Top nine bicycle-related phenomenons of ancient history

You see a lot of top 10 lists this time of year: Top 10 music albums of the year, Top 10 clothing styles of the decade, Top 10 celebrity deaths by finger puzzle. So I decided to chime in with my own Top Nine list. Why nine? Because these are items that long preceded the past millennium but nonetheless made the bicycle possible–and until recently, our society wasn’t that good with zeros. Why ancient history? Because I don’t know that much about the carbon-fiber, ceramic-bearing, GPS-driven world of today’s high-tech bicycle consumers–other than the fact that the longer they stay out of the saddle, the faster they used to be.

So, what did ancient history do for the bicycle? Well, it all started with the…

IMG_0530Wheel. Obvious, right? Find a way to support a load and make it easier to move at the same time. Sure, you can put rollers under the load, but you’ll be forever feeding rollers under the front of the load and retrieving them after the load has passed. Rollers might be okay for building the pyramids, but the wheel is how you keep moving without bending over all the time. It’s the secret of the Chinese wheelbarrow. Well, the wheel and…

The axle. Without the axle, the wheel is almost exactly as useful as the practice of hoop trundling. But drill a hole in the center of the wheel and you can use an axle to attach the wheel to a wheelbarrow, a cart or eventually, a bicycle. Today, the wheel gets all the attention. The axle is still there, getting the job done without fame or fortune (unless you’re thinking about buying an axle and the other parts of a rear 40-hole Phil Wood disc brake tandem hub). Of course, neither the wheel or the axle would have gained much traction without…

Friction. In the mid-20th century, bicycle frames sported oil and grease fittings. If Charlie Cunningham’s vision had won the day, they might still. However, with tighter tolerances and the bicycle industry’s focus on replacement of parts (and bikes) rather than repair, anti-friction maintenance is largely limited to the chain. But there’s good friction, too. The friction that keeps your hands from sliding off the handlebars, the friction between brake shoe and braking surface, and the all-important friction that allows your tires to grip the road while accelerating and rolling through corners. With friction, you have something to push against, but that’s useless without…

P1090128A destination. If you lived in France centuries before A.J. Liebling, you might have lived in a cave rather than the Hotel Louvois. A cave, after all, does have its attractions: shelter from the elements, protection against unleashed animals, a place to display your art. But you have to leave the cave to find a date or food or to stare at the sun. In short, there have always been places to go and good reasons to go there. Bicycles simply make a lot of destinations more fun to reach. And that’s because of…

Distance. Walking uses the same fuel as basal metabolism. You don’t have to buy any equipment. There’s no better mode of transportation than walking. Babies know this. When you’re in the living room, you can see over the dog. When you’re on the kitchen table, you can see over the dinner guests. However, some destinations may be farther than you might like to walk. For instance, Boston when you’re in San Francisco or India when you’re in Ireland. I’m not saying you’re in a hurry, but people in a hurry aren’t in a hurry because of distance. They’re in a hurry because of…

10703551_856020004422371_157243709121472620_nTime. In our technological age, it’s easy to believe that time is something we invented. We make clocks so big they’re stored on top of buildings. We developed time zones so trains might run on time. Twice a year, the U.S. Congress indulges its oldest fantasy, that of thinking it can actually change time. But time isn’t a mechanism or the lines on a map or a roomful of humorless lawyers bent on protecting what might have been Ben Franklin’s most misunderstood joke. Time is what we used more efficiently than the wolves behind us. Time is the proof that distance exists, that some distances are too great, and some destinations, too unworthy of our presence. We hurry to make the most of time, though the fortunate among us have more than enough time to exist. We cannot run (or pedal) out of time, but time will inevitably run out of us. Which would be really depressing except for our innate sense of…

Balance. In the ancient past, before the wheel, the axle or the iPhone 6, our ancestors were practicing to ride bicycles, by which I mean they walked, practicing the art of the controlled fall from one step to the next, much as you control a bicycle by steering. The 20111109-092126.jpgbicycle falls to the left, you steer to the left–until the bicycle falls to the right and you steer to the right. Your goal, though you might not think of it as such, is to fall less to the side than you move forward. If you’re good at riding a bicycle, it may appear to an observer that you’re riding in a straight line. But the straight line is an illusion. And we know that because we have…

Vision. When Nuñez, a mountaineer in H.G. Well’s story “The Country of the Blind,” stumbled upon a valley full of blind people, he saw opportunity. As a sighted person, he imagined he would quickly become the ruler of those around him. But when he described the sense of sight to people who had never known sight, they assumed he was deranged. (They also believed that removing his eyes would cure him of his derangement.) What Nuñez thought of as his strength failed him because he misapplied it. Vision is for building and riding bicycles. We see a fallen log and imagine the wheel. We see a hinge and imagine the headset. We see the electric chair and imagine the Shimano Di2 digital shifting system. But maybe that’s not vision. Maybe that’s…

patch-kitIntelligence. Physically, the people of ancient history were the same as us, if not as heavy. Their minds worked the same way ours work. They didn’t build bicycles thousands of years ago because they were too busy coming up with the wheel and axle and bread and wine and beer. Forget the bicycle, the ancients were busy inventing time travel–transmitting their thoughts to younger minds and then to papyrus and paper for the illumination of later generations. They taught us what it means to be human–and how being a human is different from being a wolf or a rock or the lights in the sky on cloudless nights. Culturally, they did the heavy lifting. And because they disliked lifting heavy things, some of their descendants are fixated on the search for ever-lighter bicycle parts, while others are modern alchemists, transforming those shiny-new high-tech gadgets into something even more precious: cash.



About 16incheswestofpeoria

Former bicycle mechanic, current peruser of books, feeder of birds.
This entry was posted in Becoming a bicycle, Equipment, History and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Top nine bicycle-related phenomenons of ancient history

  1. Lar Davis says:

    So, no more howling at the moon, eh? Thanks for the tip.

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