Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Nothing Ordinary About It

Before Armstrong. Before Merckx. Before Coppi and Bartali.

Before even the pre-Cambrian advent of Le Tour or the Giro.

There was.

The ordinary.

Or high-wheeler, or penny-farthing, if you were a Brit.

Velophoriacs already know how enamored I am of this style of bike, and the tweed-cap-and-knickers cycling style it birthed (re-born in contemporary riders, though sadly without the caps).

What you don't know is that Mrs. V. and I actually saw a vintage sample in the flesh this weekend -- just a few miles from our house. We were at the opening of a small local museum situated in a lovely old house of stone (called, in a touch of Victorian irony-deficiency, The Stone House). They had the carriage house open for the event, as well, and were displaying beautiful old specimens of pre-combustion four-wheeled transportation. Off in a corner, hanging on a wall, was a gorgeous, neglected ordinary. Someone got a hold of this beauty and thought it was a worthy piece of local history. (Of course, I agree.) Click on the pictures to get much bigger versions:

As we got closer, we noticed something odd about the pedals: They were offset from the hub by a strange mechanism... which turned out to be pump-action cranks. That's right, you pumped your legs up and down, not 'round and 'round, to make this baby go. At the bottom of the stroke, spring-action drove the crank back up. (Yes; of course I tried it, without asking permission.) I was thinking about it later and wondered if that would add or subtract to stability.

Notice also the interesting handlebars. The grips look like they were re-purposed from a farm machine of some sort.

The whole thing dates back to "Circa 1880," according to a scrawled tag stuck in the spokes. I have to confess that I differ with the curator (who is probably a local schoolteacher or shopowner in their alter-ego). It's possible they're right, but by 1880 the design for the ordinary was pretty well set in stone, and manufacturers abounded in Massachusetts. There are scholarly figures citing over 100 bicycle manufacturers in Boston alone around this time. It seems unlikely to me that this oddity would have been produced that late... but what do I know? Maybe the local blacksmith just wanted a cheap form of transportation for his son, and fired up the forge and just made this lovely old thing.

(Note: I've since done some digging around, and it seems there was a greater variety of pedaling mechanisms, and handlebars, around 1880 that I'd originally thought.)

However and whenever it happened, it was a terrific find.

Fine photos © Mrs. V. 2009

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