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bicycle maintenance and evolution

Oxford, Technology, — October 2010

Camilla and I have just done a bicycle maintenance course with Oxford Cycle Workshop Training (a member-owned cooperative). This only covered the basics - tyres and puncture repair, cleaning and balancing bearings, checking and adjusting brakes, and adjusting gears - but gave me a much better feel for the parts that make up a bike. I'm not sure that I'll do my own bike maintenance (other than the very basic stuff), but it's good to know this stuff.

I highly recommend the course.

While bicycles are surprisingly simple - normal bicycles have to be maintainable by non-specialists - they've been refined over a long period of time and seem to have converged to an elegant transport solution. It's relatively easy to design new kinds of bicycles (and there are a few around), but most adhere to a fairly standard design form. This suggests we can have some confidence that that standard form is something close to an optimum. (Whereas with cars, regulatory constraints make new designs much harder - consider the trauma involved with getting rid of a steering wheel.)


  1. Ah bicycles !! I remember the times when bicycles ruled supreme in China. They were used to carry all manner of things, building material, livestock transport, bridal limo and people mover. Anything and everything. The world was amazed by what the Chinese could do on two wheels.

    As a returning overseas compatriot to China in 1973 ( the Cultural Revolution was still simmering), I was privileged to bring in "luxury" items which the local populace could not have for love or money. A heavy-duty bicycle was on the top of the wishing list of my relatives. I was only allowed to bring in one only, duty free, so the competition for my favour was keen.

    In the end, an uncle won the day because he had to sell his own to raise money to treat his daughter's facial birthmark. The bicycle was effectively the equivalent of a family station wagon. It carried his family of five for outings as well as his usual mode of transport. Uncle would have his son strapped to a cane-seat on the handle bar, the oldest child would sit immediately behind him, and his wife would have the youngest child on her back and squeezed on to the back seat. Away they went, with little or no motor traffic to worry about.

    The returning overseas Chinese were in a privileged position, we were well-heeled, we were allowed to bring in a whole lot of goods which were scarce in China. My older cousin, who missed on the bicycle got instead the second prize, a sewing machine.

    All travel arrangements and purchases were made in Hong Kong. I arrived at the river port closest to my ancestral village after an overnight journey on a flat-bottom barge towed by a tug, from Canton, Guangzhou to you now, The Pearl River and its tributaries were teeming with floating traffic. It was an unforgettable and humbling experience, sharing a river boat journey with my people, amongst the farm produce and poultry on available open space. Now, the waterways fall silent.

    At the pier, I was met by my welcoming party, and you guessed it, a fleet of bicycle couriers for my custom. There were hundreds of bicycle couriers at the bus terminal and pier for people arriving from Hong Kong and the "VIPs" returning from overseas. I had large bags and bags of gift, not available locally, for my relatives. They included clothing, a bolt of fabric (khaki), transistor radio, wristwatch, foodstuff and anything in demand that was allowed in. It was a scene of a local boy who made good returning from the gold mountain.


    So, my entourage, and a fleet of bicycles transported my booty to the village. It made my mother a very proud woman. I was a link to the old world of overseas Chinese returning to their village in a blaze of glory. I was old enough to be part of it. It gave me just as much pleasure in giving as those who were in receipt. I now look back with much nostalgia.

    Things are very different now.

    A footnote to my uncle. The family succeeded in emigrating to Hong Kong in the early '80s. The boy riding on the handle bar, whose son is now an undergraduate engineer at the Chinese University of Hong Kong. The girl with the facial birthmark, whose daughter is now studying at Monash University. The daughter is wholly supported by her aunt, the girl who was carried on the back. The same girl is now also living in Melbourne. She attained an accounting degree from Monash and the UTS, and an MBA from a British university. For years she carries the family, the main income winner to augment her parents low income.. She travels the world as an auditor. She is also a mother of two young children.

    Comment by DL — October 2010
  2. I fear China is moving away from bicycles as its people become more affluent, however. Vietnam has few cars but a lot of motorcycles. Turkey has few cars - petrol is 50% more expensive than in the UK! - but I don't remember seeing much in the way of bicycles. And Switzerland has many expensive cars — affluence and cheap petrol (cheaper than in either France or Germany, so people come over the border to buy it).

    In the UK, Oxford is a bicyclist's oasis in a car world. But I will write more about that later.

    Comment by danny — October 2010

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