Thursday, October 27, 2016

Retrogrouch Reading: A Cycling Lexicon

Phil Carter and Jeff Conner have spent much of their lives completely "besotted" with bicycles. For Carter, of Carter Wong Design, a lovely brass headbadge rescued from an abandoned rusty bicycle serves as a "constant source of inspiration" as well as a connection to an earlier era when the little metal works of art proudly symbolized the craftsmanship that went into the bicycles of the time. For Conner, a professor at Michigan State University, collecting bicycle headbadges turned out to be more agreeable to his wife than collecting complete bicycles. Over the years, Conner's collection of headbadges has grown into the many hundreds, and that collection is lovingly photographed and presented in the new book A Cycling Lexicon: Bicycle Headbadges From a Bygone Era (Gingko Press, 2016).


A Cycling Lexicon is a charming little book - beautifully bound in a relatively small format (3 3/4" x 5 3/4") but thick for its size at 400 pages. The book almost reminds me of a small Bible, and all heresy aside, that probably isn't a bad comparison. Certainly, to those who are fully immersed in the love and lore of bicycles, the badges contained within could possibly be revered like cherished relics.

Inside the book, one will find 380 colorful photos of Conner's headbadge collection. Some of the brands represented will be instantly recognized, like Raleigh, Schwinn, BSA, Hetchins, Peugeot, and many others. But many more of the badges herald names and makers that long ago vanished from the scene. While most of the badges are quite old, occasionally one will spot a more modern example, like that of Bike Friday with its little winged suitcase.

What's truly wonderful about bicycle headbadges is their detail and artistry, and the various design themes that go into them. What symbols did the bicycle maker choose with which to represent his brand? There are badges that use heraldic icons, while others chose animal images. Mythology was a common element, while many tried to represent freedom in some fashion, or flight - as bicycles, at least for a time, probably felt as close to flying as a person could get (is it any wonder that the Wright brothers started out as bicycle makers?). The photographs in most cases let the viewer enjoy some of the colorful elements, and some close-up shots let us see the jewelry-like detail of their construction.

Take a look at a few sample pages:






If I have one criticism of the book, it is simply that there isn't much to read. What can I say - I'm a word guy. I'm sure that the idea behind the book, as designed by Carter, is to display the badges simply as graphic images, allowing us to revel in their beauty and artistry. But I would love to know more about some of the brands represented - where did they come from? When were they made? How old are they? Even in the book's introduction, Phil Carter writes, "Whatever the symbol, whatever the design, every badge has a story of provenance and a personality to tell." Call me curious - but many of the images leave me wanting to know more of those stories.

Alas - we may never know. Carter's introduction seems almost to lament, "The bikes these headbadges once adorned have long since vanished. With the passage of time we will probably never get to discover the reasons why the smiling young girl appears on Mareze's marque, or who Good Luck's top-hatted gent was." Sigh.

A Cycling Lexicon retails for $19.95, and paucity of text notwithstanding, its lovely photographic content makes it a delightful addition to any besotted cyclist's book collection.

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