A life more vicarious.

The Golden Age of Handbuilt Bicycles: Craftsmanship, Elegance, and Function by Jan Heine, with photography by Jean-Pierre Pradères

Today’s projected high temperature is 109.

109 degrees. Holy crap!

Even with the super high powered ceiling fan running on the max setting, without any air conditioning in that space it’s too stupidly hot to even think about working out there. There’s little sense of accomplishment when one is simply moving the stifling heat from one end of the room to another.

I don’t have a lot of project work waiting for me out there in any event: a mid-range Shogun that really looks as though all it really needs is cleaning, polishing, and new cables; a bit of studio straightening up – and beyond that, it’s simply nuts and bolts “busy work.” Things I can do just about any time.

It’s also too dangerously hot to spend much time on the road during daylight hours. I can only imagine that if the air temperature reaches anywhere close to 109, then the intensity of the heat radiating back up off the black tarmac of the paved road must be beyond silly.

So I plan to busy myself with other things that don’t involve me or the dogs budging from the air conditioned comfort of the house. Day dreaming, for instance, tops my list, perhaps because I realize that my summer freedom has come to an end. (I report back to work tomorrow morning.)

For the past several months, I’ve been nurturing an idea that I might want to try to build a bike up from scratch – something special, something customized to me. I am intensely interested in the fast, long distance bicycles of the French tradition – especially randonneuring bicycles. I am continually astonished and touched by the elegance of design exemplified by such bikes, especially as compared to many of the more modern carbon fiber spectacles that grace much of road riding today.

For my birthday I asked for and received a copy of The Golden Age of Handbuilt Bicycles: Craftsmanship, Eleganceand Function by Jan Heine, editor of Bicycle Quarterly, and photographer Jean-Pierre Pradères. This is a stunning book of superb bicycles photographed superbly. The reproduction is of extremely high quality and the design of the book is such that it is a real joy for the vintage bicycle enthusiast to wander, lost in rapture, from one page to the next. Jan Heine’s text is perfectly suited to the enjoyment of the classic bicycles illustrated, a combination of technical information with historical, biographical, and anecdotal; it is neither too much of one or too little of another. As in the fable of the three bears, it seems to me to be “just right.”

But of course the real stars of the book are neither the exquisite photography nor is it the well constructed text. The spotlight is clearly upon the bicycles themselves, depicted in all their splendor, and some of the incredibly clever solutions reached by early builders.

Is there an “art of the bicycle?” Or is the design and construction of these highly functional modes of transportation centered squarely in the realm of craftsmanship? Maybe there is no easy answer. I personally believe that in its highest form, the bicycle is a beautiful combination of form and function that not only operates with precision and perfection, but also is designed to appeal to one’s sense of aesthetics. So many things in our world can be – and are – created entirely to be functional, without any sense of thought as to human embellishment. Ellen Dissanayake describes a distinctly human behavior as “making special.”

I’ve always felt that when humans take a thing and embellish it, decorate it, design it (you get the point: When we choose to make something special) that we’re communicating the intensely personal importance that these things have for us. And if my premise is accurate, then the 50 classic bicycles pictured in this book must have held great importance for the builders and the riders that followed.

Today I plan to enjoy this lavishly photographed book in the comfort of my air conditioned home and live just a bit on the vicarious side.

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