The More Things Change . . . | Bleader

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

The More Things Change . . .

Posted By on 02.16.10 at 06:43 PM

Twice in the past week, Cliff Doerksen's Bad News From the Past has featured late-19th-century articles about cycling. And while a lot has changed in a hundred years or so—these days bikes are hardly ever the fastest vehicles on the road, for example—what struck me about both of Cliff's posts is how much has stayed the same.

The first, about the high incidence of cycling accidents, makes it pretty clear where the fault for those accidents lies: "I believe the people riding wheels are primarily to blame for their own mishaps," a police captain opines. Most of the blame is placed on "scorchers," or cyclists who ride too fast: "That the scorcher, speeding along practically in absolute silence at a rate of twelve or fifteen miles an hour . . . is a menace to public safety has long been a recognized fact." (That's the article, not a quote from a person.)

That "fact" doesn't have quite the quality of evidence behind it that you might wish for, though. "Most of the collisions between wheelmen and teams, it is said, are traceable directly to fast riding," the article claims. "It is said that every one of the seven cases reported in which cyclists have come to grief by running into grip and electric cars has been due to the carelessness or folly of the person on the wheel." Who said it, of course, we don't know—but the author seems pretty sure that it's been said.

This is the kind of blind finger-pointing you see today whenever someone reports online about a bike-car accident: anonymous commenters rant about how cyclists never obey traffic laws and are a danger to everyone on the road, and their tone's the same regardless of who was at fault in the collision.

But to be fair, there's pretty good evidence in the article that bicycles at the time got into plenty of accidents even when they didn't tangle with other modes of conveyance—of the 100 cases reported, only 40 involved horses or streetcars. So it's likely that when they did have run-ins with "grip and electric cars," a fair number of those crashes were the fault of cyclists. Cliff's post yesterday points out a possible reason for that: bikes at the time didn't usually come equipped with brakes.

The article is about a proposal in New York to require brakes on bikes. A local cyclist doesn't think the idea will fly here, boasting that "There are fewer fools in Chicago than in New York." The brakes that would've been used at the time were spoon brakes, which consisted of a lever that pushed a metal or leather pad against the front tire. But bikes back then were pretty much all fixed gear, meaning that stopping the motion of the pedals would stop the drive wheel; arguably, this meant that brakes weren't strictly necessary. It's a debate that in the past few years has flared up again, as fixed-gear bicycles become increasingly popular. Portland mandated a front brake for fixed-gear bikes in 2006, and in 2007 D.C. went the other direction, changing its regulations to exclude fixies from the general requirement that all bikes have brakes. And both Berlin and Sacramento made headlines last year for their crackdowns on brakeless fixed gears.

The article also notes, near the end: "Another method of stopping the wheel which is much used is to take one foot from the pedal and press it against the tire below the fork-head."

This stood out to me because I've heard about that stopping technique twice in three days; the first time was this weekend when I visited my grandparents. My grandpa wasn't around yet in the 1890s, but in the 20s and 30s he rode bikes with coaster brakes, and when the chain fell off—making the brakes useless—he'd jam his foot between the wheel and fork to stop the bike. It sounds like a recipe for disaster to me, but obviously he survived OK.

And he knew enough about braking mechanisms to put brakes on the cart he made years ago for all the grandkids to ride down a hill on his farm in Maryland. It seems I wasn't a very observant child, because it wasn't until I was looking at old pictures over the weekend that I noticed the cart was built using two old bicycles, with the steering bar attached to the stems and fenders on the front wheels. The brakes are very similar to the spoon brakes used on bikes a hundred years earlier, except here they're applied to the back wheels instead of the front ones. As I recall they worked fine when we decided to use them, which was a little less often than we probably should have.

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