A veterinary surgeon and a blacksmith attacking dandies

 

UCI (Union Cycliste Internationale), the world governing body for sports cycling, recently declared it’s now ‘in favour of innovation and technology’. What does this mean for the future of the humble bicycle?

 

The general perception is the the bicycle stopped evolving as soon as the Penny Farthing died, in the 1880s. Equal sized wheels, the drive chain, the diamond frame and rubber tires made the safety bicycle a ‘modern’ bicycle that closed the way to any further ‘innovation’. The bicycle became obsolete and the car seemed the ‘natural’ evolutionary step. Now, UCI wants to bring innovation back, reads an article on road.cc. The existing policy on bicycles and equipment is considered obsolete by the bicycle website, who also considers that the bike industry will be thrilled with the news:

 

The UCI’s current policy on bikes and equipment is underpinned by the 1996 Lugano Charter, which says: “the real meaning of cycle sport is to bring riders together to compete on an equal footing and thereby decide which of them is physically the best”.

 

That led to regulations that often seemed arbitrary, dictating rider position, angle of aero bars and most prominently a minimum bike weight of 6.8kg.

 

This urge for innovation from UCI promises to bring an evolution to the design of the bicycle. But who exactly should we expect to be the actors making this evolution possible? Is it just the UCI? Is it the bicycle manufacturers as well? Is it the sporting cyclists? Or are there many more others out there we should consider when envisioning the bicycles of the future?

Should we expect more of these innovations?

 

The ‘evolution’ of the bicycle is pretty much a social construction, not some governing body’s own single pursuit. Bicycles never evolved linearly and they will not make an exception with the new UCI commitment. Bicycles are social constructs, and here’s a good piece of evidence for this statement: ‘Of Bicycles, Bakelites, and Bulbs‘, a book written by Wiebe E. Bijker in 1995 about how the ‘modern’ bicycle was born in 1880s.

 

The bicycles didn’t simply evolve linearly in just a few decades from the Draisine of 1817 to the safety bicycle of 1880s, when the so-called ‘closure’ occurred, argues Bikjer (1995). Their development – from the ‘laufmaschine’ of baron Karl von Drais to the high wheelers that would throw its rider instantly over the handlebars and then finally to the diamond framed safety bike, the first ‘modern’ bicycle, that sparkled the mass production for the first machines intended for personal mobility – is the result of what Bijker names ‘relevant social groups’ that shaped technology. Both the high wheeler and then the safety bicycle are by no means the results of an evolutionary process, a ‘survival of the fittest’. Instead, their ‘success’ has been shaped by their users as well as non-users. Women and older men, as well as the casual riders (Ordinary users), all had a role to play in the design of each of the aforementioned machines.

 

Draisine1817

Despite carrying the social process that makes possible the technological development, these relevant social groups have different perspectives on what a ‘working’ and a ‘nonworking’ bicycle is. The same Ordinary bicycle could have been a different artifact for different groups. Women and older men would call the same machine (the Ordinary) the Unsafe Bicycle for fear of using it, while the Ordinary users (sports cyclists, but others as well) would give it a totally different meaning, according to Bijker: Macho Bicycle. Bijker calls this interpretative flexibility, insisting that ‘the “working” and “nonworking” of an artifact are socially constructed assessments, rather than intrinsic properties of the artifact’ (1995:75). These disputes between Ordinary and Safety bicycles settled eventually, after a nineteen-year process (1879-98), with the Ordinary becoming an obsolete object, the so-called Penny Farthing, and the Safety bicycle winning since that moment the hearts and minds of people. Essential to the final adoption of the Safety bicycle, and the subsequent closure and stabilization of the bicycle, was, argues Bijker, the adoption of the air tire in 1888 by Dunlop. In this instance as well, the interpretative flexibility of the artifact played an important role. The two relevant social groups this time were the sporting cyclists and the general users. The former appreciated especially the high speed such a tire would allow them, while the later, despite praising their antivibration properties, were skeptical to buy them because they proved pretty unpractical. If it wasn’t for the sporting cyclists Dunlop wouldn’t have enjoyed quite the success he had.

 

The account offered by Bijker illustrates the role played by sporting cyclists in the becoming of the bicycle. The Ordinary bicycle has succeeded to keep its obsolete supremacy for 19 years thanks to the sportsmen who understood that even bigger front wheels meant better performances. On the other hand, the sporting cyclists made possible in many respects a much useful technology: the air tire. ‘Bicycling began as a sports activity and evolved into a means of transport’ said Bijker in 1997 (1997:37) in his manifest book in the field of SCOT (social construction of technological objects) studies, ‘Of bicycles, bakelites and bulbs: Toward a Theory of Sociotechnical Change’.

 

I would add today to what Bijker said more than a decade ago that bicycling is still mainly a sports activity and that leisure and utility cycling are highly influenced by it. The news that the UCI will finally consider ‘innovation and technology’ in the world of sports will impact, as Bijker already showed, on the bicycles that other people than sportsmen will ride. If amongst the relevant social groups in the social construction of today’s bicycle, sporting cyclists continue to have the same important impact that Bijker acknowledged (which indeed is still the case), we should be very attentive to what ‘innovation and technology’ the cycling teams in the peloton will display in the coming editions of the Tour de France. For they will be the first to set the trend for the types of bicycles that the world manufacturers will start working on for the larger public.

kickstand

 

Personally, one of the innovations I would love to see on a bicycle would be an existing but somehow failed one. Not lighter materials, not even more aerodynamic geometries, but something much more useful for the rest of cyclists. Wouldn’t it be nice for the UCI to make the kickstand compulsory in Tour de France? Maybe this will get the useful forgotten props back on every single bike. So we don’t have to scratch them any more on walls, trees or signposts. Well, that would be indeed innovative!

 

References:

 

Bijker, W. (1995) ‘Of Bicycles, Bakelites, and Bulbs: Toward a Theory of Sociotechnical Change’, Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press;

 

Foto: (1) Anti-Dandy Infantry. A veterinary surgeon and a blacksmith attacking dandies. The new velocipedes were feared to leave both the veterinarians and blacksmith without a job. Credit: British Library; (2) Should we expect more of these innovations? Credit: Milano Fixed; (3) Draisine. Credit: wikipedia.org; (4) Patent for ‘Bicycle kickstand having quick release function’