When I was growing up in 1970s Glasgow, the more worldly-wise boy three houses down had a far more obviously cool bike than mine. It had a big, chunky back wheel, a cushioned saddle that curved up to provide back support, high handlebars and a tiny front wheel. Anyone of a certain age from the
will have instantly recognised from the description that my neighbour had a
Raleigh Chopper. UK
|A Raleigh Chopper: it was certainly popular -|
but are its riders still on bicycles now?
There has been an outpouring of nostalgia in recent weeks in the
UK over the Chopper
after Alan Oakley, the man who designed the Chopper for in the 1960s, died. Adults now in
their 40s or 50s waxed lyrical over how they’d nagged their parents for a
Chopper, envied other children who had them or ridden around their street on
The conspicuously absent stories, however, were of people riding any great distance on the bike type that, for a while, pretty much every young boy in
seemed to want. There were far more stories of people crashing because of the
bike’s inherent instability or doing permanent damage to their crotches as they
slid off the saddle onto the top tube-mounted gear lever. It could almost have
been deliberately positioned, after all, to produce such injuries. Britain
The Chopper looked, to many people at the time, like the wave of the future – but my suspicion is that it planted in many of my generation’s heads the idea that a bike was a toy motor vehicle substitute, rather than a means of transport. It was predicated on the principle that, to succeed, a bike had to look like a motor vehicle – specifically the motorbike that Peter Fonda rode in the film Easy Rider.
|The Invisible Visible Man's Surly Long Haul Trucker.|
This picture is making its third appearance on this blog -
but it would be churlish to cheat readers
of another chance to ogle it.
The contrast between a Chopper and the bike I mount every morning could hardly be starker. Despite being designed by the fairly “street” Surly brand, my bike, with its drop handle bars, leather Brooks saddle and conventional profile, looks as resolutely traditional as the Chopper tried to look radical and modern. But, as a machine to ride, it boasts technology that strikes me as a miracle when I think about it – and works so smoothly I barely ever do. I can flick between gears with barely a thought, stop smartly and haul heavy loads.
Most novices nevertheless look at my bike, ask if they’ve heard correctly what I paid for it, and struggle to work out where the money went. Like the children who preferred the gimmicky Chopper to a bike that would actually take one places, they prefer something cheaper but with the flashy features that suggest the bike concerned is superior. It takes an experienced cyclist to know the value of paying out for a bike that, while as uncomplicated as possible, boasts the best possible components and materials.
But no owner of the superficially attractive but rubbishy bikes of which the Chopper was a forerunner is likely ever to become an experienced cyclist. Thousands of scrapyards’ worth of such bikes lie abandoned in cellars, garden sheds or backyards worldwide. People who thought they’d try cycling bought them because they seemed good value for money – then found the tyres were prone to punctures, the frame was heavy and the poor-quality suspension soaked up much of the effort that should have gone into moving them forward.
|Nasty bikes (on the right) on Glasgow's Nithsdale Road.|
WARNING: some readers may find the cheap disc brakes
and nasty suspensions in this picture distressing.
I encountered a rare excursion for a flock of such bikes on a recent visit to my family in
I noticed some nasty-looking cheap mountain bikes clustered round a bike stand on
Glasgow Nithsdale Road
in Pollokshields then spotted their owners – two parents and a daughter of
around 10 – eating in the same restaurant we were patronising. Their meal
finished, the family strapped on helmets, unlocked the bikes – and headed home
up the narrow, obstructed pavement (sidewalk). Their unsatisfactory bikes were
clearly barely ever used. They had yet to realise how much greater a danger
cycling on the pavement – where each side street would raise the risk of a
misunderstanding with a car – posed to them than cycling confidently and
visibly on the area’s quiet, safe roads.
The question is what it is about bicycles’ aesthetics that leads to such perverse outcomes.
It would be nice to say it didn’t matter how a bike looked – but then I remember the reading party I attended during my third year at university. There was a discussion one afternoon of aesthetics, where a lecturer raised the question of whether it counted as art to hang a bicycle wheel on a wall. I, already a little besotted with bicycles, launched into a speech on the beauty of the relationship between the different spokes, the wheel’s combination of strength and practicality and so on. The lecturer grudgingly remarked that I might one day make a useful general cultural commentator.
It’s undoubtedly an attraction that many bicycles’ looks – the combination of strength and lightness, clear lines and the delicate meshing of a wheel’s spokes – are an uplifting example of economy and effectiveness in industrial design.
But at the same time there’s an attraction in seeing a bike that’s been fitted out neatly to do a job. My bike has front and rear luggage racks, mudguards and a couple of different hitches for hauling children. There’s an argument that the paraphenalia represent unattractive clutter around the bike’s neat lines. But I enjoy the feeling they’re there to do a job – that they make the bicycle useful, rather than the kind of machine whose rider has to hang shopping off his handlebars. Extras start looking like clutter to my eye when they stop being useful. I experience an almost visceral aversion when I see a cheap mountain bike with nasty, low-cost springs masquerading as a suspension. Look closely enough and most such bikes feature somewhere a sticker warning the rider that it can’t safely handle jumps or rough terrain. It doesn’t, in other words, function as its form advertises it should.
|A Charge Plug single-speed in the City of London.|
Sure, it's uncluttered. But how will its riders' knees feel in 20 years' time?
I find the current vogue for stripped-down, single-speed or fixed-wheel bikes depressing for similar reasons. The lines may be crisp and clean – but I can’t help feeling they reflect the modern era’s pessimism about progress. People seem to have grown tired of imperfect examples of multi-geared bikes or bikes with suspension and given up on the possibility of ever doing better. Fixed-wheel bikes’ recent popularity among commuters may not represent quite the same kind of retreat from progress as radical Islamism or the
’s Tea Party
movement – but I’d argue it shares a general intellectual background. US
Yet even my own main bike disguises its modernity with a retro-ish cover. That’s the dominant current aesthetic for pretty much any kind of decent bike not intended for top-level road or mountain bike racing. The ironic result is that the more committed someone is to the idea that cycling has a strong future the more likely his or her bike is to look like it comes from the past. It is extraordinarily rare to see a practical, well-made utilitarian bike whose designers had the confidence to make it look modern.
|A Scott sub35 hybrid. It may not be perfect -|
but it features mudguards, hub gears, sensible brakes
and looks, miracle of miracles, modern.
Nevertheless, manufacturers like Surly making retro-ish but effective bikes are unlikely to suffer as
has since it put its faith in gimmicky bikes. Even though I never owned a
Chopper, my first three bikes – including a bike I was riding regularly as
recently as ten years ago – were all Raleigh .
Like many British people, I was barely aware other brands were available. Yet
Alan Oakley’s death came less than a month after Raleighs , which once manufactured more bikes
annually than any other company, sold itself to Accell, a Dutch cycle manufacturer, for just $100m. Raleigh
I’ve remarked before on this blog on how magnificently the free market serves cyclists, even if many are reluctant to recognise it. It may mark a sad end for a proud British company. But, in ending the independence of Raleigh Cycle, which sold hundreds of thousands of British youngsters a gimmick for a bicycle, the market may have done cyclists yet another favour.