Wheels, history, and why.

by cyclicalmotions


For years I have thought about the history of bicycles. Not only in just lineage, nor in it’s patronage, but of its part of a hierarchy of systems. The concept of wheeled transport revolutionized the world, as we all know, but it left us wanting.

Yes, the wheel made things faster but only as fast as the stubborn animal pulling it. There was no simple method for us to speed up the motion as well as the handling until we found a way for us to control every aspect of motion. In some areas of the world the horse and buggy adapted into the rickshaw. This made massive sense. If you placed the weight you carried behind the axle sit would push the handles up. All we had to do was push them down and move. Hell, we could run.

In Europe we made the hobbyhorse. The bone shaker some called it. It was a bike without pedals. We could suspend our weight upon the frame of the contraption and let our legs swing beneath us, pushing our way to fun and good times. Soon that got boring and actually, it hurt like hell. You were basically placing your genitals between a rock and a hard place and then slamming those hard places into the rutted rock strewn streets and paths of pre modern Europe and early America. Some thing had to change.

Common engineering thought went to the constructions around us. The Iron bridge was just starting to show itself and iron became the answer to every great engineering problem. This is for good reason, iron is strong and if made in small enough section it can flex and not break. Just like a great fencing épée it can almost bend in to circles with out cracking yet be strong and stiff enough to hold its own straight shape to thrust and slice. Smart tinkerers began to make steel or iron hoops held taught by tensioned wires called spokes laced to a cylinder that held a bearing surface that was called a hub. This looked no different then any other wheel before but it was completely different. Instead of supporting weight with solid matter, this wheel suspended weight with its spokes. Imagine an old chariot wheel, or a wheel on your car for that matter. Weight is applied to the hub, the thing in the middle and gravity pulls it to the earth. The wood ( or in your car, the metal ) underneath it holds this weight up. It is like the columns in the Parthenon holding up the roof.

But this new wheel changed everything! The weight imparted upon the hub and pulled down by gravity was now suspended! It was held up by the tensile wires strung to the hub. The wires underneath the hub had all of the weight of load removed from the tension along its length. Brilliant!

Why was this brilliant? Why? Might you ask? Because tensile wire gives in the middle! They can stretch a little and bend a little. Then they go right back to their old shape. (more or less)

Weight can now be suspended and shock can be dissipated.

In the mind of the common tinkerer this could be manipulated to great length! The larger the wheel the more give! So make the hobby horse with massive wheels! Massive wheels roll over small bumps with less distortion so make them even bigger!

Only now, you can’t touch the ground to push yourself along. Hell, the ideal length is double your inseam for crying out loud! How do you move yourself with that? Add some cranks to the wheel! Make the wheel a little shorter and the crank a little longer and you can pedal away with ease. Get that wheel moving and it will hold you upright with out worry.

Mounting and dismounting were a little hard but with practice and a good sturdy mailbox all was well. Men even raced the darn contraptions all over the place.

Then Dunlop, an Irish doctor, invented the pneumatic tire. A rubber and cloth bladder in the shape of a connected tube that could be placed between the wheel and the ground. That bladder took up a lot of that shock and it put the final nail in the coffin of the high wheeler and made it possible for everyone to be able to ride bicycles they deemed “safe”. Where the wheels were the same size.

This is where the trend splits. Wheel size.

Europe ran many different sizes. As did we. Yet there was a point where things began to simplify.
At first there was outside diameter. Wheels were measured to the outside diameter with the tire on. Want a wider, more compliant tire? Buy a smaller wheel and the overall package will be the same size. For frame manufacturers this was the way to go. Every thing fit perfectly. Every thing looked good.

For consumers this basically sucked. Need a 27×1 1/4″ tire? Sorry, I only got 1 1/8″ and 1 1/2″ so….. go to the next guy. For tire manufacturers the most difficult to manufacture part (the wire bead) was the part that always changed. After a while they said no more. Sizes were limited to specific ISO measurements.

What do ya want to ride? What should you ride RIGHT NOW? Well lets think of the ride qualities needed?

In Europe the larger wheels held court. Cobblestones could vary their height any where from one to one and a half inches and placed so close to each other a large wheel would roll over them easier causing less variation in the disruption of the paths of the axles. This made the ride and the roads feel smoother.

In America the smaller 26″ wheel became supreme. It had a larger tier that would float over loose road dirt and mud easier, it also used air pressure to smooth out the ride. The large bumps in the form of ruts and stray tree roots and things would be handles easier because the wheel was stronger. It could hit those bumps harder and not be disrupted.

Now you can understand the development of the cruiser and the subsequent American Mountain bike. We can also appreciate the familial links between the Dutch style cruiser and the British three speed and the newest euro styled road racing bikes.

My question to you is what do you think is better?
If we were to design a new “American Urban” bike what would it have? How would it be built?
What wheels would we use? The roads are getting worse, (don’t get me started on infrastructure in America) and we still wanna ride.
How do we make it work?