Spilling the Beans

Nick Larsen is founder and creative director at Charge Bikes of Frome in the west of England. Charge is a fairly new company, remarkable for many things and not least the fact that all its products are named after something you would normally find in the kitchen. There’s the Juicer (a road bike), the Spoon (a saddle), the Bowl (a pair of handlebars) and of course The Plug, a simple single speed bicycle that launched the company into the big time a few years ago.

Nick talks candidly about the bike industry, his own motivations and inspirations, where future trends are coming from and the potential of the exciting new technology of ‘3D printing’.

This conversation was recorded live at last month’s Bike V Design night at the Design Museum.

Remembering Albert Winstanley and announcing the Bicycle Reader

Tim Dawson and Jack Thurston talk about Albert Winstanley, the Lancashire writer, broadcaster and cycletourist who died earlier this year aged 95. Winstanley was a top notch nature writer and had the rare talent to convey in his writing the pleasures of a simple bicycle ride.

One of Winstanley articles features in the first edition of the Bicycle Reader, a new collection of quality writing about riding, co-edited by Jack Thurston and Tim Dawson, and available for Kindle and other e-book readers for the very modest price of £1.53. If you’re in the UK you’ll find it for Kindle on Amazon.co.uk and if you’re elsewhere, Amazon.com. If you’re not a Kindle or iPad user, there’s more info at bicyclereader.com.

We hope you enjoy it!

Over the col du Tourmalet, 1879 style

This is an extract from an account of a summer touring trip to the Pyrenees, published in the London Bicycle Club Gazette (1879). The group of London cycle tourists rode their machines, or more likely pushed them, up all the major cols including the Aubisque, Tourmalet, Aspin & Peyresourde. They were almost certainly riding high wheelers on solid tyres as the safety bicycle and the pneumatic tyre had yet to be brought to market. According to historian (and cyclist) Graham Robb, cycle touring across the Pyrenees was quite common in the late nineteenth century, and there are accounts of both men and women riding over the highest mountain passes.

More than thirty years would pass before riders competing in the Tour de France would follow in the tyre tracks of these hardy London cycle tourists by pushing their far more technically advanced bicycles up the Tourmalet.

19 September 1879: Luz, over the Col du Tourmalet, to St. Marie de Campan.

Whilst waiting at the smith’s yesterday I was immensely amused watching pigs being washed in the stream which runs close to his house. The method appeared to be to rush the “cochons” in, and, after throwing bowls of water over them, to prevent their exit by summarily assaulting them with a long wooden spoon. My catapult also contributed to their uneasiness, I’m afraid. Before leaving Luz we inspected the curious old fortified church, said to have been built by the Templars in the twelfth century. Soon after eight the party rode out, hut, a kilo or two gone, they were forced to walk for the rest of the way, rising 1674 feet up to Barèges, the road, though a good wide one, being steep and extremely muddy from the heavy rain during the night. We found that town approached by such steep, short zigzags as we have nowhere else seen, quite a labour, in fact, to get the machines up them.

Barèges being 4084 feet above the sea, and the highest of the Pyrenean watering-places, consists of one long, steep street, situate in a narrow desolate valley, which is continually swept by fearful avalanches. The waters being very renowned for healing wounds, etc., the place was consequently full of soldiers, who crowded up the hospital windows on hearing my bugle. Only stopping at this dreary-looking place to purchase provisions, we pushed on up a narrow road which rose gradually at first round the sides of the mountains, and then in steep zigzags right away up to the top of the pass. Near Barèges we tasted some avalanche recently fallen into the Gave, and soon after enjoyed something a little more substantial, icy cold milk. The trudge up for 6 3/4 miles more, rising during that time 2878 feet, proved a great grind, especially towards the top, as the road, a carriage one, being composed of small shale, was naturally very sticky from frequent moisture. It was a dreary walk, mostly bare rock and shale around, and as we were in the clouds nearly all the time we saw very little of surrounding peaks and no views to speak of. Some distance up we lunched on rolls, chocolate and ice cream, the best obtainable to eat.

Arrived soon after two at the top of the Col du Tourmalet, in a small cutting at a height of 6962 feet above sea-level, with a cold drizzle falling, the London Bicycle Club call having been duly sounded, songs sung, and pipes with difficulty lit, the descent was commenced. Soon after we had a fine view of the rugged Pic du Midi de Bigorre, close by, and passed old patches of dirty snow. Although still sticky and pretty steep, Hutchings managed with his strap brake to ride nearly all down to Gripp, and of course arrived long before the rest. The others walked for 9 kilo nearly all down zigzags to the two beautiful little waterfalls, the Chutes d’Artigues, at the top of the little valley of Tremesaïgues. A little higher up we enjoyed a fine way of this narrow valley, which, together with this side of the mountain, far more. green, wooded, and picturesque than the other side of the pass. My brake being hinged all to the top of the fork sent streams of mud down into the bearings when the road was wet, and consequently prevented me from riding this part as I should otherwise have done. The others found their brakes not powerful enough I think.

Beyond the waterfalls we found the road less curly and steep, so rode the rest down to Gripp (3,464 feet) 7 3/4 miles from top of Col, where we had a scratch meal at an auberge called the “Hotel des Voyageurs,” a chicken being at once caught and roasted, and potatoes dug up. Our wants supplied, we ran over a good road farther down the valley to St. Marie de Campan (2 3/4 miles), getting drenched by a sudden shower on the way. At this place the nice hotel we expected to find proved to be a mere auberge, where we had some queer experiences. Our dinner, a poor one, we ate in the best bedroom, tenanted by Jennings and Buckler, and after the small soup tureen was done with it was placed in my bedroom for me to wash in. Jennings and Buckler had a pie dish, between them to wash in. The lot for fifth bed fell on Williams, who at roosting time had to betake himself to a bed in the comer of the kitchen, and draw down the blinds. My bed seemed pretty clean, though rough, but I think someone complained of pouces being about. It rained hard all night.

Distance to-day 21 3/4 miles.

Here’s Octave Lapize, leading the Tour de France over the Tourmalet in 1910:

To Coventry: Birthplace of the Bicycle

Coventry has a very good claim to be the birthplace of the modern bicycle, the “Rover Safety” invented in the 1880s by John Kemp Starley, one of the city’s many bicycle makers. Someone very happy to make that claim is Steve Bagley, Head of Collections at the Coventry Transport Museum. We go for a ride around the city and a trip back in time. The museum has an excellent programme of cycling-related talks and exhibitions this summer. Music buffs will know that Coventry’s great contribution was the “2 Tone” ska revival scene of the late 1970s, led by The Specials and The Selecter.

And do make a date for Velonotte, a night time architectural themed night time bicycle tour of the City of London and the East End, on the night of Saturday 23rd June through to the early hours of Sunday morning. More information at the London Festival of Architecture.

In the year 1949…

The People’s Republic of China is officially proclaimed, following the victory of the Communist Party forces in the civil war.

Winston Churchill makes a landmark speech in support of the idea of a European Union.

George Orwell’s ‘1984’ is published.

Albert II, a rhesus monkey, becomes the first primate to enter space, on a US V-2 rocket, but is killed on impact on his return journey.

Policemen in Liverpool protest about the reduction of the cycle allowance they get for riding their own bicycles on the beat from 5 shillings a week to 2 shillings a week.

Swiss cyclist Armin Von Büren wins the Swiss national track championships as his wheel collapses as he crosses the finishing line in a high speed sprint. The miraculous photograph above freezes forever the split second when Von Büren’s front wheel has collapsed and shed its tyre but he has yet to hit the deck.

1949 is also the last year in which the British people travelled more miles by bicycle than they travelled by motor car. In that year, on average, people in Britain travelled 305 miles a year by bicycle and 261 miles per year by car. The statistics are from the Department of Transport.

1949 was the beginning of the period of the Great Extinction of cycling in the British Isles. The motor car and the fuel required to move it became steadily more available and affordable. Politicians and planners decided that personal mobility was unequivocally a good thing and that British roads were for cars, not bicycles.

Cycling v motoring in Britain, 1949-2010

The same figures, but with miles cycled plotted on a separate axis, to aid comprehension:

Cycling v motoring in Britain, 1949-2010

In 2010, the average distance British people travel by bicycle annually is 50 miles and the average distance they travel by motor car is 3,966 miles.

If, as some suggest, Britain is experiencing a bicycle boom, there is a long way yet to go.

David Hockney, the Bigger Picture and the Aesthetics of Cycle Touring

“You road I enter upon and look around! I believe you are not all that is here;
I believe that much unseen is also here.”

Walt Whitman, Song for the Road

In one of the final rooms of the Royal Academy’s blockbuster exhibition of new work by David Hockney that closed earlier this week there was a video wall showing a series of short films that take Hockney’s 1970s and ’80s photo montages into the digital video age. Using arrays of 9 and 18 video cameras mounted to film a single scene simultaneously, Hockney was looking once again to break free from the single point of view and prescriptive framing that defines photography and film.

In a radio conversation with Andrew Marr, Hockney explains,

“In the end, the world doesn’t quite look like photographs. Cameras give you a certain kind of view, but it’s not quite the human view. With one camera, no matter what it’s like, however high definition it is, you’re going to have one perspective. You cannot escape that and however big you make the picture, it’s going to be same time in the far left corner and the far right. As your eye moves through it, it doesn’t see time. It can’t.”

In his photo montage and film works – as with his painting – Hockney is aiming to achieve a more immersive representation of reality and experience: A Bigger Picture, as the exhibition was titled.

One of the film pieces depicts a slow passage along a country lane. In the opening moments we see a pair of cyclists ride towards the camera array, and past it, behind us. Apart from two film pieces filmed in his studio and featuring Hockney, several of his friends and small corps of ballet dancers, this pair of cyclists on the country lane are the only people depicted in the entire exhibition. We must assume that there is an element of intention here for Hockney’s sometimes flamboyant persona belies a hard grafting master of technique and detail. For me, it seems entirely appropriate as the whole of A Bigger Picture spoke to my experiences as a cyclist – as a cyclotouriste – in ways that I found joyful and uplifting.

Photograph above by Rich Cousins

In the same conversation with Andrew Marr, Hockney talks of moving to the East Yorkshire Wolds having lived for three decades in southern California. It was a homecoming for this is where Hockney grew up and where he had spent thirty Christmases, back from Los Angeles to visit his mother who lived in Bridlington, on Yorkshire’s North Sea coast. Hockney recalls his life as a teenager cycling to and from work along the lanes that have been the subject of his most recent work and are the main subject of A Bigger Picture.

“I worked on a farm. I cycled around here for two summers. I used to cycle up to Scarborough, Whitby, a long way actually. You get to know it, and you know it’s hilly if you’re cycling. I was always attracted to it. I always thought it had a space. One of the thrills of landscape is that it’s a spatial experience.”

He’s no longer riding a bike, but I think he is recalling how the particular sensual, rhythmic experience of travelling in a landscape by bicycle – the kinaesthetic qualities of bicycle travel – contributes to the cyclotouriste’s appreciation of the character and meaning of particular places.

Cycling is a functional mode of everyday transportation but it is also a pastime. Driving a car for pleasure (‘motoring’) was once a common pastime but is increasingly rare. People drive with a purpose or destination in mind. Hockney’s own reacquaintance with the East Yorkshire landscape was through a period of daily car journeys to visit a terminally ill friend. Any enjoyment of the journey is largely incidental to getting from here to there. It’s not hard to see why. Drivers are confined behind the wheel, encased in a small metal box, removed from the elements. Their view is framed and constrained by the windscreen and anyway modern cars travel at speeds that allow only the most fleeting appreciation of the surroundings.

It is by walking (and perhaps swimming) that we achieve the most intimate connection with nature and of place, yet when walking or swimming it is difficult to cover much distance or to experience the changing shape and character of the landscape, to experience it as it unfolds around us. The bicycle is perfect for plugging into the Bigger Picture. A cheap, light, noiseless machine that affords total immersion in our surroundings and enables us to cover relatively large distances with minimal effort. The chief drawback compared to walking is that the cyclist is more confined to roads and byways, whereas the walker has the most freedom to roam at will (especially if prepared to trespass).

The road is a familiar Hockney motif and it is a near constant in these paintings. Roads that twist and turn in extravagant loops, roads that roll cheerfully across the landscape, dipping behind hills and returning to crest the next ridge. Roads that travel through woods, arched over by trees that form arboreal tunnels in which light and dark stripe the tarmac surface. These are roads with personality, even down to their surface which is carefully observed and rendered. In the small number paintings where the road is unseen it is clear that the landscape is being viewed from the road, looking out across a hedgerow or or verge rich with foliage and star-spangled with cow parsley. These are roads where you are unlikely to see many cars. Roads along which cyclists like to ride.

Hockney’s Tunnel series presents the same view of a single green lane lined by trees on each side at different times of year. With its thick grass mohican running down the centre it’s easy to picture a lane like this on any countryside ride.

Like Hockney, the cyclist returns to the same lanes, noticing the changes in the season, the weather, the time of day, variations in light and vegetation. After some years the cyclist would really know that lane very well. It is exciting to adventure into a new places, and ride along untravelled roads, but what cyclists most often find themselves doing is returning to the same places, the same roads, over again. New places can be thrilling, but familiarly can bring with it a deeper understanding and affection for a place.

Photograph above by Simon @ the Unofficial Hockney Trail

After three decades abroad, Hockney has returned to the countryside of his youth, bringing with him the dramatic light and shade and sublime, super saturated pigments of the American West. Along with his gift for composition he puts this luxurious palette to work in rendering the English countryside in a bold new light that is unexpected yet I think utterly faithful to the lived experience of total immersion in the landscape.

The colours, shapes and textures of the English countryside are as exciting as those in southern California or anywhere else in the world. Vast, constantly changing skies, clumps of acid green euphorbia, deep red beech forests, an iridescent woodland carpet of bluebells, banks of hot pink willowherb and perhaps most spectacular of all, the hawthorn blossom that erupts between the coming of spring and the early summer. Hockey dubs this ‘Action Week’, a reference not just to the growth in the hedgerows but to his own relish at being out there and painting them.

This time of year is startling to behold and Hockney brings passion and excitement to his canvasses, to the point of putting off many of the critics. No doubt, it is an escapist, optimistic, romantic vision of the countryside. But I think it is quite honest and no more sentimental than he means it to be. Hockney pastoral. There are no off-motorway distribution centres, fly-tipped rubbish, wind turbines, ‘luxury home’ developments or industrial farming paraphernalia. He is not drawn to the hallmarks of the Edgelands or the Unofficial Countryside beloved of contemporary psycho-geographers. There’s nothing wrong with Iain Sinclair stalking around the semi-derelict industrial estates of the periurban fringe and taking pleasure in their toxic trades, but that’s not what Hockney’s work is about. It’s about experiencing the relentless forces of nature, observing the shapes and colours of the vistas and plant forms and embracing the simple joys of being out there in the wind and the sun and the snow and the rain, the owls and the bats and the blossom and the bees, the trees and the leaves and the fields and the streams. All of which still exists in every corner of this island, no matter what anyone says about concreting over the countryside. It makes me want to get on my bike and ride.

All images are copyright David Hockney (except where otherwise noted) and reproduced for purposes of criticism or review in accordance with Section 30 (1) of the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act 1988.

Another day for you and me in Carradice

Jack travels over the Yorkshire moors to Nelson, Lancashire to visit one of the oldest and most venerable companies in British cycling. Cotton mill worker Wilf Carradice began producing his indestructible canvas saddlebags in the 1930s and in 2011 sales are booming. Owner and MD David Chadwick tells the story of a family business and we get a tour of the factory. For more history of Carradice, there is a good article over at Classic Lightweights.

This is the latest in a series of special features on British cycling manufacturers. Listen to previous features on Brooks saddles, Brompton folding bikes and Alex Moulton.

Some of Jack’s photographs from the factory are below.