The good bits first. Even if you are familiar with a lot of bicycle technology history or racing stories, there is a lot to be learned here presented in an attractive and entertaining manner. The book offer up more than 600 photos. For the most part these are archival and many are pretty familiar but serve well to illustrate the stories. There also studio photographs highlighting exceptionally interesting bicycles. Fans of Ray Dobbins will recognize some of his super-sharp pictures of classic steel bikes, bicycles so gorgeous you wish they were still made.
The 49 chapters are an alphabetical compendium of the most illustrious names in the industry, starting with Atala and winding up with Wilier Triestina. Some of the histories are well-known (Colnago, Campagnolo, Bianchi, Schwinn) but many others are obscure. Billato? There are plenty of nice tales, such as the one about the founders of Cervelo writing to Gianni Bugno by addressing the envelope of their letter to “Gianni Bugno, Italy”–and getting a reply. The background story of Cervelo is an exception: it is a recent company founded by engineers dancing to the tune of higher technology. Improvements in technology are the subject of what might be the best chapters in the book:. Reynolds for butted steel tubing; Mavic for wheelsets; Look and Time for carbon frames and clipless pedals.
These are the strengths of the book. The major weakness is the linking together of all these stories. “Bike!” describes itself as “A Tribute to the World’s Greatest Cycling Designers.” This is not really the case as it becomes apparent if one reads chapters consecutively that many of the stories are actually about producers of pretty similar diamond-framed lugged steel bikes that really were distinguished by the quality of pro riders who used them.
Take for example the cases of Flandria or Concorde, ridden to big wins by famous riders but producing bikes that were really no different from the lovely Mercian bikes produced in England and ridden by nobody particularly famous. The editors clearly like leading-edge technologies but are weak-kneed when presented with a Masi of the Golden Age and can’t quite decide which direction they want to go. Well, they do want to go British for the home audience since not only is the admittedly-enchanting Mercian here but also the Lotus Superbike (under the Mavic chapter–demmn’d Frenchies!) and even Graeme Obree’s one-off track bike that has had pretty much zero influence since the UCI noticed it. “Greatest Designers” indeed…
Most bicycles are not much the product of individual designers and many successful racing bike makers were, or are, huge companies such as Peugeot, Giant, Trek, Specialized or the octopus-like Grimaldi group (Bianchi, Gitane and seemingly half the bike brands in Europe, with the other half in the hands of the Derby Group and Dorel Industries). There were exceptions even in these big companies: Raleigh had a tiny, separate atelier for pro-level bikes called the Special Bicycle Development Unit (SBDU)–which is incorrectly referred to in the book as the later Special Products Division–and Batavus and Bianchi had similar little shops for the highest of the high-end. Of course, balancing the behemoths are chapters on DeRosa, Masi and Pegoretti, “builders of trust” for very picky pros. It would have been great to read about framebuilders who influenced generations of Italian builders afterwards, such as Pogliaghi or Umberto Dei, and about whom nothing much is written.
A stronger editing hand would have been welcome given the large number of contributors seemingly working independently on “Bike!”. The constant repetition of the fact that pros have ridden bikes that are disguised with team sponsor logos rather than the name of the builder who actually built them grows irritating. The DeRosa chapter contains a story about the obsessed Eddy Merckx which is repeated in the immediately following chapter written by a different contributor on Merckx himself.
Hyperbole appears from time to time, such as the claim that hiring a handful of Anglophones in 1977 at Peugeot hastened pro cycling’s development from a niche sport to a global enterprise. It didn’t and it isn’t. That would have been track racing, once upon a time. Peter Post’s TI-Raleigh team is described as “arguably professional cycling’s first real team,” a statement that is arguably nonsense. However, delicious British understatement appears when Peter Post is described as “slightly abrasive,” when “famously abrasive” would have been much closer to the mark! And Giant is described in its chapter as the biggest bike company as well as not the biggest.
The other argument against this kind of book (and it is far far from alone in sinning) is the impression the Bike World is the best of all possible worlds. This panglossian view means we don’t read about the big blunders (although we do hear about a lot of feuding brothers) such as Mavic’s recall of its carbon-spoked R-SYS failure-prone wheels or the complete disaster that ensued when Campagnolo entered the mountain bike sphere. Even the Greatest are prone to marketing silliness, such as Colnago’s “B-stay” chainstays or split downtubes. And it would have been nice to see some more references to women, who only appear fleetingly in the Pinarello chapter. If you want to go all-British, how more so than with the amazing Beryl Burton, a Raleigh rider?
These very minor points aside, “Bike!” is a beautiful book that deserves a place as a good reference source in every cyclist’s library. The stories are great as well as the photos. With the maximum chapter length being four or five pages, dipping in is irresistible. The exclamation mark is deserved.
“Bike!,” edited by Richard Moore and Daniel Benson
Aurum Press, 2012, 352 pp., hardbound
ISBN: 978 1 78131 011 3
Suggested price: 25 GBP
When not oiling the chains of his 14 vintage bikes and pining for polished lugs, Leslie Reissner may be found at tindonkey.com