Wheelie useful exhibits;Technology

16th January 1998 at 00:00
Ruth Vaughn gets on her bike to head for the Design Museum.

Enthusiasts will probably need no persuading, but even those who find the attractions of riding a bike completely resistable should find the display of human-powered vehicles at the Design Museum in London not only revelatory, but enthralling.

Bike: Cycles - a tour of bicycle design 1825-2000 is the first major exhibition in the UK dedicated to the subject. Not only does it detail the increasingly sophisticated technological refinements which are taking place in design and construction, it tells an eloquent tale of the history of this much-loved form of travel.

Round the walls of the museum's first-floor gallery, the bikes, which span 175 years, are displayed several-deep at a slight rake on a velodrome. They start with the origins of the modern bike, such as the "running machine" (or hobby-horse) which was invented in 1817. This simple contraption had two wooden wheels with iron tyres connected by a wooden plank (with streamlined versions boasting a steerable front wheel, a cushioned seat and a rear wheel brake). This was truly foot-powered: the rider sat astride it and pushed himself along. Not a candidate for the tour de France, but a start.

The 1860s saw the advent of the velocipede (or "Boneshaker") with a metal frame, crankset and pedals. By rotating the handlebars, a leather or gut cord activated a rear brake. Attempts to secure a faster, more comfortable ride led to increasing the diameter of the front wheel, and rubber tyres - hence the high wheel, ordinaries and penny farthings.

Apart from being the first all-metal bikes, these models were also the first to be made to suit the customer's physique. Front wheel size made them more efficient: the bigger the wheel, the more ground could be covered by a single pedal rotation. Yet, getting on or off was possible only in motion; poor roads easily smashed the wheels, catapulting the rider to an uncertain fate. Though seemingly deadly, these machines were popular both in Britain and the United States.

In the interests of safety, the small wheel gradually replaced the larger front one. Tricycles were introduced and were popular with older men, vicars and women for lending dignity and stability to cycling.

Towards the end of the 19th century, the modern "safety" bicycle evolved. This was characterised by a chain drive, direct steering and variable gearing. These bicycles look more like today's models with their equal-sized wheels and diamond frames. In 1888, John Boyd Dunlop revolutionised cycling by inventing the pneumatic tyre which meant even greater speeds, and gears made uphill cycling possible.

Bikes began to symbolise independence, and their their popularity among women and children grew. Part of the exhibition is devoted to a "Family Bike Show".

After the end of the Second World War, people had more money and the 1960s saw a soaring child bike market, with bikes such as the Raleigh 20 (the biker's Mini Cooper), the Chopper and BMX machines, which reflected the spirit of contemporary pop culture. There were even "add-on" bikes and trailers, and tandems updated to meet the needs of the nuclear family.

The City Bike section of the exhibition explores the bicycle's role as commuter vehicle with models such as the 1990 Royal Mail Bike and the 1997 Chrisitania Three Wheeler. The 1960s gave city-dwellers the key to beating week-day congestion and weekend escapes with the innovative folding bicycle and Alex Moulton's RAC all-purpose bike (1997) illustrates how far such models have now been streamlined. Today's mountain bike hybrid with its chunkier wheels and tough suspension is good insurance against cross-country terrain and pot-holed streets.

The evolution of the racing bike reflects the search for ever more aerodynamic features. Frames, tyres, suspension and most other component parts have undergone almost constant revision to achieve optimum strength and lightness.

The exhibition has several entries for the European Bicycle Design Contest, an annual event established in 1992 which celebrates contemporary bike design, and a couple of futuristic samples of how designers see bikes developing into the next century. Among these are the "Tango", which can be stowed in a car, and the "Helical Dynamics" which replaces the crank with a system that requires an up and down pumping action of the legs rather than a circular one. There is also the "Future Retro" in which components are tucked away inside the main frame making it almost maintenance-free.

Posters, Valentine cards, postcards, mementoes, satirical cartoons and other forms of cycling memorabilia are also on display, as well as locks including the Meccano-style "Wedlock". Energy efficient lights are contrasted with the aesthetic lamps of the past. State-of-the-art lycra and Gore-tex clothing demonstrates how serious the fashion industry is about cycling.

This exhibition provides an informative study of design and technology over nearly 200 years and should help erase the idea of the cyclist as either earnest bore or two-wheeled terrorist.

Design Museum, Shad Thames, London SE1 2YD. Tel: 0171 403 6933. Until March 22. Admission: pound;5 Adults; pound;3.75 concessions. 11.30am-6pm weekdays; 12-6pm at weekends. Cycle racks available.

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