Photo: Unquestionable British Tradition © Brooks England.
The bicycle, formerly known as the “Dandy horse,” was invented by German Baron Karl von Drais and introduced to the public in the summer of 1817. The first human means of transport on just two wheels, the bicycle was immediately embraced and adapted throughout the course of the century.
In 1865, a Brit named J.B. Brooks moved to the town of Birmingham, where he established himself as a dealer of leather goods. He had been in the habit of riding his horse to and from work, until 1878, when the horse died. Lacking the funds to purchase another, he borrowed a friend’s bicycle. Brooks found the experience extraordinarily uncomfortable, and vowed to create a proper seat for the rider to enjoy. In 1882, he filed his first patent, “Saddles for Bicycles and Tricycles,” and saved many a behind from enduring the pains he had known.
Fast forward to Italy in the 1950s, when the newly graduated Dr. Riccardo Bigolin headed out for his first day of work at a pharmacy. There another pharmacist greeted him, pleading for the job in order to support his family. Dr. Bigolin stepped aside, not only from he job but also from work in the medicine as a whole. Instead, he went to work in his uncle’s felt factory, and in 1965, he established Selle Royal, which grew to become the world’s larges manufacturer of bicycle saddles.In 2002, Selle Royal purchased J.B. Brooks & Co. and revamped the company—giving it fresh life and helping to cultivate a brand that has become a cycling icon around the globe.
In celebration of 150 years of sporting excellence, Thames & Hudson has released The Brooks Compendium of Cycling Culture edited by Guy Andrews. The beautifully illustrated book features contributions from writers, artists, journalists, designers, photographers, and illustrators including Sir Paul Smith, Geoff Dyer, Anthony Cairns, Taz Darling, and Martin Parr providing their insights into the art, craft, and illustrious history of the bicycle.
“It is often said that the earliest known sketch of a bicycle is by Leonardo da Vinci, discovered while the Codex Atlanticus — the largest compilation of his notes and drawings — was being restored in the late 1960s,” Amy Sherlock writes, making mention of the debate that surrounds this claim. “The persistence of the Leonardo origin myth says something about the romanticization of the bicycle in contemporary culture.”
Indeed, the “Dandy horse” has become such a popular mode of both transportation, sport, and leisure all around the world that it’s hard to imagine a time people were riding live horses instead. The Brooks Compendium of Cycle Culture shows just how powerful this feat of human ingenuity goes in the way it has become a ubiquitous feature of modern life.
Jack Thurston explains, “People fell in love with the bicycle, the quintessential product of the machine age, because it gave them a way to leave the industrial world behind. The romance of the open road is as powerful as it’s ever been.”
This is a pleasing bit of irony is our day and age, when the bicycle has become the standard bearer for both clean energy and physical fitness. It also gives the rider a sense of the freedom that is hard to come by in this life—the sense that the world is your oyster and all you have to do is put pedal to the metal to take part in the adventure.
Photographer Raymond Depardon observes, “I am always struck by the way riding a bike remains such a childlike pleasure. Even now, in dreary middle age, if I’m cycling through Hyde Park, it takes me right back to the freedoms offered by my first ever racing bike — especially if I’m wearing shorts — bought as a Christmas present after I passed the 11-plus. So the bike is not just a symbol and a reminder of the short-trousered, bare-legged, and unselfconscious freedom it promised as a child — it extends that freedom and renews the promise on a daily basis.”
Miss Rosen is a journalist covering art, photography, culture, and books. Her byline has appeared in L’Uomo Vogue, Vogue Online, Whitewall, The Undefeated, Dazed Digital, Jocks and Nerds, and L’Oeil de la Photographie. Follow her on Twitter @Miss_Rosen.