I’ve finally taught my youngest daughter to ride a bicycle. My other two kids got the hang of it quickly. With Katrina, though, it was been an endless round of crashes, grazed knees, tears and tantrums. It took her an age to grasp how to balance a bicycle by steering it – the mystic principle at the heart of the machine. It’s a great leap of faith to manoeuvre the handlebars right when the bike is leaning to the right and vice versa. It’s counterintuitive and difficult to teach, especially to your own kids.
In The Complete Cyclist, published in 1897, A.C. Pemberton wrote: ‘What each learner must remember is simply to turn the handles in the direction in which he is falling… the rest is easy’. Perhaps I should have got Katrina going on a ‘balance bike’ – the elementary form of the bicycle without pedals, crankset and chain.
Ironically, the modern balance bike is a re-working of the earliest prototype bicycle – the ‘Draisine’. Invented by an eccentric German aristocrat, Baron Karl von Drais de Sauerbronn in 1817, it comprised two wooden wheels in-line, connected by a wooden bench that the rider straddled, and an elementary steering system. You propelled it by paddling your feet along the ground, hence it’s nickname the ‘pedestrian-accelerator’.
The big, unanswered question about the origin of the bicycle is: why, when technology made it feasible for at least three and a half millennia, did it take mankind so long to invent the ‘Draisine’? One hypothesis is that nobody believed you could actually balance on two wheels in-line. It is possible that Drais only worked it out himself by chance. He may have anticipated stabilising the machine by almost constant use of the feet: only when it was built, and he was ripping down a hill did he raise his feet from the ground and realise he could balance on two wheels in-line if, and only if, you can steer.
If you restrain or lock the steering on a bicycle, you cannot ride it. If you’ve ever got the front wheel of a bike stuck in a tram track, or off-road in a narrow rut, you’ll know what I mean. By steering the handlebars the way the bicycle is leaning, putting the centre of mass back over its support, it regains equilibrium. Only temporarily, of course, for a bicycle follows more or less a curving trajectory, continually deviating a little to one side or the other. I’ve often wondered if it is this – the eternal serpentine course of the bicycle, the ‘dignified curvature of path’ as H.G. Wells called it – that lies at the root of my love for the machine.
I can’t actually remember learning to ride a bike myself. At least, I can’t recall the precise moment of epiphany when the stabilisers came off and I discovered equilibrium. I wish I could. For many, it’s a distinct and thrilling turning point in childhood. It’s also one of a handful of physical experiences that the greater part of humanity shares. It’s something that tied us all together long before globalisation was a buzzword and the internet existed. And it’s why I’m mad to get Katrina riding.
Written by Rob Penn, 25/04/2014