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The History of Cycling in Fifty Bikes, by Tom Ambrose

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The History of Cycling in Fifty Bikes, by Tom Ambrose
Cycling’s history is full of nonsense, including the claim that Leonard da Vinci ‘invented’ the bicycle.

Title: The History of Cycling in Fifty Bikes – From the Velocipede to the Pinarello – The Bicycles That Have Shaped the World
Author: Tom Ambrose
Publisher: The History Press
Year: 2013
Pages: 224
Order: The History Press
What it is: A cycling miscellany
Strengths: Looks nice
Weaknesses: Facts

Tom Ambrose describes himself as a newcomer to cycling. His previous books have included: Godfather of the Revolution – The Life of Philippe Égalité, Duc d'Orléans; Hitler's Loss – What Britain and America Gained from Europe's Cultural Exiles; Mad, Bad and Dangerous – The Eccentricity of Tyrants; The Nature of Despotism – From Caligula to Mugabe, the Making of Tyrants; Prinny and His Pals – The Life of George IV; The King and the Vice Queen – George IV's Last Scandalous Affair; and Heroes and Exiles – Gay Icons Through the Ages. Before writing The History of Cycling in Fifty Bikes – From the Velocipede to the Pinarello – The Bicycles That Have Shaped the World, Ambrose says he had never written a word about cycling. By Christ is that obvious.

The History of Cycling in Fifty Bikes, by Tom Ambrose
The History of Cycling in Fifty Bikes, by Tom Ambrose
The History Press

As an example of pretty much all that is wrong with The History of Cycling in Fifty Bikes, let's look at what Ambrose has to say about my favourite mythical bike, the Mike Burrows designed Lotus 108 ridden to Olympic glory by Chris Boardman.

According to Ambrose, “before Burrows few had realised that no matter how good the components of a bicycle, it was the problem of streamlining that would ultimately define racing performance.” Not only does that arrant nonsense come barely a dozen chapters after Ambrose has told the story of Charles Mochet's Vélocar – arguably the first superbike to be banned by the UCI – but within a page of that statement the man has remembered the technological advances that defined the 'eighties in cycling.

Then we get this:

“Riding the new Lotus 108 Boardman took to the track for the Barcelona Olympics of 1992. It was the Lotus's first public appearance and Boardman promptly broke the world record advancing to the quarter finals with a time of 4 minutes 27.397 seconds. The following evening, he smashed his own day-old mark, defeating Denmark's Jan Petersen in 4 minutes 24.496 seconds, winning the Olympic gold medal and setting a world record for the 4,000-metre (4,375-yards) individual pursuit.”

First, the bike had actually been tried out by another rider ahead of the Olympics, at a race in the UK, in order to have it approved by the UCI and forestall any possible challenges to its legality during the Games. Second, while Boardman did set new world records in the qualifiers and, the next day, in the quarter-finals, he still had two rides ahead of him after overcoming Petersen: on the third day of the event he defeated Mark Kingsland in the semi-finals in a time of 4'29.332” and then later that same day he caught Jens Lehmann during the Olympic final, securing the gold medal for Britain.

Almost immediately, we learn “Boardman then went on to victory in the Tour de France Prologue on the same machine but using a road version that did away with the down tube and seat stays.”

Forget the Trigger's Broom issue raised there – the Lotus 110 was a road version of the Lotus 108, so not quite the same machine – and instead focus on the 'then went to on victory in the Tour de France Prologue' bit. The Olympic Individual Pursuit final was July 29, 1992. That Tour stage win came on July 2, 1994. In the two years in between, rather a lot happened, not least Boardman setting a new record for the Hour.

Perhaps most telling is what Ambrose has to say of what became of Boardman's bike:

“Fifteen Type 108s were built, including one prototype in 1991, as well as three frames for use in the Olympic Games. A further eight replicas were offered for sale at £15,000 each. Of the 15, at least two are on display, one at the Lotus Factory at Hethel, and Boardman's hour record bike at the Museum of Liverpool.”

This is what Wikipedia has to say today on the same subject:

“A total of fifteen Type 108s were built including one prototype in 1991, as well as three frames for use in the Olympic Games. A further eight replicas were offered for sale at £15,000 each. Of the fifteen, at least two are on display, one at the Lotus Factory at Hethel.”

Ambrose's reference to the Hour bike at the Museum of Liverpool, you'll note, is the only real difference between the two. Curiously, that had been on the Lotus 108 Wiki page, before being edited out in 2016. The Liverpool museum does have several of Boardman's Hour bikes, including the Corima he set the record on in 1993 and the bike he used to reclaim it in 1996. That latter bike was a modified version of the Lotus built by a South African company, Aerodyne Technology, and badged with Eddy Merckx's name. Instead of Lotus's signature black, it was painted blue. The techs mechs geeks can argue whether it was really a Lotus (it wasn't) but no one can claim it was one of the fifteen 108s originally built by Lotus.

Those errors, they are the result of lousy editing (how hard is it to stay awake long enough to remember something said only a page earlier?), crap research (the bike's first public appearance is not exactly a secret), and awful writing (Ambrose has obviously read how the Individual Pursuit played out in Barcelona, but for some reason he just can't summarise it right). The same mistakes crop up time and again throughout The History of Cycling in Fifty Bikes. Lousy editing, crap research, and awful writing. Page after page after page of the stuff.

What is going on here? Let's be clear: these problems are not unique to Ambrose, they are not unique to The History of Cycling in Fifty Bikes. Look at Robert Dineen's Velopedia. Look at Daniel Tatarsky's The Splendid Book of the Bicycle. Look at Euan Ferguson's Break Away. Look at Chris Sidwells’s A Race for Madmen. Look at Brendan Gallagher’s Corsa Rosa. These are superficial attempts to cash in on the public interest in cycling. More effort seems to go into their design than their contents.

Clearly, no one in publishing – well, very few – sets out with the aim of producing bad books. They're not Bialystock and Bloom. But too few put in enough effort to turn distinctly ordinary books into good books. Books like these, they're stocking filler fodder, distinctly ordinary is what they aim to be. They aren't going to be break out hits, they aren't going to be books we'll tell all our mates they have to read. The best you can hope for them is that they sell steadily.

You could spend money on getting someone who actually knows the subject to give them the once over before they go to press – hell, you could spend money on getting someone who actually knows the subject to write the damned things – but why bother? Margins are tight and where's the pay-off? You could put actual effort into the editing process, send the draft back and tell the author to fix the errors obvious to everyone, but you've already set a publishing date and rewrites would only delay you and entail more expense and where's the pay-off? Maybe you'll sell a few more copies, probably you won't.

So too many in publishing just put these things out there, either hoping they've got lucky with an author capable of researching a subject – even though the size of the advance and the royalty model encourage the author to be lazy and cut and paste from Wiki – or hope they'll get lucky with an audience too timid to care, interested only in ticking another gift purchase off the list. And if they do get lucky, well then the Peter Principle is applied, and you commission more of the same.

All that aside - “So apart from that, Mrs Lincoln, what did you think of the play?” - let's quickly consider the fifty bikes Ambrose chooses. First off, there's not fifty bikes. This is a book cashing in on a naming trend – 'The History of X in Y Objects' – with a tweak. The non-bicycles include pneumatic tyres, dynamo-powered lamps, and derailleurs. The bikes themselves run from famous marques of early Tours (La Française, Automoto, Labor) through golden era standards (Bianchi) and on to modern brands (Scott, Cervélo, Pinarello). Beyond racing there's things like the Moulton, the Dursley Pedersen, the Vélib. Joining everything up, there's no single thread pulling all the stories together, crafting a big picture, it's just little pictures, a bitty little scrapbook. But it's not a totally eccentric selection and probably it's the best thing about The History of Cycling in Fifty Bikes: Ambrose’s choices might engage the reader enough to want to argue about them.

That, though, is not enough to rescue a book that is riddled with errors and half-truths. Nothing is.