11 February 2016

They Didn't Come As A Shock Then...

Writing recently about "path racers" and the mountain bike experiences of my youth got me to thinking of just what it means to be a "mountain" or "path" rider--and what makes bikes suitable for those kinds of riding.

I also got to thinking about how and when those kinds of riding came to be seen as distinctive from other kinds of riding, and how the terms to describe them came to be.

It seems to me that those kinds of cycling and bikes--as well as cyclo-cross and bicycle motocross (BMX) evolved as specialties within cycling because of paved roads. 

Think about it:  In the early days of cycling, there were few paved roads.  And the few paved roads had gravel, cobblestone or granite sett (a.k.a. Belgian Block) surfaces. Thus, most of the time, cyclists were riding under conditions that, today, we would equate with off-road or cyclo-cross--or what the Brits would call "rough stuff".

If you are a mountain or cyclo-cross rider, try to think of what your rides would be like with solid rubber tires--or no tires at all. In other words, think  of what it would be like to ride your favorite trail on bare wood or metal rims. That is, I believe, what normal riding conditions would have been like for most cyclists before the pneumatic tire was invented in the late 1880's.

And to think cyclists rode, not only without the cushioning of air-filled tires, but on front wheels that were almost as tall as the riders themselves!

So, really, it's not surprising that there were attempts to incorporate suspension into bicycles. 

This Blackledge bicycle, patented in 1890, uses a spring in the fork assembly to soften the blows from the rough roads of the day.  It seems that ever since the "safety" bicycle (two wheels of more or less equal size) was invented, attempts to incorporate suspension into bicycles began with the front fork.  For one thing, we feel road shock first at the front.  For another, shock to the front is more likely to upset our balance or momentum--and cause crashes-- than shock at the rear.

This Tillinghast bicycle, patented the following year, has another interesting front suspension system as well as a unique kickstand built into the pedals:

Still, attempts to soften the ride--and make the bike more stable on rough surfaces--weren't limited to tinkering with the front end.  Here is a drawing submitted by Fernand Clement for the suspension bike he patented in 1892:

Here is another early rear suspension system on a J.H. Mathews bicycle, patented in 1891:

Hmm...Wouldn't it be fun to envision Messrs. Blackledge, Tillinghast, Clement and Mathews showing up at Tamalpais a century after they created these bikes...but just before Rock Shox, Marzocchi, Manitou came along?


  1. As yes: solid rubber tires! This country phased out army bicycles in the late 80's. A friend of mine who was in the army in the 80's and in a bicycle brigade said they had one bicycle with solid tires, 45mm wide, left over from the Second World War. The brigade moved around a lot, up north in Lapland, and everybody carried fully loaded infantry backpacks and rifle. If you were unlucky enough to draw that bike, and it was a long haul, you walked bow-legged for a couple of days after that, he said.


  2. Leo--Riding that bike could have served as physical training for the brigade. No need for 50 km hikes or obstacle courses after riding 45mm solid tires, wouldn't you say?