The Folding Society

Cycling and the fun factor - searching for the explanation

By John Prince

I come from a cycling family; my father rode a cycle all over the United Kingdom as a boy and young man, and his father actually made (in a manner of speaking) cycles.

My grandfather left to make his fortune in America, and after various adventures, which included being robbed of all his possessions in New York (an event which marked him for life), he ended up in North Dakota and, according to family legend, traded in furs with one hand whilst shooting the odd Red Indian with a six gun held in the other. The climate was too severe for his liking, so after a number of years he gathered his marbles and headed back to his homeland. On the way he met and married a lady in London, and had a not class typical Society wedding when he was about 33 years of age just in the closing years of the 1800’s.

Settling in Gloucester, he put his money into property, finally building a whole street of two up and two down houses in a working class area and, being a practical man, looked around for a way of making an honest (more or less) buck. Cycles were high fashion at the time (expect corrections from Pinky if I am wrong - all this is based on childhood memories), but the average man in the street had trouble affording one. My grandfather hit on several novel ideas to solve these problems and to make money: buy up old cycles, especially from those temporally fallen on hard times (lost a job or ill perhaps). These cycles, stripped, provided the basic stock. The potential customer, nearly always a tenant of one the houses, then visited granddad to discuss the specification required. My father particularly remembers references to an E.D. freewheel, and I suppose the wheels were build by hand. Frames were stripped to the metal and resprayed and hung in the scullery to dry. The cycle was then hand built to the customer’s specification, i.e. a proper custom job to be proud of.

Finance was a central pivot for success, and Grandfather spread a simple message; you could borrow a pound (£1) from him in the days of 240 pence to the pound for a mere 1d (one penny) interest charge. Have you spotted the catch? The penny charge was weekly; with 52 weeks in the year, my generous ancestor was cashing in 21.67% annual return … makes me wonder what he charged for the reconditioned cycles!

My father told me how revolutionary it all was for the average man in the street, when, whenever he wanted, he could jump on his cycle and roam far and wide. Freedom, compared with the previous limit of a far as one could walk in a day. It is a sobering thought that for centuries it was normal not to have travelled further than the next town! He needed no urging, and, starting with day trips out to neighbouring towns, he progressed to weekend trips to the seaside and finally holiday trips of several weeks all over the kingdom (due to my father’s job he got much longer holidays than was usual in those days). He cycled to Lands End and John O’Groats before progressing to a Douglas 350ccs flat twin motorcycle. After meeting my mother, my birth and the outbreak of war put a temporary end to his travelling, but in common with thousands of working class men at the time, he still cycled to work every day. He had a "rubbish" cycle for everyday use and a posh one for special occasions!

So, fun factor one is FREEDOM. Factor two is TRAVEL. Factor three is EXERCISE AND FRESH AIR.

Now, just as pets are said to grow to resemble their owners, I believe there is an affinity between the cycles a person likes and his character traits. So, no wonder were all have our own likes and dislikes!

A plodding, run-of –the-mill type may well look for these traits in his transport. So perhaps a standard roadster, sit-up-and-beg with no nonsense rod brakes, full chaincase and "sensible" three speed hub gear? Sporty types will crouch over drop handlebars watching the never ending view of the front tyre spinning; object - to cover a certain distance as quickly as possible and, whilst posing, talk knowingly of his special creation … titanium frame ...hand filed welds etc.

Others, with a sort of inverted snobbism, will let drop to the admiring crowds that his mount cost merely £5,000 (well only the best is good enough) and a fellow in the group is sure to get his kicks by explaining how his cycle was reclaimed from a skip and cost nothing.

So, further fun factors are

So, if we accept that our character traits may be reflected in our cycle choice, would it be reasonable to think that perhaps we get bored with the way we are, and use our cycles to experience something different, even foreign to our normal make-up? This would explain why some types seem to go out of their way to have exotic mounts – perhaps the only bit of colour in their lives. Others (and I belong to this group) are not satisfied with one mount, and using all sorts of "reasonable" excuses, accumulate a stable of many cycles. My excuse is that, according to my mood, I may chose a suitable cycle, and of course there is always the old favour of "horses for courses" to fall back on. Unfortunately, my wife does not believe a word of this, and demands regular weeding out and selling of surplus kit!

Now, the cycles themselves feed back fun in the way they respond. These responses are hard to define, and much is at best subjective, but as an opening suggestion how about:

  1. General overall feeling - lively, or dead?
  2. Frame and forks - .nice stiff feeling, or whippy?
  3. Handling road shocks -. absorbent, or rough ride?
  4. High speed stability - runs solid-as-a-rock, or about to shimmy?
  5. Ability to change direction - responds to a touch or heave and wait?
  6. Sum of the parts - greater than expected, or worse than expected?

Ask anyone who has tried to design and/or make a cycle - many of these design requirements are merely opposite ends of the same factor, and a compromise will have to be struck somewhere. This compromise may well result in an ideal solution for one particular person, but the slightest change to enable another different person to enjoy the cycle, may change characteristics beyond recognition; many of the above being inter-related.

Many methods of evaluation are, at best hit-and-miss, at worst merely personal bias expressed in words. So, I willingly accept the cycling scene as multifaceted, full of individuals, not to say individualists, who will proudly point to their mount as being the best possible solution - they have then proudly pointed to:

May cycling long remain the place where people of widely differing backgrounds, talents and ideals gather together to enjoy the wide spectrum, prepared to accept others who have different ideas.

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