Functionality as inspiration :: Part II.

Continued from Part I...

Before credit cards had large limits and tiny minimum payments, the idea of "advancement" was often a lot less amorphous than it can be now. There's reasons for this, but I'm not done talking about Charlie Cunningham's creations.

Cunningham rode a lot, and his innovations came from being on a bicycle saddle looking out, rather than standing to the side and pondering changes off the bike. Aesthetics held less sway than the resulting functionality. At the time for riding off-road: One pole had you riding a 30+ pound bike with slack cruiser-y angles and rudimentary cobbled components. The other pole had you getting jackhammered on a roadish bike.

General problem solving and a drive to make backcountry travel more enjoyable as well as reliable led to: Lightweight but conservatively built aluminum frames; more spirited designs incorporating more aggressive angles and lower trail; innovative rim brakes; wide range 2x6 drivetrains; lower Q-factors on dirt going bikes; Grease Guard designs for headsets, hubs, and pedals; newer, stiffer steerer interfaces; influential stem and saddle designs; 135mm rear hub spacing; wider hub flange spacing; new bearing applications; new quick release designs for both wheels and seatposts; and on and on...

Not every advancement "took" and Charlie wasn't necessarily the first for everything - there were plenty of passionate independent thinkers that came up with similar improvements, ranging from French constructeurs to Tom Ritchey to _________. But, like Richard Pryor with stand-up comedy or Dick Fosbury with the high jump, everything in off-road bicycle design before Charlie seems dated and everything after bears his mark, at least in a small way.

The parallel with aircraft designs is the unbridled pragmatism. You don't screw around with something that flies at five digit altitudes and is meant to safely transport a human from the ground, across the sky, and back to earth. This is augmented even further when this machine is placed in a kill-or-be-killed situation. Functional improvement over all. Make it work. Make it work beter.

Field testing over time makes it so.

Improvements that cause great leaps in performance are rare. There's refinement that occurs between these great leaps, producing a gentle exponential arc as performance approaches perceived perfection (until another "leap"). Manipulating this arc drives the bike world, to its benefit and detriment. Differentiating between true advancement and potential long-term aggravation isn't always easy when the data gathering comes via on-screen anecdote versus saddle-worn ass.

Sometimes acceptance of the status quo shows some wisdom and sometimes pushing upward is warranted, as determined by miles and hours in your two-wheeled wake. I'll talk about this in the last installment of the post next week.

Continued in Part III...

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