from all sides and examine their components as closely as they see fit.

Immediately following Embacher’s lecture, the room was crowded with patrons. I’ll return for more leisurely viewing and photo shots of the bicycles that interest me the most.

The museum and sponsors of the Embacher collection have planned an entire summer of events that will “celebrate all things bicycle.” The lectures and talks are especially interesting to me. These topics are on the schedule: CycloFemme: Women on Bicycles, Past, Present, Future; Bikenomics and Urban Policy: A Local and National Perspective; and Made in Portland: Design for 21st Century Urban Cycling.”

“Summer Joyrides” will be “leisurely bike field trips” exploring sites related to three themes: Art for the Millions: The Enduring Legacy of the WPA in Portland; Pedaling Toward a Healthier Planet; and America’s Bicycle Capital: A Tour of Portland’s Many Bike Cultures.”

Other events on the schedule include “a family cargo bike race and obstacle course,” free admission on fourth Fridays, with opportunities to buy “snacks from some of Portland’s finest pedal-powered food carts,” and weekly exhibitions at the museum of “extraordinary bikes from our community.”

There will be a progressive pedal party featuring bicycles, beer, and ice cream, a week-long “bicycle big top and rat trap circus,” and a public viewing of Jacques Tati’s film “Jour de Fête” atop the parking structure of the Hotel deluxe, one of the sponsors of the exhibition. I hope to describe some of these events as the summer unfolds.

I plan to focus other blogs this season on selected events from the regular summer calendar, such as the Providence Bridge Pedal, and on elements in Portland’s bicycle-related artisan industry. Both the city and bicycle advocacy groups are projecting plans to redesign city streets and bicycle-specific features. Here, my opinions are strong, many of them contrarian, and I intend to discuss what makes for safe and useful cycling in urban areas.

Disparate as these essays will be, they are bound together by a broader theme: “The Impact of Bicycles on Culture and Lifestyle.” This summer’s activities in Portland confirm an idea that Embacher displayed on a screen that formed the curtain wall of Whitsell Auditorium during his presentation, an idea with which I agree:

“A developed country is not necessarily a place where the poor have cars. It’s where the rich ride bicycles.”