Thursday, July 5, 2007

Stevanage, England

Friends: When the Coventry Transport Museum opened in1980, it was called the National Motor Museum and was devoted to Coventry's role in spearheading Britain's car and motorcycle industries. That was an outrage to cyclists, as the site of the museum was the former bicycle factory of James Starley, considered the father of the bicycle industry, which spawned Coventry's motorcycle and auto industries. Advocates of the bicycle gained a toehold in the sprawling museum that is dominated by hundreds of vintage cars and motorcycles, altering some of the museum's focus to the bicycle and its importance and also were responsible for the renaming of the museum.

Coventry has long acknowledged Starley. It erected a statue in his honor in 1884, three years after his death. Starley was the owner of a sewing machine company when someone brought a bicycle to his attention in 1869, a year after Michaux father and son in France were the first to attach pedals to a two-wheeled contraption that was the predecessor of the bicycle. Starley made further innovations, which evolved into the Penny Farthing. He started up a bicycle factory and others followed. Before long Coventry was the "Cycle Capital of the World." By 1891 it was Coventry's largest industry with 77 bicycle factories in operation.

Over the years there have been 271 manufacturers of bicycles in Coventry. A Role of Honor in the museum lists them all and their years of operation and where they were located. The Role of Honor also has a list of the 111 motorcycle makers and 136 car manufacturers of Coventry, which included Triumph and Daimler. In 1898 the first car in England was manufactured in Coventry, dooming the bicycle industry. By 1950 there were only four bicycle companies remaining in Coventry and today there are none.

Besides Starley, the museum gives tribute to others from Coventry who were instrumental in the evolution of the bicycle. Henry Sturmey (1857-1930), a master mechanic and inventor, was in on those early years, and is a name that lives on today with hubs and a company still bearing his name. Starley's nephew J.K. is credited with inventing the safety bicycle in 1885, adapting the lofty, treacherous Penny Farthing to the diamond-shaped frame, which remains the standard, with equal-sized wheels and independent front-wheeled steering and incorporating the chain drive to the rear wheel.

I thought I would be able to just duck into the museum and give its few bikes a look, but I ended up spending a couple hours there, as there was much, more more biking material than I anticipated. Bikes are sprinkled throughout the museum amongst the hoards of automobiles before one comes to a hall opened just two years ago devoted to the bike called Cyclopedia. It was a surprise, sudden, paradisaical oasis, too good to be true after having been immersed in a seeming endless nightmare of car after car, enough to make any autophobe nauseous.

Fortunately, the periodic bikes sprinkled throughout the museum provided a slight antidote all the way. Without their calming effect paramedics would have to be on standby to appease those stricken by the horror and terror of all those deadly beasts. Those monstrous, deadly hunks of metal seemed even more sinister and soulless than normal with the contrast of the recent addition of bicycles. The dichotomy of car and bike was a constant reminder of the outrageous absurdity of using such a huge hunk of metal to transport one's self, when right there beside them was a perfectly viable, most appealing alternative. The bike never looked so friendly and frisky. How could one resist them or possibly return to an automobile after this experience. It seemed inconceivable that anyone in their right mind would choose to venture inside one of those coffins on wheels when he could cheerfully perch himself atop a bicycle.

The bicycle advocates have made an array of remarkable statements, some subtle and some not so subtle, with their modifications to the museum. There are two short pro-bike films done in silent era style that shockingly the automobile interests haven't suppressed. "Rowley's Ride" recounts the first bicycle to come to Coventry and Starley's epiphany upon seeing it. "Hurry Up Harry" tells the story of the first car to come to Coventry and the horror it wrecks, terrorizing and knocking down pedestrians and bicyclists. People shout "Infernal Machine" at it. A police officer on a bicycle chases after the evil, sinister driver and arrests him. The movie concludes with him behind bars and inter-title, "Harry ends up in jail where he belongs."

Cyclopedia included commentary promoting and encouraging a return to the bicycle, whose use plummeted in the mid-1950s in Britain with the proliferation of the automobile. One sign chided,"The benefits of cycling were forgotten as the comfort and convenience of the car took over." Token, tho pathetically feeble, hope was offered by a statistic saying from 1987 to 1996, the last time such a survey was conducted, the number of adults who said they had ridden a bike in the previous month had increased from 8% to 11%. If people will wake up, maybe the car won't drive them to extinction. It also pointed out that people once treated the bicycle as a genuine means of transportation. Now most people just bicycle for pleasure.

And the bicycle interests are far from done with plans of expanding this bicycle exhibit. It already includes a variety of videos, one of a dinner conversation around 1900 discussing women riding bicycles and the attire they should wear. There was also a series of videos of notable English cyclists discussing biking. Tour de France commentator Phil Liggett was among them, recalling his favorite Tour de France--1989 when LeMond won by 8 seconds. There are also plans to move the James Starley statue, presently residing on the fringe of a small park just outside the city center, to the front of the museum. Right now there is a lone statue at the apex of the large plaza facing the museum of the man who invented the turbo jet engine.

I had been drawn to Coventry by the Starley statue, not knowing anything about the Transport Museum and its bicycle riches. And I had a further bonus--a statue of even greater renown than Starley's, that of Lady Godiva, naked, sitting atop a horse. It was under a canopy in the heart of the city outside the entrance to a mall. It was sometime after1043, the year she and her husband founded a Benedictine Abbey in Coventry, that she rode naked through the streets of the city to protest taxes. She warned the townspeople of her intentions so no one would take a peek, or so goes the story. One man dared though, and was struck blind. His name was Tom, and thus was born the term Peeping Tom.

Later, George

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