13 February 2016

His Spirit of Innovation Wasn't Suspended

The other day, I wrote about some bicycle suspension systems that were patented nearly a century before Rock Shox or Girvin Flex Stems came bouncing down the trails.

It's not as if the idea of cushioning the ride and rider died with the fin de siecle Bike Boom.  Indeed, some of you rode balloon-tired Schwinn, Columbia, J.C. Higgins or other bikes with a big spring in front of your handlebars.  That spring was attached to a bars that were, in turn, attached to the front fork.  How much that actually absorbed shock, I don't know.  I have long thought that they--like the "banana" seat struts attached to shock absorbers on bikes like the Schwinn "Krates"--were really intended to enable kids' fantasies of riding a "chopper" on the flats of Daytona.

Around the time that boys (and, on occasion, girls) were tearing up and down driveways and cul-de-sacs, one of the few American adults riding at the time was thinking about real, functional suspension for bicycles.  Having been one of the first commercial pilots (for American Airlines), he no doubt saw the value in keeping his bike stable and upright (the real purpose for suspension on cars and motorcycles) in turbulent conditions.

If you've on any kind of organized bike ride for, say, the past half-century, you have heard his name.  More precisely, you have followed his directions.

Yes, there was a real, live Dan Henry behind the "Dan Henry arrows".  While he is best remembered for his system of road symbols, his most interesting contributions to cycling may well be in the ways he made his bikes more comfortable and stable.  

I remember reading about Dan Henry's bicycle in an issue of American Cycling, the magazine that became Bicycling!  As I recall, the bike was a Rene Herse or Alex Singer--or that of some other prestigious French builder.  He made the mechanisms himself from springs and bar stock he obtained in auto-repair shops.  Again, if memory serves, he said that this system allowed him to ride the lightest tubuar tires and rims under nearly all conditions without getting flats or dinging his rims.

(Interestingly, he would later convince Clement to make tubular tires with butyl tubes, which are more durable and retain air longer than the latex tubes commonly found in high-quality tubulars.)

Another part of his "suspension system", if you will, was something he made himself--from a pair of handlebars, a tandem "stoker" stem and some canvas webbing.  

It seems that every decade or so, someone re-invents this saddle.  When I first became a dedicated cyclist (around the time I found that copy of American Bicyclist in the local library), a similar saddle called the "Bummer" was advertised in Bicycling!  I think one of the magazine's editors test-rode it, probably unaware of his perch's provenance.  

Perhaps it's not surprising to know that Dan Henry was also one of the early proponents of recumbent bicycles, and that he designed and rode such a machine.  I guess he was one of the first cyclists to see that high performance and all-day comfort needn't be mutually exclusive--and, as an engineer and pilot, was one of the first modern cyclists to have the background and skills to realize such a vision.

He died nearly four years ago, just short of 99 years old, riding almost to the end.  I wonder what he thought of some of the suspension designs--especially for downhill bikes--that have come along.


  1. Deep within my garage I have an old Moulton. When I was about eleven a local girl let me have just a couple of minutes on her new on and all my cycling thoughts lost their footing. This was surely the way to go and as O later found out it was the only bike capable of carrying a case of a dozen bottles of wine with ease. When I finally had enough cash to buy myself a new bike and said I wanted one the dealer informed me that they had not long gone out of business. Just as well since Raleigh had already reinvented it as a heavy lump of iron...

    I do not see one on your list, even the renowned Sheldon Brown owned several.

  2. Aren't butyl tubes heavier than latex ones?

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  4. Steve--Indeed they are. But I guess Dan Henry thought that, for most cyclists, the benefits of butyl would outweigh (pun intended) the few extra grams. Even with that added weight, a tubular would out-perform any clincher that was available at the time.