In the frame: The art and artistry of the bicycle

Bikes are about more than speed and gears – they can be beautiful, too. Cycle-lover Simon O'Hagan saddles up with a book that celebrates the world's most fabulous frames

We are never going to be a nation of cyclists, but we are at least becoming more of a nation of cyclists. The rediscovery of the bike as a viable means of transport dates back a few years now, and has come about for reasons that barely need reiterating: convenience, cost, health, eco-friendliness.

But something else has been going on, too – a heightening of aesthetic awareness around all things velocipedal. That riding a bike has become a style statement is clear from even the most cursory perusal of the urban scene. The kit has got cooler, and so have the bikes. The extent to which bike design is an art form – a deeply satisfying mix of the pleasing and the practical – has always been understood by the more discerning cyclist. But the more discerning cyclist is hugely on the rise – people to whom it really matters not just how their bike rides, but how it looks.

Bike design and componentry are now objects of serious – in some cases obsessive – study. The artisan frame-builder is a revered figure, with men such as the Italian Dario Pegoretti accorded a status in the cycling press on a par with the top riders.

Cyclepedia – A Tour of Iconic Bicycle Designs, feeds into, and off, this new-found appreciation. With a foreword by the fashion maestro Sir Paul Smith – a man with a lifelong devotion to bicycles – Cyclepedia is a lavish hymn to beauty, innovation and what the French call la fantaisie, starting with the piece of industrial machinery that is the Vialle Vélastic from 1925 and concluding with a bike that appears to have been dreamt up by Salvador Dali – an all-white Bianchi C-4 Project ( pictured above) dating from 1988 and looking as futuristic now as it did when it first appeared.

The book thus covers the golden age of bike design, featuring some 100 bikes – from folding and mountain to racing and urban. The casual eye is most readily taken by the "Curiosity" category – into which fall such extraordinary creations as the bright yellow Buddy Bike (1988), on which two people cycle side by side, and the Inconnu, a 1950 toolkit-on-wheels that closely resembles the set of pipes you'd find in the back of an airing cupboard.

I prefer a bike I think I could actually ride, such as the 1980 bronzed chrome-steel Berma Professional racer (pictured), which may just be one of the loveliest, noblest bikes that ever lived. That would do me.

'Cyclepedia – A Tour of Iconic Bicycle Designs' by Michael Embacher with photography by Bernhard Angerer is published by Thames & Hudson at £19.95. To order a copy for the special price of £17.95 (free P&P), call Independent Books Direct on 08430 600 030, or visit www.independentbooksdirect.co.uk

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