The Taiwan Bicycle
Manufacturing Industry Review

Speed-Geared Bicycle Rejected Before Its Time

Glenn Reeves

Technological development basically goes in one direction, following time from the past to the present. You can’t prove the existence of a Higgs Boson, for example, without having an idea it might exist in the first place, before you go looking for it.

And on this note some suggest that Peter Sagan is, in fact, the Higgs Boson hidden in plain sight before exploding  into mass view at this year’s edition of Le Tour and sending shivers up the Manx Missile’s spine by undermining his position as the Tour’s God particle.

We’ll pursue that one in the near future perhaps. The point here is that the line of development from Draisine to the modern derailleur bike, to take another example, was full of dead ends and dog-legs. One such dead end was the appearance, and then the disappearance of, a geared Ordinary: what might have been.

The high-wheeler, or the Ordinary, replaced the velocipede quickly as the preferred bicycle in the early 1870s. It went through a rapid development resulting in Starley and Hillman‘s (Coventry Machinists’ Company Ltd.) “Ariel”.

Coventry Machinists Company Ariel

This was the cutting-edge design for the day. Wood and iron had given way to a bike with a steel top-tube/down-tube (“backbone”) and a rear brake that functioned via the handlebar grips. The wheels were wire-spoked and had a lever that tightened the spokes together at the one time to boot, cool even by today’s standards.

From here tubes became thinner, bicycles even lighter, better fitting bearings, and wheel sizes larger. From the original standard 36″ up to 60″.  This development was pushed by racing as much as anything, and in that little has changed in the present.

We then see the appearance of internally geared hubs that were enthusiastically embraced by racers. The wheel size was a standard 36″. But due to the leverage advantage of the hub gears, the bike could go as fast as Ordinaries that had the much larger gear size.

internal hub gear Ordinary bicycle
Source: The Dancing Chain

If you were a racer, you would be going for this. The Ordinary was a long way from the safety models which replaced them (also by Coventry Machinists’ Company ) ie. the Safety Rover meaning the chances you’d come off–come a “cropper”–were pretty good. Not sacrificing speed whilst increasing stability, the gift of this design, is a good deal in just about anyone’s books.

And then the politics kicked in.

Ordinary supporters complained that these lower-set machines were not “bicycles” but more akin to the earlier velocipedes. Remember that velocipedes were quite like modern bicycles compared to the high-wheeler Ordinary except for the front-wheel crank. (It’s interesting how bicycle design development had to go through the “dog-leg” of the Ordinary rather than straight from the Draisine to the modern safety bicycle).

Velocipedes were defined as velocipedes; bicycles as bicycles. You would have liked to be a fly on the wall of any heated discussions over that one. But the upshot was the geared hub had nowhere to go and that was the end of it. The Ariel eventually ended up as a car, which was where most of the bicycle industry was heading at the time.



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