The Cyclepedia Exhibit at the Portland Art Museum

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On my lunch hour yesterday I finally decided to catch the Cyclepedia Exhibit at the Portland Art Museum, which runs through September 8th.  Since I already had collector Michael Embacher‘s book, I was looking forward to seeing some of his unusual bicycles close up.  I wasn’t expecting to be able to photograph the exhibit (although I was the only one doing so at the time) so I only had my iphone with me, and I apologize in advance for being unable to present higher quality images here.

008The exhibit features only a handful of the 100 bicycles presented in the book, and they were arranged in a kind of figure 8 pattern, dangling from wires hung from the ceiling, presumably to give the impression of forward movement.  I didn’t at all care for this way of displaying the bikes, because it was impossible to see the handlebars, top tubes, cable routing, and saddles in detail.  And, it was difficult to walk around each bike because very little room was left between each bike’s front wheel and the next bike’s rear wheel.  In fact, as I was maneuvering to get into position for some photos I accidentally bumped one of the bikes, causing it to swing back and forth, and was then admonished by museum staff to “please be more careful”.

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Since I didn’t have much time, I decided to concentrate on the bikes in the exhibit which interested me most:  the 1937 Shultz Funicolo, the 1939 Sironval Sportplex Recumbent, the 1968 Rene Herse Demontable, the 1937 Caminade Caminargent, and the drive train of the 1925 RetroDirect Hirondelle.  There was no pamphlet describing the bikes in the exhibit, and there were no plaques or signs accompanying each bike to give the museum-goer any information about the bikes.  I noticed most people were drawn to the newer racing and time trial bikes – admittedly very sexy looking. But also, I think the influence of racing on the cycling industry has indeed “ruined the breed”, as Grant Peterson opines, such that the general public only relates visually to racing oriented bikes.

031My favorite was this amazing Sironval recumbent, built in France in 1937.  I wanted to just hop on the comfy looking seat and pedal away.

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The linkages on the handlebar are connected to the the stem to provide for steering.  I wondered how well these worked and what kind of feedback was felt in the bars when encountering bumps.  Then, I could not figure out what this device was that is mounted to the fork leg.  There were no wires coming out of it.  There are numbers on the dial and several levers along the side.  A bell?  An alarm clock?

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These stunning lugs are attached by screws to the octagonal aluminum tubes on this 1937 Caminade Caminargent, whose photo is the first one shown at the top of this post.  This bike weighs 18.3 lbs! Unfortunately, the tubes were prone to twist inside of the lugs and these bikes experienced some frame failures, but they are notable for their innovation, and the beauty of all the hand-made components.

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The 1937 Schulz Funiculo had some very interesting features, not to mention its single oversized tube taking the place of the traditional (and strong) triangle.  The rear freewheel has 40 teeth, and is drilled to save weight.  There aren’t any rear derailleurs today that can handle a 40 tooth cog. I wasn’t able to study the mechanism sufficiently to understand how it accomplished this feat.  I am not sure if the large cylinder at the connection point to the frame houses a big spring, or if this was a chain oiler. The front brake is also quite an engineering mystery and was even the subject of a contest in Jan Heine’s Bicycle Quarterly – with the winner successfully guessing how the brake worked.

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The 1968 Rene Herse Demontable was designed to be disassembled for travel.  Consequently, the shifters are mounted on the seat tube for ease of separation.  One merely needed to unhook the rear brake cable, loosen the quick releases on the top tube and down tube, and the bike could be broken down.

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Then, I got to see up close the drive train of this 1925 Hirondelle – dubbed “Retro-Direct”.

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Invented before derailleurs were reliable, this mechanism can be pedaled forward on the smaller cog, and then pedaled backward to shift to the larger cog for hill climbing.  I cannot imagine what it might feel like to pedal backwards while climbing uphill.  Apparently, in 2007 a British cyclist pedaled the Paris-Brest-Paris distance (746 miles) on one of these vintage machines, and aside from pedals falling off a few times, he managed to complete the course.

Overall, I give this exhibit a B minus.  One of my disappointments with the book is its lack of informative details on each bike. Instead, there is a brief narrative, a highly abbreviated spec table, and an occasional amusing anecdote.  As with the book, this exhibit is too much show, and very little go.  But for most who will be drawn to this exhibit, they will hopefully get an inkling of cycling’s rich history and its amazing innovators.

UPDATE:  After looking at some of my photos more closely, off on a far distant wall is a giant banner which lists the bikes on display and a brief description of each one.  Unfortunately, not only did I not see this important feature, no one else did either, at least while I was there, and that is probably why I never noticed it.  So, maybe I’ll upgrade my rating to a B.

3 thoughts on “The Cyclepedia Exhibit at the Portland Art Museum

  1. Thanks for reporting on this exhibit, Nola. My supervisor, a Cat 2 racer with a penchant for the latest and greatest in cycling, can appreciate vintage equipment, he certainly does not seek it out. Being the general cycling enthusiast he is, he volunteered to help out for the first few weeks of the opening. Just before opening day, he attended a special, preview of the bikes. The next day I asked him how it was and the response I got was, “it was [long pause, eyes rolled upward]… interesting.” From a guy who always has an opinion, this was about as lackluster, deflating and generic a word he could have possibly used.
    Like you, he also had beef with the layout of the exhibit. He also thought that the bicycles selected were odd and fairly random, trying to be everything to everyone. His lukewarm response turned me off and although I walk by the 475 helmets displayed on the side of the building on an almost daily basis, I still haven’t made it in to check out the event. But with now two so-so reviews from different cycling aficionado’s, I believe I’ll hold back on this one, unless, of course tickets were to float my way.
    Again, thanks for the report. The bicycles you reviewed were quite intriguing and what I would have focused my time on as well.

    • Hi Josh,
      Thanks for this feedback. I can think of some better uses for my $15 entrance fee. Although it was exhilarating to see the Schultz and the Sironval recumbent up close, the display technique and the bikes selected really smacked of pandering to Portland’s bike scene, and to the public’s emerging interest in cycling. It is an outright crime not to have provided any information about these one of a kind bicycles.

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