27 October 2009
Cycle Chic Guide #6: Safe Bicycles
The Cycle Chic Guide to Safe Bicycles is really quite a simple concept. It all starts in our childhoods when our mothers taught us to sit up straight. All we need to do is apply this simple advice to riding bicycles.
The invention of the so-called 'Safety' Bicycle around 130 years ago was a revelation and and revolution. It provided easy and effective urban mobility for the masses and the masses were quick to hop on board.
Prior to the invention of the Safety bicycle, bikes were the domain of the sub-cultural upper classes who got their kicks on the contraptions by racing them and trying to outdo each other in daredevil stunts. Calling the design of the bicycle that we still use today the 'Safety' bicycle was simply a marketing move aimed at distancing the bicycle from the speedfreaks and 'daredevils' in order to sell bicycles to women and men in the other classes.
If all this sounds familiar it's because we are currently revisiting this pivotal point in bicycle history once again. In many Emerging Bicycle Cultures the male-dominated adrenaline crowd have had decades to brand cycling as a sport or adrenaline-based recreational activity, with little or no opposition to their marketing.
Now, fortunately, we are all very aware of the importance of urban mobility, creating liveable cities and using the bicycle as a tool to re-establish bicycle culture in urban centres around the world - and harvesting all the fruits that this move entails. These are exciting times for urban cycling.
Bicycle advert from the late 1800's.
So, is the upright Safety bicycle safe? Yes, it is. There is a very good reason that it has been the most popular bicycle on the planet for more than a century. If you morphed all the bicycles in the world right now into one bicycle, you'd end up with an upright model. It would probably be black, with three speeds and a chainguard/skirtguard and coaster brakes.
Why is the upright bicycle safe? First of all, have a look at the two girls in the photo at the top. Look at their posture. Not only pleasing their mothers, it is elegant. But more than that, this upright posture means that their centre of gravity is in much the same spot as it is when they are walking. Homo sapiens have been around for about 200,000 years and prior to that, other upright-walking species have spent around 2 million years evolving this all-important centre of gravity to near-perfection. In other words, our centre of gravity is quite handy in helping us get around. In addition, it is something that we use every single day in almost every move we make. We're quite good at using it.
Look at the people on bicycles in this shot and compare their posture with the pedestrians in the background. There is little difference. All the centres of gravity are pretty much the same.
Compare this to the riding position on, for example, racing bikes. The upper body is pitched forward, which causes the centre of gravity to shift. In this position the point is dangling in mid-air somewhere over the crossbar. Just think about braking sharply. Your body must battle to keep the weight of your upper body from chucking you forward, which is unnatural for homo sapiens. In an upright position, your body knows how to readjust itself for this sudden stopping motion, much like when you stop suddenly when walking or jogging.
The racing position is great for people who... well... race or who like to go fast. Works perfectly for them, which is super. If you look at established bicycle cultures, the majority of people don't wish to adhere to this way of riding, prefering to merely use the bicycle as a quick and easy tool for getting around and wearing the clothes they have in the closets to do so. Not surprisingly, the upright bicycle is more often than not their vehicle of choice.
To illustrate the relaxed and natural upright position, here's a little film from Copenhagen. The majority of the people on bicycles in the film are using this safe, natural posture, on bicycles built for this purpose. This upright posture also raises you up above the cars, making you more visible on the urban landscape, instead of being hidden amongst the traffic, crouched over.
Acceleration on upright bicycles is also much easier, simply because your centre of gravity remains, largely, the same. You just stand up and assume even more of a walking posture.
Even if you have to lean a bit forward to accelerate a bit quicker the leaning forward motion is still not over-exaggerated, allowing you to maintain that all-important centre of gravity instead of tilting it into a more unstable position.
Much the same physics applies to the simple but important task of keeping an eye on what's around you, including traffic. Walking down the street and turning your head to see if the bus is coming is not far removed from sitting upright on a bicycle and turning your head to perform a shoulder check. Your balance is stable.
Try sitting at a table and lean over it, as though you were on a racing bicycle. Then try to perform a shoulder check. Odds are you'll be mostly checking your shoulder, as opposed to the traffic. If you want to get a clearer view, you'll have to shift your centre of gravity to the side. Rather unnatural for humans, not to mention unstable. Sure, you could look under your arm, like racing cyclists do, but then you're removing your vision almost completely from what's ahead of you. Not advisable.
While you're at the table, leaning over, try looking straight ahead. Your neck is not in a comfortable position the way you have to keep it lifted up. This isn't a problem you'll have when you're sitting up straight.
All of this is basic physics and we don't need a PhD to understand it. There is, however, a number of scientific studies showing that upright bicycles with step-through frames are integral in reducing accidents. Marc at Amsterdamize posted a piece about the healthy posture. And a ten-year study of bicycle accidents featuring elderly cyclists in Sweden by Ulf Björnstig at Umeå University resulted in him advocating step-through frames and lower seat heights. April Streeter over at Treehugger did a piece about this: Swedes Conclude: Girls' Bikes Safer
Besides the safety aspects of the upright bicycle, the design encourages you to have a look around your city when you ride, instead of speeding off. You'll notice more on your daily ride and, indirectly, feel more of a part of your city. This sense of community is a fantastic bonus.
Interesting, the rapid growth in sales of bicycles that feature "Easy Boarding", or a frame that makes it even easier to get on or off the bicycle, is an indication that the upright bicycle is experiencing yet another renaissance. Originally designed for the elderly, these easy boarding models are quickly going mainstream, thanks to their ultra low frame.
By way of illustration, the Danish brand MBK Cykler has this Queen Shopping model.
Biria in the States sell some fine looking 'easy boarding' bicycle models, too.
In earlier Cycle Chic guides we have offered up some opinions that relate to this post:
- Cycle Chic's Top 10 Gorgeous Bicycles
- Cycle Chic Guide: Gentlemen Prefer Bicycles
- Cycle Chic Guide to Choosing a Bicycle
And remember... Style over Speed is actually the greatest safety slogan in the history of cycling. Take it easy and enjoy the ride.