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

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