Title: A Cycling Lexicon
Authors: Phil Carter and Jeff Conner (foreword by Paul Smith)
Publisher: Carter Wong design studio
Order: Carter Wong
What it is: A gallery of cycling headbadges.
Strengths: A beautifully produced book that is as much an object of desire as are the headbadges it showcases.
Weaknesses: Some will think headbadges are a tad too geeky.
Looking like a small Bible - it measures twelve-and-a-half centimetres by nine centimetres by four centimetres - the Carter Wong design studio's A Cycling Lexicon is itself a small object of desire that celebrates the delights of small objects of desire. To wit, the small metal headbadges that adorn classic bikes.
It's a little over a year now since we looked at the jersey project here on the Café Bookshelf and in some ways A Cycling Lexicon is ploughing a similar furrow, taking an often overlooked part of cycling - the jerseys there replaced here by headbadges - and, by showcasing them on their own, making you realise the artistry involved in something seemingly so simple and so everyday.
Different people will, obviously, get different things out of a book like this. On one level the bibliophile in me loves A Cycling Lexicon simply as a book - the size, the heavy paper used for the pages, the way the badges are laid out. Were I more conscious of the art or design worlds the badges would, I'm sure, tell me stories from those domains. I suspect that, were I a proper techs mechs geek, different headbadges would whisper stories to me of the frames they once adorned. Being the racing story geek that I am, obviously I see those stories when I look at some of these badges.
Pick a badge like La Française, Alcyon, Automoto, and the stories are easy for most to imagine, tales from the early decades of the twentieth century when men were men with big moustaches and bikes were bikes that tipped the scales at about the weight of Chris Hoy's left leg. Theses are well known names, as are the stories that surround them. Flicking through A Cycling Lexicon, though, my eyes were arrested by a headbadge that told a less well known story: that of FH Grubb.
Frederick Henry Grubb was one of Great Britain's early cycling Olympians, winning silver medals for both the individual and team time trials in the Stockholm Games. Two silvers back then meant something, the distances were mammoth - the 1912 time trial course ran 315 km around Lake Mälar and the first riders in the individual time trial had to be sent off at two in the morning, with the last rider off four hours later. Even finishing such a race you feel deserves some reward.
Two years later Grubb was a professional, riding for Automoto in France and Atala in Italy, in support of Lucien Petit-Breton. He was in Milan for the start of the 1914 Giro d'Italia, a gregario for the Argentine, the two-time Tour de France winner trying (yet again, after fruitless attempts dating back to the first Giro) to become the first rider to win both the Tour and the Giro. The 1914 Giro is a race Herbie Sykes writes about in Maglia Rosa: covering 3,162 kilometres in just eight stages it was the Giro that saw "not only the hardest percorso in the history of cycling but also the longest lone escape, the slowest speeds and some of the most apocalyptic weather conditions." And it was hell from the gun, with the first stage taking the riders - on their single speed steeds - to Sestrière, on the border with France. Between the terrain and torrential rain, that stage saw three riders in five throw in the towel, just thirty-seven of the eighty-one starters still in the saddle come the start of stage two. In the end, just eight riders made it back to Milan. Freddie Grubb was not among them.
Continental cycling didn't exactly agree with the non-smoking tea-total vegetarian from Brixton - "They'd stick an inflator in your spokes as quick as look at you," Grubb said of his professional peers - and he quit the game that same year, returning to London where he started a frame building business, then went to war with the navy. Returning to peace-time Britain he turned again to his first love and became a respected frame builder, incorporating the Italian tricolor into some of the headbadges that adorned his bikes. And one of those headbadges now adorns a page in A Cycling Lexicon.
Ok, now none of that story is actually told in A Cycling Lexicon - this is, remember, a pictorial book - but that's the story that I see when I see the FH Grubb headbadge. You might see stories of design, or of the bikes behind the badges, whatever. Some of what you see is clearly based on what you bring to the table. But it's that way these images cause you to call up your own stories that I love books like this for. They're books to make you stop and take time out to think.
(You'll all know the Grubb story this time next year: French Revolutions author Tim Moore recently rode the route of the 1914 Giro on a vintage bike, having read Sykes' Maglia Rosa and realised that, as well as the British angle offered by Grubb, this was the most epic of Grand Tours and perfect material for him to make a book from. Maybe then when you look at that headbadge in A Cycling Lexicon you'll see the same story I do.)
As well as seeing stories of individual badges, I'm also curious about the bigger story these badges have to tell: where did the idea for headbadges come from in the first place? One unlikely antecedent for them must be the maritime world's use of figureheads. Many civilisations have adorned their sailing vessels with ornamentation on their prow. Originally this was to ward off evil spirits or instil fear in the enemy. Later ships' figureheads acquired a new purpose, that of evoking - through their design - the name of the vessel. And sometimes, of course, they were just exercises in willy-waving: my ship's figurehead is bigger, bolder, more elaborate than yours. Looking across all the headbadges in A Cycling Lexicon one can possibly see them fulfilling all of these purposes, some acting as good luck charms, some telling the brand's name and some simply stating that my bike is more swanky that yours.
Wings and birds abound in the Jeff Conner's collection of badges showcased by Phil Carter and his team at Carter Wong design in A Cycling Lexicon, as do horses and lions. Speed and strength I would assume are the messages these images are meant to convey. Many badges just carry the maker's name or a monogram. Even these can be stylised things of beauty - Simplex's headbadge is a simple S-shaped affair with the name stamped on it. Some of the badges seem designed to evoke something local, such as the Dutch frame Avada which used a windmill. Some seemed to strive for exoticism, such as Paris Cycles, who used the Eiffel Tower even though they were based in London. The visual language used is drawn from many sources, with heraldic design seeming to be the dominant influence. I suppose one could look at headbadges as being miniature heraldic shields, suggest heraldry as another antecedent for these visual identifiers.
As well as looking backward one can also look forward from headbadges and see the hood ornamentation that once adorned the bonnets of cars. Think Rolls Royce's Spirit of Ecstasy, Mercedes Benz's tri-pointed star or Jaguar's leaping cat. These didn't come along until after the cycling world had already been using headbadges to adorn the front of bikes for a couple of decades. Maybe here the auto industry took some (unacknowledged) inspiration from the cycle industry. Which, given that many manufacturers operated in both worlds, wouldn't be surprising were it to be proved true. As well as an obvious auto-and-bike manufacturer like Peugeot, A Cycling Lexicon also has headbadges that adorned bikes from automobile manufacturers such as De Dion Bouton, the motoring Comte whose political spat with Le Vélo's Pierre Giffard helped lead to the creation of L'Auto. And there's also a headbadge from Halfords, the auto-parts trader today famous for selling bikes with Chris Boardman and Victoria Pendleton's names on them but who once sold bikes that carried their own name.
Today, of course, the auto industry has all but abandoned the stylised ornaments that once adorned a car's bonnet - more and more people buying, say, a new Mercedes or Jaguar simply don't want what was once a badge of distinction (even if they could have them, which in Europe they can't, with health and safety laws deeming them dangerous to pedestrians unless they are retractable). Aerodynamic concerns have also driven some to eschew the stately beauty of old. And the same is happening in our sport: in a cycling world weighted down with worries about aero efficiency and in sway to a size zero obsession, the old bolted-on metal badges have given way to lighter and more aero-efficient decals, some of which can themselves be things of beauty but few of which have quite the same charm as their metal ancestors.
We live in a world in which logos adorn everything. As citizens of the interweb social media encourages us to come up with logos for ourselves, avatars that define us. Everything needs a logo, a visual identifier, to make it distinct from everything else. Sometimes familiarity breeds contempt, we stop seeing these logos, even the ones that adorn our own bikes. They may no longer be the little metal badges of old, they may be more transient, but some can still evoke the spirit of design evident in vintage headbadges. By showcasing the past A Cycling Lexicon is a book that gives you pause for thought and encourages you to see these everyday badges of distinction in a new light. A Cycling Lexicon is a book that gives you a chance to appreciate the beauty of some truly wonderful small objects of desire.