I first read one of Richard Ballantine’s cycling books in the late 1970’s. I am not sure which edition of his “New Bicycle Book” it was, but I was charmed by his quirky take on the history, beauty, challenges, and mechanics of all bicycles, and of touring bicycles specifically. His book featured some of the lovely cycling drawings of bucolic England by the British artist Frank Patterson – which are totally uncredited in the 1987 edition I currently own – as well as other technical drawings by artists John Batchelor and Peter Williams. In fact, there are no photos whatsoever in this 1987 edition.
The only photo is this cover photo – featuring a classic 1980’s boy mechanic lovingly encouraged by his girl counterpart. Fortunately, this volume tends to redeem itself once read. But this was just one edition of Richard’s New Bicycle Book, swimming in a vast sea of Richard’s cycling publications which spanned from the early 1970’s up through the early 21st century. Richard passed away in 2013 at age 72.
Photos of Richard working on his bikes seem to always feature him on bended knee(s). This intrigued me, as I don’t think I have ever knelt down to work on my bike, at least not while it was upright on two wheels. Perhaps I should try it! As to his mechanics’ skills, those were to remain in question. What Richard was known for was his unabashed enthusiasm for cycling as a transformative experience, and that is something I not only share with him, but will remain eternally grateful for his vision of cycling’s future, and his influence which is still felt today.
Richard was born into a publishing empire, so it must have seemed natural for him to continue the legacy. The Ballantine family portfolio included Bantam and Ballantine imprints, which were sold to Random House in the 1990’s. He was the founder and publisher of Bicycle Magazine, and was involved in publishing numerous other books for his family business.
Ritchey Montare ad courtesy of MOMBAT.
In the early 80’s, Richard imported 20 Ritchey Montare mountain bikes into the U.K., which were the first commercially available mountain bikes in Britain at the time. Essentially, he kick-started the MTB industry in the U.K., and established a cross country race as well as a charity which lobbies for better conditions for cyclists – the London Cycling Campaign – an organization still going strong today.
In the year 2007, just 6 years before his death, he published City Cycling, in response to the growing worldwide bicycle transportation movement. He seemed to me always the mad scientist – fascinated with both the odd as well as the truly brilliant. A person who remained true to himself, regardless of trends and politics. I wish I had met him. His legacy will live on through the many cyclists and readers who have and will discover his amazing contribution to cycling, and possibly to the well-being of the earth itself.
While recovering from my broken leg, I have had more time to devote to reading. Which hardly makes up for the time I miss riding, but so be it. Over the years, I have been building a library of vintage cycling books which reflect my own interests. Here is a synopsis of some of the favorites in my collection, for your reading pleasure:
Racing Bicycles 100 Years of Steel by David Rapley. A lusciously photographed collection of Australian racing machines dating from the late 1800’s through 2012. There are some wonderful early path racers, and a great selection of Speedwells and Malvern Stars – for those not familiar with these Australian beauties – as well as other track bikes, club racers, and Tour de France winners.
Bicycling Through Time – The Farren Collection, by Paul & Charlie Farren. This husband and wife team have spent their lifetimes collecting very old and very rare bicycles. Paul has taken painstaking effort to restore most of the bicycles featured to rideable condition, machining parts as needed in his amazing workshop. There are some robust examples of early safety bicycles and other fascinating contraptions.
Bicycles – Le Biciclette by Fermo Galbiati & Nino Ciravegna. You won’t find these lovely vintage bicycles featured in other coffee table books. There are some wonderful examples in this pocket-sized picture book, which is great to have on hand while riding the bus or taking a train. The photos are top notch, and the collection includes Draisines dating from 1820 and Italian, French and British bikes built from the late 1800’s through modern times, all of which are original and in working order.
The American Bicycle by Jay Pridmore and Jim Hurd. This collection provides a good counter argument to anyone who believes that 20th century American made bicycles consisted only of heavy, single speed balloon-tired clunkers. In this collection are wood-framed steel lugged masterpieces of the “Gay ’90’s”, early racing and safety bicycles, and all kinds of machines representing the unique American contribution to cycling, all the way through the decades to Joe Breeze’s modified Schwinn Excelsior. Includes lots of well-written historical insights.
Glenn’s New Complete Bicycle Manual by Clarence W. Coles & Harold T. Glenn. I affectionately refer to the author as “Dr. Glenn”, as he is pictured throughout this excellent repair manual wearing a pristine white lab coat. This 1987 version includes complete instructions on overhauling most internally geared hubs, as well as step by step guides, with excellent pictures and illustrations, for overhauling every imaginable rear derailleur of the time. It has all the other usual stuff you will find in a good shop manual.
Eugene A. Sloane’s Bicycle Maintenance Manualby Eugene A. Sloane. I include this manual here due to its chapters on frame repairs, frame painting, and a chapter on overhauling tandems. These topics are often left out of modern and vintage shop manuals.
Wheels of Change by Sue Macy. This historical overview is aimed at the young adult crowd. It’s a great look at the history of cycling through the eyes of women riders, with lots of rarely seen photos, including those of African American cyclists. I learned a lot from this book. The author took the time to unearth interesting historical tidbits as well as many photos I have never seen elsewhere. This would be a great book to add to any teenager’s collection.
Framing Production – Technology, Culture and Change in the British Bicycle Industry by Paul Rosen. In what began as a PhD thesis, the author thoroughly details the history and ultimate demise of the British cycling industry, focusing primarily on Raleigh. The reading can be a tough go at times, but there are interesting perspectives here on the cataclysmic forces that lead to the end of bicycle production in England, and indeed throughout much of the Western world as economic and cultural changes shifted during the mid twentieth century and beyond.
“Dream Ramode Sunfighter Birthright” – Richard’s New Bicycle Book by Richard Ballantine. This treatise at the back of Richard Ballantine’s early editions of his repair manuals cannot be described – it must be read. You might become radicalized, so be forewarned! Even if you don’t make it to the end of this cycling guide for the masses, along the way you’ll find fun pencil and ink drawings of cycling’s days of yore.
Just Ride by Grant Petersen. With chapters such as “Carbs make you fat” and “Most bikes don’t fit” this good old fashioned practical cycling guide debunks much of what you may have learned about the “right” way to ride your bike. Taking direct aim at the elitist, racing-focused “bike culture” he offers solid, if quirky, guidance on everything from bells, saddles, and macho competitiveness to a clip-less take-down.
Green for Danger by Christianna Brand. This is a mystery novel set in a war-torn hospital in England during WWII, where a brutal series of crimes unfold. The brief appearance of a bicycle is one of many clues to finding the killer before they can strike again. The writing is a bit uneven, but the insight into British dedication in the face of unbelievable destruction is worth the read.
The Third Policeman by Flann O’Brien. This metaphysical masterpiece about the nature of time, death, and bicycles couched within a mystery novel features some of the most evocative descriptions of bicycles and cycling I have ever read. Here is an excerpt: “This bicycle itself seemed to have some peculiar quality of shape or personality which gave it distinction and importance far beyond that usually possessed by such machines…I passed my hand with unintended tenderness – sensuously indeed – across the saddle.”