Paul Brodie photo archive
Excelsior's 1919 OHC board track racer was arguably the fastest motorcycle of its time - more than 120 miles an hour, and it had pedals. It was a limited-production racing machine that roared to life at the high-point of the sport, when every major city in the United States had a massive, high-banked oval raceway and motorcycle races packed grandstands to capacity. Board track racing began as an offshoot of bicycle racing, which at the turn of the century, was raging in the US. Motorcycles of the time were literally motorized bicycles that puttered along at 30 or 40 miles an hour at best. They were commonly used to "motor-pace" bicycle racers, who drafted behind them around wooden velodromes. The outright speed of motor-paced races captured the imaginations of fans, who quickly discovered that motorcycle racing was far more entertaining than bicycle racing.
As one may imagine, every major bicycle brand was soon making motorcycles. Massive wooden velodromes were erected, each larger than its predecessor, as racing-driven engine technology pushed speeds beyond the public's imaginations. By 1913, motorcycles still looked like pedal-bicycles with an engine, but had breached 100 miles an hour. By 1919, when Excelsior owner Ignaz Schwinn ordered the development of the OHC, he needed to top 120 miles an hour to win. To reach that goal, the new V-twin engine was designed with overhead camshafts, driven by bevel-gears which extended its RPM range, and some reports say the bike could reach 130. The OHC should have dominated the 1920 racing season, but that was not to be. Bob Perry, Excelsior's star racer, was killed competing on January 4, 1920. Ignaz Schwinn had the remaining OHC's destroyed, retired from racing, and a decade later he was out of the motorcycle business.
Paul Brodie photo archive
This Excelsior OHC is actually a faithful and fully operational reproduction, built in its entirety, including the engine, by a famous Canadian mountain bike maker named Paul Brodie. The reason it appears here, is that it marks a turning point in history. Bicycle makers may have been the pioneering force that forged the motorcycle into prominence, but by 1919, engine technology had visibly outpaced the cycling industry's collective ability to conceptualize and engineer a suitable chassis. By 1920, just one year later, dedicated motorcycle companies, like Harley Davidson and Indian, dominated racing and the bicycle brands faded into obscurity.
The History Lesson
The Excelsior's spindly, bicycle-inspired frame and fork are telling reminders that bicycle makers, however large or small, are merely frame-builders who's final product is pieced together from a shopping list of accessories produced outside their factories. The bicycle frame plays a crucial role when it is powered by a thinking, feeling human, crippled by self-doubt and barely able to muster a third of a horsepower on a good day. We feel, (or at least, believe we can feel) the slightest nuance of its power transfer and road-handling qualities. Every aspect of the rider's performance is translated through its chassis and, because human power is so limited, less bicycle equals more performance. Bike makers live and die by that simple formula. The addition of a motor, however, reversed that equation.
Engine builders could increase power as needed, so suddenly, more equaled more. Boosting power incrementally enabled motorcycle makers to add features like sturdier frames, fenders, better brakes, suspension, and wider wheels and tires - all without paying a performance penalty. It didn't take long for motorcycle makers to realize that they needed more engine designers, not frame builders. I imagine then as now, customers asked the same three questions: "How much power does it have? How fast will it go? And, how much does it cost?" Frame construction and geometry? Probably not.
The history lesson that the Excelsior OHC teaches is that the power source is the most important aspect of the bike, and if you add a motor to a bicycle, the motor becomes the star of the show. The deception is
Specialized's top-drawer S-Works Turbo Levo debuted with a 530-watt motor - double the power of its competitors. It's doubtful, though, that the $9500 superbike could compete with one of the latest 750-watt motors bolted into a slightly heavier and less-expensive chassis. Specialized photo
that bicycle makers who aren't making motors are in the motorbike business. History suggests otherwise - that bicycle makers, most of which are staffed by ex competitors, will wage a technology war against each other, both on the racetracks and in their boardrooms, and in doing so, will win the battle for the motor makers. It won't take long for customers to figure out that they are not paying to pedal - and that spending money on speed, power, and battery duration is far more beneficial than ponying up for a carbon frame and a fancy cockpit. When that happens, bike makers will have nothing valuable to sell them that couldn't be produced elsewhere for less.
The history of the electric powered bicycle will teach us a much different lesson - that self-deception may be excusable, but purposely deceiving others is not. Like the 1919 Excelsior, today's electric bicycles also have pedals, and neither were intended to be pedal-powered. The Excelsior had no electrical system, so its rider could use the pedals as an emergency starter to re-fire the engine if it quit during a race. Today's electric powered bike has pedals because they created a legal loophole that allowed manufacturers to successfully lobby that they were power-assisted bicycles, not motorbikes, and thus dodge complicated and expensive safety regulations, as well as licensing and insurance requirements that motorcycles and motor scooters must comply with for highway use.
"Highway use" is the key phrase, because with few exceptions, none of the legal restrictions to electric powered bicycles, like maximum speeds and pedal-assisted power transmission were intended to apply to off-highway use. An electric powered off-road bicycle is essentially unrestricted - except for the fact that it has a motor. While there are many places in the world where motorized off-road vehicles are legally welcome, most of the world's choice mountain bike destinations are not among them.
To understand why this is important, consider that the solitary reason that mountain bikes gained access to trails where motorized vehicles of any sort were banned was because they are human powered - and it was a tenuous handshake - we were not welcomed by traditional users with open arms. If we had told them up front, that pedaling uphill was too difficult, so we were going to use motors, mountain bikes would have been permanently banned - end of story.
Arguably, the same would be true today, and motorized bicycle makers are well aware of that dilemma. So, rather than negotiating their case for motorized access to non-motorized riding areas, they devised an end-game.
The deception was simple: Bicycle industry and pedal-assist motor makers would first lobby government and transportation officials to give
power-assisted electric bicycles legal access to streets and bike-ways that pedal-powered bicycles enjoy. Once they achieved that goal, then they could make two key arguments: the first is that because power-assisted bicycles shared the same privileges, then legally they were are no different than any other bicycle; and the second argument was that a mountain bike is also a bicycle, and because an e-mountain bike is legally the same as a pedal-powered bicycle on the highway, then it should also be legal to ride everywhere a bicycle is allowed off-road. It's a compelling story, but it's a fabrication. The off-road segment of the E-bike market is on fire, and the industry knows that the boom can't be sustained without trail access. If they laid low for a little while, and maintained their mountain bike disguise well enough to convince the right people, they could sneak in the back door.
If and when e-bikes become an established off-road user group, they won't have to pretend any longer. Unlike their counterparts on the highway, riders of so-called e-mountain bikes will not be regulated by lane separation, established traffic controls, and ample law enforcement. And, they won't be travelling at comparable speeds with other users. Once their wheels leave the highway and cross onto dirt, they will be free to set their own limits - and they won't be slow. If history and human nature are not enough to convince you, imagine the boys at Specialized not responding with a significant increase in speed and power after choking down a review from a German publication that stated Trek was 12-percent faster on the climbs and six-percent quicker to 45 KPH. Professional off-road e-bike competition is already established and all the key players are in. History, it seems, is poised to repeat itself.
So, What Happens to Mountain Bikes?
The truth is: e-bikes never were mountain bikes. They were never designed to be human powered. Anyone who has been unfortunate enough to pedal one with a dead battery can attest to that. E-bike makers, however, convinced a lot of people that they actually were mountain bikes and explaining that lie, unfortunately, will fall upon mountain bikers, who will also bear the brunt of the inevitable user-conflicts and burnt bridges that will be left in the wake of electric-powered off-road cyclists.
The fact that so many of the sport's major brands betrayed our assurance that mountain bikers would be human powered partners of like-minded back-country users, is not going to be easy to explain away when we return to the negotiating table asking for trail access. We will suffer losses, but I am certain that mountain bike riders and mountain bike makers who stayed true to the sport will continue to flourish, and some brands that jumped on e-bike bus will find their way back home. The mighty Excelsior OHC also tells that story.
After Ignaz Schwinn abandoned motorcycles,
Pioneer Schwinn Excelsior mountain bike. MOMBAT photo archive
he returned to what he knew best - manufacturing bicycles. Schwinn survived the great depression, two world wars and the atomic age, and along the way, his namesake brand produced a hand-brazed, steel-framed, balloon tire bicycle with beautiful lines that emulated his crowning achievement of 1919, also named "Excelsior." Four decades later, it would become the seminal mountain bike. Then, like now, its riders spent over eighty percent of their time pushing and pedaling uphill in order to enjoy the short and wonderful trip back down the trail. Sure, it's hard, but the slow going is when mountain bikers talk to themselves, to each other, and look into the faces of other users. It's the part of mountain biking that makes us honest. We all could use a little more of that.