By Jessie Bird
“Racing: A Need for Speed”- an emotion that we’ve all felt and the title of a recent exhibit at the Mercer Museum in Doylestown, PA. This exhibit followed the evolution of this need for speed from footraces to horse races to bicycle racing to motor racing, with a special insight into local Bucks County and Delaware Valley history. Artifacts, photographs, stories, and some interactive displays steered the visitor through the exhibit to see how each iteration of racing has built on previous generations. Have you ever raced the Philly Phlyer road race that happens every spring and thought about the shape and history of the course? Probably not when you’re facing heavy winds and just trying to hold on to someone’s wheel, but in this exhibit, you could see where this race borrows part of its course from 1920’s auto-racing in the same area. As I walked through this exhibit with Davey Dawson, a pro-cyclist for Delaware Valley’s own Team Skyline (a different and helpful perspective to add to my experience), we started to see how the races and rides that we know and love today evolved from a rich racing history in the area.
It turns out that the Belmont Plateau is not only the urban mountain biker’s best friend but used to be known for its horse races. One placard in the exhibit quotes a local newspaper from 1881 about the excitement surrounding a particular horse at the Thursday night Belmont race. Mountain bikers resumed the Thursday night racing tradition with their new mechanical steeds in 1989 and continue to shred into the present day. Photos of the Tour of Somerville (New Jersey) from 1964 prompted Davey to share his experience coming in top 10 in that same race this year. The Tour of Somerville started in 1940 and is still considered one of the most prestigious races in the area today.
However, some artifacts of the exhibit remain in the past, for better or worse. The text panel introducing the “Bicycle Racing” section laments the quick rise and long decline of the American cycling craze. In the now industrial wasteland of South Philadelphia near I95, there existed the thriving Point Breeze Park Velodrome that disappeared along with the waning revenues generated by cycling.
However, I felt less disappointed to see other artifacts stay in the past. No matter how beautiful the welding is on an 1868 Velocipede, I’m glad that the industry has developed lighter alloys and designs that bring us beyond the “boneshakers” of yore.
For a fun mixing of past and present, the museum mounted a mini-high wheel in a gold sprint type set-up and challenges visitors to test their speed. I asked Davey to be the guinea pig and comedy ensued as his pro-cyclist legs almost torqued the museum display out of its platform.
Overall the exhibit flows well and showcases the underlying human desire for speed and entertainment that gives runners, equestrians, cyclists, and drivers something in common. Each sport has built off of the other as technology advances and human limits push further and further. The exhibit ended with a bang on September 9th, the same day as the Bucks County Classic. If you’re in the area I highly recommend checking out the cycling events and making some time for the incredible Mercer Museum and all of its exhibits.Tweet Print
By Jeff Archer
In the late 1880’s, chain drive revolutionized the bike industry. Previously, the cranks were attached directly to the wheel such as on the 1885 Columbia ordinary (Bicycle Times Issue #8). With the ordinary bikes, the only way to go faster was to ride a larger diameter wheel, which made for a more perilous ride. The chain, running on different sized sprockets, allowed a return to normal sized wheels, which lowered the center of gravity and made the bikes safer to ride. They were marketed as “safety bicycles” and since this bike has non-pneumatic tires, it would be classified as a hard tired safety. The ordinary bikes were mostly very similar to each other since the design was constrained by the large, typically 48- to 60-inch wheel. With smaller wheels, the designs were much more varied.
One such design was produced by the Elliot Hickory Company. This bike featured a 31-inch rear wheel and 25-inch front wheel with a step-through frame design. Originally, the frame was marketed as a unisex design but Elliot also sold a traditional diamond frame for men. Since the safety bikes were new to the market, there weren’t the standardized parts like we see today. You didn’t buy off-the-shelf parts to assemble into a bike.
Unique parts can be found in almost every area of this bike. The wheels use wagon wheel technology with hickory rims, spokes and hubs. The framework aft the crank is also constructed from hickory. The lower chain stays would flex giving a more comfortable ride on the wagon-rutted “roads” of the day. The built-in hickory fender is also the sole support for the seat mast assembly which again would absorb vibration. The rear spoon brake is operated by a small chain running inside the frame which runs over a series of rollers inside the stem, head tube and frame. Since the chainstays are a fixed length, the crank assembly has built in adjusters to remove the slack from the chain.
Many of these features show up later with more advanced materials. Hickory becomes carbon fiber, internal chains become internal cables/hoses and the crank adjusters become an eccentric bottom bracket. Just a few examples of current features based on century-old designs.