In which Andy looks at some bicycles pinned to a wall
If you follow us on Facebook or Twitter, you'll know that the Beano staff had a day out in London recently. (A Beano beano, even.) We dropped into the Design Museum near Tower Bridge to have a look at its latest exhibition, 'Cycle Revolution':
'Cycle Revolution... celebrates the diversity of contemporary cycling in Britain from every day commuting to Olympic level competition and looks at where design and innovation may take the riders of the future.'
We had an enjoyable couple of hours taking in the cycling exhibition and the 2015 Design Awards display upstairs, and a nice lunch in the café - but I'm in two minds about the exhibition itself.
The organisers decided to focus on what they quaintly describe as four 'tribes':
'... the High Performers who reach Olympic speeds, the Thrill Seekers who take on all terrains, the Urban Riders who pedal our cities mile by mile, and the Cargo Bikers who work on two wheels.'
Clustered together in the High Performers section are the machine Eddy Merckx used to set the world hour record in 1972, Chris Boardman's famous Lotus bike from the 1992 Olympics and the bike Bradley Wiggins used to set a new record in 2015. If you're interested at all in bike design, it's a fascinating juxtaposition, and they're all displayed artfully suspended against a white background with subtle lighting. (Imagine a bike shop run by Apple.)
The 'Thrill seekers' section has everything from the world's first production mountain bike to a specially-adapted downhill bike with a bucket seat, created for stunt rider Martyn Ashton after he was paralysed from the waist down in 2013. Nearby a looping video shows trick rider Danny Macaskill doing his jumping-from-rooftops thing [YouTube link]. (Don't try this at home. Or on a Beano holiday. Please.)
Commuters and cargo-carriers
Around the corner, a small area dedicated to custom builders leads into the section on urban cycling, featuring - inevitably - the Brompton folding cycle, favourite of design buffs everywhere. There's also an area dedicated to the similarly hallowed Moulton bicycle, with some interesting miniature models showing how designer Alex Moulton originally toyed with some radical aerodynamic designs.
Display cases show an assortment of accessories for the modern urban cyclist (a roll-up mudguard, a two-piece tweed cycling suit, a folding helmet...) while an array of practical cargo-carrying vehicles is completely upstaged by the outrageously over-the-top Boxer Rocket electrically-assisted trike, styled to look like something out of a 1930s science fiction movie and capable of carrying one adult passenger or four children. I wouldn't be able to ride it without screaming 'Dispatch War Rocket Ajax!' at the top of my voice as I set off.
Finally a section on the future of cycling dispenses handy factoids by the dozen, alongside examples of futuristic pedal-driven transport, not to mention a bicycle built entirely out of wood (yes, even the gears).
Do Not Touch
'So what are you whingeing about, Andy?' I hear you cry. Well, a couple of things. First is that the Design Museum is very old-school when it comes to exhibits. I wasn't expecting to be able to ride bikes around the room, but "Do Not Touch" notices were plastered everywhere, even on the sample steel frame tubing laid out in the custom Build area. The tubes were secured to the workbench by cables, so it wasn't as if they were going to go walkabout. Clothing items were pinned up inside glass cabinets, making it impossible to appreciate the way jersey fabrics have changed over the decades or the features of that natty tweed jacket. Creations like the roll-up mudguard or the folding helmet are hard to take in unless you can try them out.
Perhaps it's inevitable in a small space, but I'd just come from an exhibition in Somerset House where almost everything was hands-on, and the contrast was striking.
The lost tribe
More serious though is the whole "Tribes" theme. Apart from making it sound as if cyclists are divided into warring factions, I can't help feeling there's a tribe missing. Actually there are several, but I'm thinking mainly of the folk who go cycling because they enjoy it. The people who go out for day rides, the Sunday morning club run, an afternoon potter along the canal towpath with the kids, or an epic cycle-camping expedition across Asia. The people who appreciate that sometimes it's about appreciating the journey itself - the scenery, the feeling of the wind in your hair, the hiss of tyres on tarmac, the thrill of exploring a new trail through the woods - not about how fast you can go or how scary you can make it. Of course many of those people will also be cycle-commuters or competitive riders - I've even entered a few time trials myself. (I didn't win.) But if you ignore leisure cycling, you ignore possibly the biggest grouping of cycling activity in the nation. And that's a shame.
Cycling for pleasure has played a pivotal role again and again through the history of the bicycle: the very first 'hobby-horse' machines were ridden for pleasure; cycling was a key liberating factor for the women's movements of the late 19th century; the explosion of cycle-touring in the 1930s gave workers an affordable way to escape the grime of the city for the countryside. Even today, most of the off-road routes created along old railway lines by Sustrans and others are used primarily for leisure cycling. The last few years have seen a revival in the production of bikes designed specifically with touring or day-rides in mind - often masquerading as 'training' road bikes or 'cross bikes, with more relaxed seating positions, space to fit wider tyres and fittings for racks and mudguards. And it's not as if it's an area short of design innovations.
But perhaps I'm being picky. The exhibition is well worth a visit, especially if you can get discount tickets as we did (see below). If you're within visiting range, go and take a look and let us know what you think.
'Cycle Revolution' runs until 26th June 2016 at the Design Museum, Shad Thames, London SE1 2YD. Nearest tube stations are Tower Bridge or London Bridge - or why not hire a Boris Bike and follow the cycle routes near the South Bank of the Thames?
Entry to the Museum is £13.65 for adults. We travelled to London by train, so we took advantage of the 2-for-1 offer available through National Rail's Days Out Guide scheme. If you want to use this, remember to download and print the discount voucher before you travel; you'll need to show both the voucher and your train tickets at the venue.