I believe in the diamond-shape bicycle frame. I always have. It is the lightest, strongest, cheapest, most rigid, compact and efficient shape the bicycle frame can be. Almost all bicycles – racing, mountain, touring, hybrid, track, utility, cruiser, fixed-wheel, dirt jumper, porteur and BMX – are still built up around a diamond frame. The vast majority of the billion or so bicycles on the planet today have a diamond frame. There have been hundreds, perhaps thousands of attempts to better the diamond-shape in the 130 years since it first set the fashion to the world, in 1885. You could make a good case that only two have provided a viable alternative – Mike Burrows’ moulded ‘monocoque’ racing frame and Alex Moulton’s original 1960s small-wheeled bicycle.

By Rob Penn

Friday 12th January 2018

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Alex Moulton, a pioneering engineer and the man behind the suspension system in the Mini car, set out to reappraise the bicycle in the 1950s. He believed the large, standard wheels made the bicycle slow to accelerate and difficult to store, which it is. He also understood that commuting patterns were changing, and increasingly incorporating multiple forms of transport. His radical but practical bicycle design, based on the stiff, stainless steel ‘F-frame’, had small wheels with high-pressure tyres, which meant less rolling resistance and lower aerodynamic drag. He also developed front and rear suspension, three decades before it became commonplace on the mountain bike.

Moulton originally licensed the blueprint for his unisex, small-wheeled, dual-suspension bicycle to Raleigh in 1961 but they then refused to manufacture the model. Resolute, Moulton built his own factory and the bikes went on sale in 1963. The stylish, new machine was an immediate success, quickly becoming synonymous with the age – the Mini car, the mini-skirt and the mini bike were all à la mode. By 1965, Moulton was producing 1,000 bicycles a week. Dawes, Royal Enfield and then in 1965, Raleigh, all began manufacturing their own versions of the Moulton to cash in on the boom. The small-wheel bicycle became a huge hit: it even briefly arrested the steep, post-War decline in bicycle sales.

Dr Alex Moulton died in 2012, but the bicycles are still made at the same factory near Bath. I borrowed one this summer for a month – a Moulton TSR 27 with 20” wheels. It’s not the swanky model that later came about but the early model dubbed the ‘go anywhere’ Moulton, the TSR 27 doesn’t fold up but it can be separated in under a minute: in two parts, the bike neatly fitted into the back of the converted London Taxi – a vehicle with no provision for a bike rack – which I was touring round Britain in.Alex-Moulton

At first, I wasn’t sure about the Moulton. The frame looked futuristic and flimsy; the small wheels reminded me of my Mum’s Raleigh Shopper, circa 1973; because of the ‘give’ in the Moulton’s suspension, pedalling flat out, downhill felt like being on a fairground ride. For a week, I couldn’t marry the obvious practical advantages of the bike with how I felt riding it – like a turkey.

Yet people loved it. The Moulton turned heads, just as it must have done at the Earls Court Cycle Show in 1962 when it was first revealed. Wherever I went, shopkeepers and fishermen, walkers and even other cyclists looked on with a mixture of curiosity and delight.

Slowly, the Moulton began to work it’s magic. I rode it over the heather-covered hills in the Scottish Borders, through sunshine and wild showers. I pedalled up and down the River Tweed on traffic-free paths. I skated over Edinburgh’s cobbled streets. I sped round Loch Tay and along Land Rover tracks in the Highlands. I even rode sections of singletrack, when my map reading failed. One day, I rode fifty miles on the Moulton. The bike was slick and quick on road, and comfortable to ride off-road. I was amazed and my latent prejudice against any bicycle that doesn’t have a diamond-shaped frame gently melted away.

Whatever bike you have, check out our list of destinations, for where to ride it. 

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