The Art of the Bicycle

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We use bicycles for competition, transportation, fitness or plain old fun. Many of us grew up with them. Some of us have incorporated them into our lives more recently. But almost all of us have interacted with them in some meaningful or memorable way. This winter, the Museum of Science and Industry invites you to pay homage to this cultural icon by visiting “The Art of the Bicycle.” This exhibit showcases historic replica bikes from the museum collection as well as cutting-edge racing bikes and contemporary commuter and recreational bikes.

“I think Chicago residents will enjoy the variety of bicycles: styles, materials, colors and sizes,” curator Margaret Schlesinger says. “You can reminisce about your first bicycle and earmark your dream bicycle. There is something for everyone.”

The featured bicycles represent two hundred years of engineering and aesthetic design. Amidst rich scarlet walls and subdued lighting, each bike is suspended against a large frame of stretched canvas. The exhibit presents opposite extremes of the bicycle timeline as soon as you enter the gallery. A sleek new racing bike, the 2013 Cervelo P5, poses like a jewel on a dais in the center of the gallery. Developed for triathletes, the P5 is made from materials that reduce vibration and has been tested in wind tunnels using Formula 1 level Computational Fluid Dynamics Software. On the walls surrounding this embodiment of speed are several of the Museum’s oldest replica bikes. A far cry from the P5, the 1818 Draisene Walking Machine has a wooden frame and no pedals, which didn’t come until Scottish blacksmith Kirkpatrick McMillan added them to bicycles in 1839. This revolutionized the way the world thought of transportation. Improvements over the following decades would lead to the development of the safety bike of the late 1880s and early 1900s. Mass produced and much easier to ride, the invention of the safety bike prompted women’s rights activist Susan B. Anthony to state, “The bicycle has done more to emancipate women than anything else in the world.”

A long adjacent gallery space leads to recreational and youth bikes of the 20th century, including two produced by Chicago-based companies. The 1965 Sears Spaceliner, with its sleek lines and chrome trim, highlights America’s infatuation with outer space. Schwinn’s 1960s Sting-Ray line, with a design inspired by muscle cars and chopper-style motorcycles, became so popular in the youth bike category that it is practically an icon itself. The exhibit displays the Apple Krate Sting-Ray separated into its component parts to demonstrate how simple it can be to build your own bike.


The last gallery is devoted to contemporary bikes. In the racing category, serious cyclists and triathletes will appreciate the design differences between several models. The Madone 7, by Trek, boasts aerodynamic properties based on the special shape of the frame tubes. The back side of the tube is cut off to reduce drag. The defense-grade carbon frame is lightweight but still supplies super strength. The 2013 Cannondale Super6 EVO uses BallisTec carbon fiber to create a frame weighing a mere one-and-a-half pounds. The 2008 Marc Willers BMX Promax, by Cycle Group, was developed in close collaboration with New Zealand Olympian Marc Willers for the 2008 and 2012 Olympics. Willers and a team of design engineers simplified components to make them lighter and reduced flex in the frame to maximize the forward momentum produced by pedaling.

Grouped with the racing bikes but really in a class of its own is the 2012 Surly Moonlander, a fat tire bike for the adventure cyclist. Fat tire cyclists eschew paths, tracks and roads in search of unique and extreme terrains. This heavy bike, with its wide, rugged tires was designed for superior traction in sand, gravel, snow and ice.

The final group of bikes in the exhibit showcases the newest bicycle designs for commuter and recreational use and hints at a variety of future possibilities. Included in this category is the PiMobility Electric hybrid, which can operate as a motorcycle, bicycle or both. The Kromica fixed gear bike can be ridden in a backwards direction, and the portability of the Tern Collapsible Commuter model removes the nagging question of cycling in the city: “Will my bike still be there when I get back?”

As we move through the timeline of the exhibit, we see wood frames to steel, aluminum and ballistic-grade carbon fiber. The final bike in the show, the one that may point to the future, turns out to be made of cardboard. Created by Israeli inventor Izhar Gafni, this bike is fully functional and is waterproof as well as fireproof. Best of all? When it becomes available in the marketplace it is expected to retail for about $20.

The Art of the Bicycle takes viewers through 200 years of bicycle evolution, highlighting the most important engineering developments while allowing attendees to enjoy the aesthetic qualities of each bike on display.

“Chicago is a great biking city, but also a city that embraces both history and innovation,” Schlesinger says. “This exhibit is really a perfect meld of that, and I think Chicagoans will appreciate both the beauty and history of many of these bikes as well as the fresh and imaginative choices that are now available.”

For more information on the exhibit, visit www.msichicago.org.