vendredi 21 octobre 2011

Plainest Form.

Photographie non attribuée, Sans Titre, s.d. (via Plagiarism is Necessary).

These are some of the factors that suggest that the bicycle has not stagnated but has reached a steady state between conservatism and innovation in which almost all its parts have struck a subtle compromise between strength, efficiency, economy and lightness. Yet this is a very delicate state. Attach a motor to the cycle frame, for example, and its balanced design is instantly upset. The chain becomes comparatively weak and inefficient where before it was more than adequate for human muscles (since cycle chains are made to aircraft control specifications). The gears, brakes and wheels simply collapse. The inventor will have to look for different solutions or stronger materials. He will, in fact, go on to produce the motorbike, a machine which is itself a nicely balanced (but less subtle) collection of compromises.

The history of transport shows that every increase in motive power has demanded corresponding developments in all other aspects of the vehicle. But the cycle alone is powered by human energy and this, for all practical purposes, is a constant. Therefore, given a trained rider, increases in cycling performance can only be gained by refinement of designs and by the lightening of components. It is not just a question of drilling holes in everything, however, for this refinement takes in some very sophisticated technology indeed.

Thus we have the fascinating case of a machine whose basic engineering goes back to 1885 but some parts may be made in aerospace plastics and alloys originally developed to put men on the moon. Cycle frames are currently being made in aluminum, titanium and carbon fibre, but the exotic materials involved and the considerable problems of building them with brazed, welded or screwed and glued joints mean that they are very expensive indeed.

Most cycle parts are, however, mass-produced, and this makes excellent sense because it allows high-quality steel tube or alloy castings to be produced very economically by large foundries which may make many other products as well. Thus the individual builder can use material of uniform quality made to specifications far higher than any he could attain. The assembly of a bicycle is not in itself a difficult process and thousands of machines are mass-produced on production lines and give excellent service. Many hand builders have their frames made by several men, each of whom works on one special part of the job. This speeds up production, maintains a high level of finish and allows for more individual features to be accommodated on each bike. But some of the best machines are still made by one man whose skill and judgement create an individually balanced and very highly finished piece of work.

Surely, at some mid-point between that skilled individual and the mass impersonality of the assembly line, there exists a model of how we should plan our relationship with technology? The whole culture and society stands to benefit from a more creative and responsible relationship between who we are and what we do. SAAB of Sweden have made excellent advances in this field at their factory in Södertälje, where engines are finally assembled by groups of only three workers who handle "their" engines from first to last. This approach greatly improves work conditions as well as the quality of the product, and in 1973 a work force of only three hundred was making 110 000 engines a year. The employees of the small cycle-builder were enjoying this kind of relationship with their work long before industrial theorists began to worry about "quality of life" on the shop floor.

The quality of a hand-built bike can often be judged by the finish on the lugs of the frame, and it is here, too, that the workman can introduce an element of decoration or self-expression in his metal-work. Lugs are necessary because frame tubes cannot be welded at high temperatures without causing crystalline changes in the steel and subsequent weakening of the joint. Instead the tubes are heated relatively gently and brazed together with a molten charge of copper-zinc (brass) alloys between the tubes and the lugs, which work like sockets joining them together. These lugs are cast or pressed in steel to whatever angle the frame requires. They serve to strengthen the joint between the tubes (which are mitred together inside each lug) and they also help to spread the loads which accumulate at the apex of the frame triangles. The edges of each lug are filed down to make an easier gradation between the reinforced part and the rest of the tube and also help spread the heat from the brazing process more evenly.

This work requires a lot of preparation and hand finishing and so it is here that some custom builders choose to show their skills by producing cut-out patterns and filigree edges. This decoration is not essential, but it is not entirely gratuitous either, and builders explain that the cut-outs help the workmen see whether the brass has penetrated the whole joint and that the lengthy curled edge also helps spread the changes in stress from reinforced to non-reinforced parts. This is true, but the same engineering requirements are equally well met by the plain long-point lug, even if it does not look quite so flamboyant.

By way of comparison, consider the fine engraving and inlay traditionally applied to sporting guns. Here, too, function, engineering, craftsmanship and decoration come together happily - if for more macabre purpose. On the other hand, it can be claimed that the structural function of the lug is best expressed in its plainest form, without decoration applied extraneously like the wilder ornamentations on Victorian sewing machines. Lewis Mumford maintains that "the canons of machine art are precision, economy, slickness, restriction to the essential". Personally we favour this point of view, and some cyclists can scarcely abide even a transfer on their mounts. But fancy lugs are usually confined to the head tube only and, given the bicycle's still basic austerity, who could condemn this one small flight into rococo?

The quest for lightness and the skill of the builder reach their highest point in the construction of specialist frames for record attempts and time trialling. In these events the bike will not be subjected to the punishment that a racing machine has to take in the hurly burly of a mass of riders on the road. A super lightweight can run on fewer spokes (say, 24 instead of the more usual 36 or 32 to each wheel), the bottom bracket may be cut out (the bearings protected by a sleeve of plastic), the chain stays may be slotted, seat pin and handlebar stem may be fluted and allen bolts in Ergal may be used, all to save a few precious ounces. This is a specialist machine, however, built to be handled carefully and smoothly by an experienced rider. Nothing could be worse of more dangerous than an inexperienced young rider with a power drill trying to "save weight" with a hole here and there.

For all the maker's skill with fancy lugwork, the cycle cannot be rightly called "a work of art" in the prestigious context of modern art galleries. Nevertheless, its aesthetic involves values and understandings which make some exhibits in these galleries look pretentious and ill-made. (Isn't there a South Sea Island language which has no word for art "because we make all our things as well as we can"?) Furthermore, the cycle is an entertaining machine because, unlike almost all our other industrial products, the more you pay the less you seem to get, and this is revolutionary in its implications. Another intriguing thing about it is that its virtues are so abstruse as to be almost invisible to the novice and yet they are there in front of him all the time if he knows what to look for. For example, Italian Campagnolo hubs are jewels of light alloy with their barrels and flanges machined from solid and their (invisible) internal bearing surfaces of highly polished steel. A well-trued cycle wheel will revolve so smoothly when it is suspended that it should always come to a stop with the tyre valve at the bottom. Even its spokes are thinner in the middle and thicker at each end (double-butted) to give the best in both lightness and strength. Under tension these spokes are a shimmer of extraordinarily complex forces and to compare a cycle wheel to a car wheel is rather like comparing the airy grace of a suspension bridge to a plank across a ditch. Not that the same forces are absent in the car wheel, it is just that they are supremely seen to be there in the cycle wheel, demonstrated in every line.

"Suspension bridge" is right, in fact, for the machine and the rider himself are indeed truly suspended in air by the spokes from the top of the rim. If these spokes are built radially - taking the shortest distance from the centre to the rim ) then the wheel will be very stiff and give a rigid ride. If, however, tangent lacing is used, in which each spoke crosses over one, two or the more usual three or four of its neighbors before it reaches the rim, then longer spokes are needed and the wheel will give more efficient "pull" and also a more comfortable ride. Radial or one-cross spoking is sometimes used by times trial lists, who may have only twenty-four spokes to each wheel. Consider finally the subtleties of the rear wheel, which of course has to be "dished", to keep the rime on the centre line of the axle and to allow for the freewheel cluster. To help offset the differences in tension created by different-length spokes, a rear wheel can be laced four-cross on the sprocket side and three-cross on the other.

In every mechanical aspect the bicycle comes to us equally naked - wheels, pedals, chain, crank and forks demonstrate their purpose and only their purpose, with scarcely an ounce of surplus matter. The priorities of lightness and strength do not leave room for "optional extras", and the philosophy of "lessness" creates a purity and an austerity that has almost disappeared from other manufactured goods. The cycle has the beauty of gliders, skis or racing sailing boats because it is so supremely and visibly at one with the natural forces which define it and which are, in their turn, overcome by it.

This integrity is the essence of what Robert Pirsig calls "quality" in his book Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. Here is his version of the state achieved by our cartesian centaur:

At the moment of pure quality, subject and object are identical. This is the tat tvam asi truth of the Upanishads but its also reflected in modern street argot. "Getting with it", "digging it", "groovin' on it" are all slang reflections of this identity. It is this identity that is the basis of craftsmanship in all the technical arts. And it is this identity that modern, dualistically conceived technology lacks. The creator of it feels no particular sense of identity with it. The owner of it feels no particular sense of identity with it. Hence, by Phaedrus' definition, it has no Quality.

That wall in Korea that Phaedrus saw was an act of technology. It was beautiful, but not because of any masterful intellectual planning or any scientific supervision of the job, or any added expenditures to "stylize" it. It was beautiful because the people who worked on it had a way of looking at things that made them do it right and self-consciously. They didn't separate themselves from the work in such a way as to do it wrong. There is the center of the whole solution.

The way to solve the conflict between human values and technological needs is not to run away from technology. That's impossible. The way to resolve the conflict is to break down the barriers of dualistic thought that prevent a real understanding of what technology is - not an exploitation of nature, but a fusion of nature and the human spirit into a new kind of creation that transcends both. When then transcendence occurs in such events at the first airplane across the ocean and the first footstep on the moon, a kind of public recognition of the transcendence should also occur at the individual level, on a personal level, on personal basis, in one's own life, in a less dramatic way.

It does not have to be a journey to the moon, for every cyclist has at some time found something of Pirsig's state of identity between the world and his machine.

Such moments of transcendence where subject and object become one are common in various kinds of yoga and meditation practice, but recent writers have become increasingly interested in similar states occurring in sports. The balance of the Martial Arts, the perfect swing of the golfer or the "unwilled" shot from the archer all lend themselves to Zen-like techniques and exposition. Cycling also shares this potential and, indeed, many racing cyclists are familiar with yoga exercises. The essence of these transcendental states is deep and full breathing combined with an inner calmness and detachment. What could be more appropriate for the cyclist - especially for the time triallist who rides alone against the clock in what the British like to call "the race of truth"? Certainly it is exciting and greatly refreshing to open the mind only to "stillness" on the road, and to concentrate on maintaining that fast, relaxed and perfect rotary motion of the legs which makes for sustain speed. Everything else is poise. The body is balanced and breathing fully, the mind is fixed on "stillness at the center", the eyes are alert on the road as it whirls towards you. Everything moves. Everything is still. The challenge for all of us is to sustain this state for longer and longer moments in contact with everything that flows.

We seem to have come a long way from J.K. Starley's rover, and yet the passion of lightness, mechanical excellence and silent speed has been a constant, even from the days of the high-wheeled Ordinary. The Rudge racing Ordinary of 1884 was as light as many modern competition machines (21,5 pounds) and it must have been quite an experience to travel at speeds above a wheel nearly five feet high - "an enjoyment which was positively intense", indeed. The "experienced velocipedist" got in right with those words, for, in the end, the bicycle is as much a state of being as an object. In its design and its materials it represents a meeting of conservatism and innovation. In its construction it marries the skills of handcraft and precision engineering. Its philosophical principle contains the rotary perfection of the circle and the pursuit of "lessness" - that fascinating concept of creating and controlling invisible forces with the minimum of material aid. Its integrity, its silence and, above all, its consistently and fundamentally human scale, make it a rare creation indeed.

Roderick Watson & Martin Gray, The Aesthetics of it All in The Penguin Book of the Bicycle, Penguin Books, 1978, p.92-100.

Merci à S.G.

Aucun commentaire:

Enregistrer un commentaire