Thursday, March 14, 2024

Inspiration And Some History

The page posted on Facebook that started this journey.

 The Honeman Flyer project has taken up a lot of space here on the blog of late. However; you may not have read what the reason for the project was, or how this all came to be a thing. So that's the point of this post.

Today I am traveling to the Mid-South event mainly because of an idea that germinated last year when I saw a post by frame builder Steve Garro on Facebook. The image Steve posted was from an issue of "Popular Mechanics" from the mid-40's (1940's) which showed an advertisement from a frame builder by the name of Willie Honeman. (Image to left here)

The name of the builder did not catch my attention, but what Steve said did. He essentially noted that the geometry of the frame drawing in the ad was eerily close to gravel bike geometry. He wondered what such a bike might ride like. So did I, along with other commenters on the image. 

This prompted myself to go into research mode and I found a site that had a page on Bill "Willie" Honeman, a much decorated national champion track racer.  The site, called Classic Cycles, has a wealth of obscure track cycling information from the turn of the 20th Century to the 1950's. Searching further, I found out that Iowa figured into track racing lore. 

There was a racer who took up crafting racing bikes and running a shop out of Davenport, Iowa named Worthington Mitten. Worth, as he was known by, was himself a well accomplished six-day racer from the time when those contests were actually ridden for six consecutive days by one rider. Once he took up a torch, he made a small number of frames and forks out of his Davenport shop under the "Mitten" brand. One of his clients was an orphaned paper boy who made his rounds by bicycle named Victor Hopkins

Vic was an Iowa native, and his story is compelling. From a tough childhood he was eventually moved to try racing bicycles after he discovered Worth Mitten's Davenport cycling club. Vic immediately was successful. Some of his exploits were something which might resonate with ultra-distance, self-supported gravel riders today.

Willie Honeman's track racer (Image courtesy of Classic Cycles)

Vic apparently went at least once to Chicago to race. He didn't take the train, nor did he drive a car. Instead he rode to the event and back. Then, in an effort to qualify for the 1924 Paris Olympics, he did a similar thing, only this time he rode over 1000 miles from Davenport. Most of the roads he used to get there were dirt. It turned out that he qualified for the Olympics since he won the event by 20 seconds. 

I assume Vic did that self-supported as well. This got me to thinking - these bicycles must have been pretty decent for rough roads.  

Examining the Honeman geometry, and then realizing that it was a design from the 1930's led me to Pop Brennan, who was the maker of Honeman's track bike. Reading further I found that Brennan's bikes were quite popular with the major star track racers on the circuit back then. Many of the other builder's bikes seemed to be of a similar geometry as well. Finally, the Mitten model built for Vic Hopkins was especially meant for rougher roads found in Iowa and Illinois at the time. 

So, how would a modernized version of these bikes do on gravel

Fast forward to 2024: The "Honeman Flyer" project came to life, as I have detailed here on these pages. The project culminates with this trip to Stillwater, Oklahoma as I will be riding (hopefully) on Oklahoma's red clay roads and getting to be a part of the story Erik Mathy is crafting around this idea, and more than that. 

The finished Honeman Flyer by King Fabrcations made to the geometry of a Brennan track bike from the 1930's.

Was It A Good Idea? There was a huge risk involved in doing this project, that mainly being that my resources for this experiment were based on a paltry amount of evidence and a lot of my past experience and my own guesswork. There was a good chance that I paid out of pocket for a pretty wall hanging. 

The price for admission to this deal was not cheap. Yes - there also was the chance that I would have "confirmation bias" and think it was a fine bike even though it might not be. But if you really knew me you'd know that I cannot stand a bike that handles poorly. Most bikes have "pretty decent" traits, but there are some that have some bad warts and I think that in the past I have been pretty honest about those things. 

 The point of the experiment is to find if we, as a community of cyclists, can take anything from history and apply it to today. This is not easy to do. Today it would be difficult to ascertain "why" things were done the way they were done without direct evidence from builders and period riders, most of whom, if not all, are deceased. Then there is also the factor with materials technology. Certain things could not be done back then and have reliability. Things which we can do now and not worry about. 

But did we, (cyclists, designers, brands) cross a line at some point and start doing things "because we could' or because "rules" disallowed certain aspects of design? I think fashion and marketing also have affected cycling design. Think about Worth Mitten. He probably wasn't as concerned about how his product made people feel when they looked at it as he was concerned about how his product worked for a cyclist training and racing. Mitten's designs were most assuredly executed accordingly. 

We also have lost a lot of wisdom and information about cycling from days of yore. For example, I think it is fair to say that most of us unfamiliar with wooden rimmed wheels would be quick to say that today's carbon fiber rims are lighter. If the Classic Cycles site is to be believed, a claim is made there that they have examples of racing wheels from the 20's and 30's that rival the weights of today's carbon wheels. Maybe something along those lines goes for geometry also. Maybe our own assumptions about "what is old" affects our views of those old bicycles as well. 

So, can we learn anything from the past by having a modernized version of what was raced and ridden on rough roads back then?

So far I would say - Yes. I need to ride it more to really know if anything will crop up that bugs me. I need to get into various situations with the bike. I need more time to decide. But I don't think I wasted my money, if that is what you are wondering out there. I have wasted my money on custom design before, so I am not necessarily going to hold back judgement on the King Fab bike because it is "custom" or cool, or because the geometry is whatever. In fact, I have already pointed out a few things about the process with King Fab that weren't ideal and that I found a flaw in the paint job, if you were paying attention. 

So, in the future I think you'll find an unvarnished take on the bike and the point of it being this experiment. Until then I'll point out again that back in the first half of the 20th Century there were a lot of bicycles like this and there were good reasons for their design. You'd have to be pretty blind to ignore those facts. There is something to this. The question is, should we be looking at this sort of design for gravel in the 21st Century? 

Anyway... stay tuned.....

1 comment:

Nooge said...

Thanks so much for the deeper context. I love that stuff.

Regarding wooden rims, my father has a few. They are super light but I haven’t weighed them. I’m inclined to believe they are more comfortable than carbon, but that’s just a guess. I prefer clinchers over tubular though. I don’t believe they could make wooden clincher rims unless they were giant blocks.