On the cycle of life, a passion is rediscovered

Cyclepedia: a Tour of Iconic Bicycle Designs

Dealing in lazy, hazy stereotypes, architects drive Saabs, or Citroens, or, in more energetic stereotypes, they ride push-bikes. Austrian architect/designer Michael Embacher pedals into the latter category; he’s a bike-design nut, a man with an eye for the striking, the frivolous, the funky and the functional, a spokesperson for the two-wheeled mode of transport.

With half of this country’s architects unemployed, or under-employed, here’s an idea for this design-savvy profession: write a book about your passions, and illustrate it well. It seems to be working for Embacher, who brings a passionate take on a personal selection and private collection to pristine, printed pages.

The 40-something, based in Vienna, began collecting second-hand/antique bikes when his new bicycle was stolen: his conversion, on the road to Salzburg, resulted in a growing collection of old bikes, numbering 200, mounted and de-mounted, in his design studio’s attic. He’s rounded up half of them for display in the curiously compelling anoraks’ book, Cyclepedia: a Tour of Iconic Bicycle Designs.

One suspects it is the start of a mania, if not a movement (his 224 page/450 image book has its foreword by British fashion designer Paul Smith, a one-time teenage bike racer. Smith bicycle clips a la cufflinks to follow? Narrowed ankle-pants design to avoid chain-snagging?)

This isn’t your average coffee table book, despite its strong visual appeal — it is more likely to be savoured by people with water bottles and bicycle frame-mounted water bottle holders, than by languid, coffee-swilling types. It is for the cycling connoisseur, but it is kind of for everyone — who hasn’t a passion for their first bike? Their best-loved bike? Their next bike? (PS: much mis-treated, classic Raleigh Tour of Ireland racer, c 1970s, for sale! Apply within.)

After a century and half of development, cycling is enjoying its second major revival in recent decades; the first was prompted by the development of mountain bikes; the current, and next, by fitness freaks, commuters and folding-bike geeks. Tax breaks here in Ireland for bikes and day-glo gear (the Green Party’s legacy?) mean cycling as a sport/hobby/commute option is in the rudest of good health (but protect us, please, from spinning classes.)

Of course, given Herr Embacher’s Continental background, there’s a mainland European bias and inclination towards certain bike histories and styles. On dipping into the rather luscious photographs and accompanying text and fact panels, an Irish or indeed UK reader will find upsetting omissions. Hey: Where’s the Raleigh Chopper? The folding Triumph 20? (incidentally, both made in Dublin’s Hanover Quay, until a disastrous fire in 1976, in part attributed to years of oil dripping onto old floorboards. Trivia? You bet.) Embacher’s book features a 1976 Italian Carnielli Tipo Cross, an enduro/chopper … but not as we know it.

Now, it’s not like the world is short of old bikes (rivers and canals are full of them, and of shopping trolleys … book idea, anyone?) but it is a mode of transport that’s almost 200 years old (Cyclepedia debunks the myth that Leonardo De Vinci envisaged the first cycle) and still hugely in favour the whole world around: what goes around, comes around, the wheel turns etc, etc. Bikes are here to stay.

Cyclepedia is a wholly-personal selection from the wide world of bikes, and is so much the better for that. There’s no unicycles, no trikes, just two wheels good, in all their manifestations, adaptations from the ‘Dandy Horse’ of the early 1800s to light-weight racers, and all-sprung downhill mountain chargers of today (Embacher favours a BMW full-suspension bike, and a Subaru with all-wheel/ie two-wheel) drive. Jeez, this really is anorak/all-weather gear territory.

There are, however, tandems, and even the more sociable side-by-side tandems, a la the 1980s Buddy Bike, as quirky as you’ll find. Daft, actually, as your co-rider alongside has to be the same weight as you, or you’ll end up going around in circles (imagine the dating service small ads? ‘Fit woman, 30s; WLTM male of same age, approx 70 kilos, with a view to a ride?’)

This is, clearly, a book that invites flights of fancy. It eschews the more predictable history-of-bikes approach for a design-led eulogy and selection of quirky examples, along with nerdy notes on Shimano, Sturmey Archer gears, metallurgic merits and sundry lugs, nuts and cranks. Even if you thought (or you damn well know) you’ve left your best bike days behind, there’s something here in these pages to bring good cheer, a sneer, or a desire to get back in the saddle and get the feet pumping.

Cyclepedia is a work of passion, with photography (by Bernard Angerer) to match. A veritable tour de force. Sorry, Tour de France.

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