The Pressures of Stardom
by Patrick Field

The most important component on any bike sits on the seat with its feet on the pedals. Unlike an inanimate engine the power and endurance of a human power-source increases with use, but no amount of training will induce the growth of a third lung or a second heart. This power limit makes all bicycle design a compromise. Performance improvements in one area will always be at the cost of function loss in another. For people who rely on bicycles for most of their transport needs -- where capital and storage space permit -- a range of machines, specified for various purposes, is often the most economical and convenient solution. Differences can be quite subtle; the transmission, the tyres or the brakes may vary but the basic geometry remains the same. Even small-wheel folders or suspension bikes are still easily recognised as variants of the 'velo classique'.

When your choice is a recumbent even the most ignorant bystander can see the difference. They may not even realise that what you are riding is nothing more nor less than a bike (or trike). Readers who have yet to experience the thrill of riding a flying sun-lounger should understand that, of course their performance characteristics are unique, but they are also only pedal-cycles.

Sat at the top of Drury Lane, London, WC2, (Muffin Man nowhere in sight as usual) waiting for the motor-traffic to clear. A scruffy fellow on a diamond frame speaks thus... "the trouble with that thing is that no one can see you." The remark was addressed towards the space I occupied and coincidentally we made eye-contact, spookily as if he were speaking to me.

I wish I could say that my reply ("Why are you talking to me if you can't see me?") was made in a spirit of cheerful enquiry, but near the end of a 220 km round trip, having not slept the previous night, my temper fell somewhat short of an ideal length. In fact I confess that I added the unnecessary and frankly discourteous "...you stupid tosser" to my question. The lights changed. The taxi rally ahead moved and the exchange concluded leaving my query unanswered. The man called after, "Well you look stupid anyway." Even in my jaded state the logician within was exercised. Is it possible to 'look' like anything when no one can see you? After a heavy session on the beer (or at the end of an all-night bike ride) does the invisible-man look rough?

This column has dealt before with the origins of the bizarre notion that motorists 'have trouble seeing cyclists'. The motorist's problem is not sensory but cultural they see us but unfortunately then behave not as if they have seen a fellow human but a potential obstruction that deserves all the respect afforded to a plastic cone. Observations lead to the conclusion that the weirder the machine you ride the more attention you get (Sound effect of moped-mounted, pizza-delivery boy mashing into the back of a saloon car because the former is looking too long and too hard at a trundling Brox.) and it follows that if you really want to be 'seen' the best plan is to ride around butt naked. In this context the idea that recumbents are somehow 'harder to see' than diamond-frame safety bikes is an odd one rooted more in fear of the new and the alas still rampant cyclist's inferiority complex, than any empirical study or rational thought.

Omnibus and hansom drivers, making the most of a heaven sent opportunity, had the time of their lives; messenger boys guffawed., factory ladies simply squirmed with merriment, while even sober citizens were sadly moved to mirth of a comicality which was obviously designed solely to lighten the gloom of their daily routine. There are many forgotten heroes in history, not the least of whom was the man who wore the first silk hat. His name and that of the first stalwart who carried an umbrella should be commemorated with my own for we all deserve immortality.

The author is Arthur du Cros a Dubliner of Huguenot descent, prime motivator of the Dunlop Tyre Company. The reactions he describes were to his first trip around the streets of London on a bike shod with pneumatic tyres. To du Cros's list of heroes I would like to append those of us who travel the public roads on recumbent cycles.


© Patrick Field
Cycling & Mountain Biking Today, February 1996

other stories by P. Field