Michael Embacher is a Viennese designer who owns one of the world’s best but rarely seen collections of off-beat and iconic bicycles. He is also the author of Cyclepedia, a selection of 100 machines from his collection that has become a bike design cult hit. Embacher answered 15 of our questions about his passion for the beauty of bicycle design.
The Active Times: What kindled your love affair with bicycles?
After a number of bikes of mine were stolen, I started to acquire used bicycles via the Internet. This made me sit up and notice the versatility of the design. I simply had to satisfy my curiosity and ride and collect these bicycles. My fascination is with the simplicity of the idea — efficiently transforming human energy into maximum mobility — and how this translates into design. Of course, we can also celebrate the bicycle for its environmentally friendly attributes, which perfectly reflect the ever-present concerns for our planet. Because bicycles have had such a positive effect on society and contribute to daily life, it is my personal wish to see bicycles, as a means of transport, becoming the dominant part of the world´s cityscape.
Which was your collection's first bicycle?
My first bicycle was the Rigi Bici Corta. It is six centimetres shorter than conventional racing bikes. With the foreshortened wheel base the seat tube needs to split for the rear wheel to sit through the middle. Just like the V.S. 37, the Rigi (short for Rinaldi Giorgio, the name of the company’s founder) promises perfect manoeuvrability for time trials and superior handling on hill climbs. The frame is made of stainless steel, drawing upon aerospace technology, with a particular silver solder required to connect the tubes. The bike was made by the Rima company (short for Rinaldi Marco, son of Giorgio), manufacturer of office equipment and furniture for educational institutions. In 1979 the Rigi Bici Corta was nominated for the ‘Compasso d’Oro’, an award given for excellent Italian design.
What makes for great bicycle design?
The bicycle is one of the most uncompromising constructions I know — artistically and structurally. The playful, experimental and innovative elements of a bicycle are as important as who has ridden them and what roles in history they have played. The innovation and beauty of a bicycle vary from one model to the next and above all regardless of whether it was expensive or not. The bicycle is an object for enthusiasts, for real fans, which can be defined on multiple levels. And last but not least, the euphoria and love for the bicycle mould the people who design, make and use it.
How large is the collection now?
The collection has grown to 220 bikes. Many can be seen in “Cyclepedia: A century of Iconic bicycle Design” and in the iTunes app that is the ebook version. The oldest bike in the collection is the Cycles Hirondelle Rètrodirect. It is a French bike from approximately 1925. There are some unusual bikes in the collection. The Capo Elite Eis is a successful cross between an ice skate and a bicycle. It has a rear tyre accessorized with metal spikes to provide propulsion and a skid at the front to provide better steering. These are designed to ensure absolute directional stability and reduce the chance of slippage. The only danger was that in an accident a rider had to hope he or she would be missed by the spiked rear wheel. Even in Austria, where the ‘Eis’ was manufactured, the ice bike had only a modest distribution. The bicycle featured in the collection is unique, having been customized by its previous owner. Its manufacturer Capo was renowned for another of its bicycles, the ‘Computer Bike’, where the computer was able to calculate the optimum frame geometry. Capo was founded by two professional cyclists, Otto and Walter Cap in 1930 – the former had been Austrian national champion in the 1920s.
What is the rarest bike in your collection?
One of the rarest bikes is a Moulton One Off. Alex Moulton developed bicycles with small wheels and rubber-suspension from the early 60s on. Mike Augspurger’s company ‘One Off’ in Florence, Mass., specializes in producing unique, made-to-measure pieces. In 1991 Mike Augspurger made the acquaintance of Alex Moulton. Their friendship deepened through cycling trips, and the next One Off idea developed. Augspurger wanted to produce a Moulton AM from titanium with a frame that could not be separated. Only a couple of months later the new frame stood on the weighing scales. It proved to be 500 grams lighter than a Moulton AM Speed non-separable stainless steel frame. Alex Moulton was rather cautious and agreed to no more experiments of this kind.
Do you have a favorite?
The one I ride at present. So my favourite continually changes.
Are all the bikes in the collection in working condition?
Yes. Collecting is like my job. It’s not primarily about making a product beautiful. The main thing is that the design functions. It’s not about looking at objects, but using them. All of the bikes in my collection are ready for use. Most of them I ride regularly in the street. As the bicycle is an object of utility I am not worried about them getting traces of use. Being damaged or stolen would be sad of course.
Are the bikes you acquire in mint condition or do they need restoring?
Some of the bicycles come in a perfect condition. This means in a perfect condition considering when they were made. I always leave the traces of time visible. It is important that every bike is ready for use and has all the components that are needed: frame, chain, brake, gears, light, etc. But of course a lot of bikes needed restoring. And this is the tricky part. I also have a big collection of bicycle parts from all over time and around the world.
Is there a particular bike that you don't have in the collection but which you would like to add?
Yes! The original Bugatti bike.
How do you add to the collection?
The collection includes uncountable types of bikes: cargo-, ice-, road-racing- , mountain-, downhill-, recumbant-, children's-, touring bikes etc. That means that there are various components that can make a bike interesting for the collection. I started to buy bicycles in the internet. After the publication of “Smart Move” suddenly people started to call me in order to sell their loved bikes. My first Moulton bike — the Moulton All Terrain Bike (ATB) — tells a nice story about an every-day object. I found it on the internet. There was only a picture and a telephone number in Germany. On the other end oft he line I met an old lady that wanted to sell the beloved bike of her husband. She didn´t know much about it except that is must have been something special – maybe because of the price that her husband paid for it years ago. I was the first to call and after a small payoff to nighttrain conductor I finally picked it up at 3 o´clock in the morning at the train station in Vienna. It was a Moulton ATB, the first full suspended mountain bike in the world. The value of a bicycle is very often defined by the person who rides it. ThebnCAPO Elite Eis was made by a retiree in Austria. It is very hard to define the value of this bicycle in objective terms. Other bicycles are highly valued but because of the fact that they were stored in a garage I didn´t pay much for them. But then you will find some pieces in the collection that have cost me the price of a small car.
Is sporting pedigree a consideration for you in adding a bike to your collection?
Yes. The Corima is an Olympic Bike from the Olympics in Barcelona 1992 and The Francesco Moser, the 1-hour world record bike, was given by Francesco Moser to Mr. Rassinger, who was the former Austrian Champion.
Who are the great masters of frame building, and what makes them so outstanding?
There are many very good frame builders around the world. But undoubtedly Alex Moulton produced very special pieces and was a great innovator. He developed his revolutionary Moulton bikes with small wheels and rubber-suspension that came from the car business: he invented similar suspensions for the classic Mini and many other British-Leyland/Austin Rover cars.
Has today's technology enhanced or reduced the design beauty of a bicycle?
The maybe biggest change in bicycle design over the years was the possibility to change the gears, it was invented in the 1920s and developed systematically through the years. New materials and technologies changed of course the look of the frame and as everywhere you will find various solutions. The old rule “Beauty is in the eyes of the biker” applies here.
As a designer, do you yearn to design a bike of you own?
I am fascinated by folding bikes. I would like to design a hybrid between a folding- and cargo bike. Bicycles designed for transporting loads have seldom been objects of beauty. Packages were traditionally placed into luggage racks at the front and rear, and specific cargo baskets were used when heavy cargo needed to be transported — usually requiring the addition of a third wheel. A successful cross between a folding bicycle and a two wheeled cargo bike would be an important step towards environment friendly transportation in urban areas.
What's the biggest joy cycling gives you?
One of the special pleasures is the opportunity to meet interesting people from different countries, backgrounds and occupations. It shows how unpretentious the bicycle is as a product. For instance, I had some delightful talks to Alex Moulton, James Dyson and Richard Sapper. It is important to get to know people’s curiosity and interest in a product, their individual relationship to the project. The unbounded creativity that crystallises out of this never fails to fascinate me every day.
Further resources: Embacher Collection web site