Monday, November 23, 2009

Cycling Lessons From Miss Brodie

Don't know whether others have seen the classic film, The Prime of Jean Brodie, based on the novel by Muriel Spark. It ends badly, and the main character - a deluded school mistress in 1930s Scottland - is not somebody one would strive to emulate. But I do admire her beautiful cycling skills! In fact, the opening scene of the film - where Miss Brody is shown gracefully cycling to the school where she teaches on a loop-frame bicycle with a basket - has no doubt influenced my own choice of bicycle and my notion of what "riding a bicycle" should be like. So here are some stills from the sequence that inspired me.

Miss Brodie mounts her bicycle with ease using the proper Sheldon Brown method. Her long, narrow skirt does not seem to impede the mounting maneuver one bit.

Notice how straight her leg is on the pedal as she cycles: completely extended. She would definitely not be able to reach the ground with her toe in traffic.

Ah, here she indicates that she is about to stop. Look at all that stuff on her bike! Rolls of paper in the basket, and what looks like a wooden trunk strapped to the rear rack. You can hardly tell due to the bad quality of these images, but it looks like her bicycle has all blackout parts on it. Does anybody know what year they began doing that?

To get off the bicycle, she takes her right foot off the pedal and swings the leg over the frame while the bicycle is still in motion.

Then she coasts for a bit in this standing position - with the left foot on the left pedal and the right foot supposedly in the air next to it? - until she hops off and the bicycle comes to a stop. Impressive! - and no way can I pull that off.

In the film, one of Miss Brodie's catch-phrases was that she was "a woman in her prime" - even though she was distinctly old-maidish by 1930s standards. My theory is that her cycling is what kept her feeling young and beautiful.

25 comments:

  1. dukiebiddle said...

    I just watched that movie for the first time a couple of months ago. Maggie Smith was definitely in her mid thirties. I thought it was strange looking at Maggie Smith not looking like an old bag. She was hottish, even. Not that late forties can't be hot, but the movie left with the impression of a woman in her thirties who thought she was 10 years younger.

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  2. LOVE IT, LOVE IT, LOVE IT. Maggie Smith is righteous. I love how you could remove the bike and put her on a couch with essentially not much of a (very proper) postural change.

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  3. Lemony says:

    As it had been said before by someone analytical & discerning : "Life begins at 40!" ... So she was (sharing the same mind/sentiment ?? .. ) in 'her prime'.:P :D

    With a little bit of practice, one could probably alight a bike/bicycle (<-to the English purist) in the same way ...with coasting/cruising the bicycle with one's left foot on the left pedal (and right foot slightly bent backward to keep it just above ground) a short distance towards one's intended 'landing' spot.
    Activate the back brake gently just as one places (in fact 'simultaneously') one's right foot onto the ground to alight ... this is to prevent the bicycle from rolling forward further ... (only then do one take one's left foot off the pedal).

    'Boarding' a bicycle could also be in the same (reversed )manner/way .. that is, place one's left foot on the pedal ... give the bicycle a forward push and raise (by bending backward) one right foot above ground just as the bicycle begins to move gently forward ...then raise one's buttock onto the saddle, gently. This was how my mom taught me once I could keep 'in balance' the bicycle I was on ... it would take some practice. In the beginning it would be a little bit rough on the 'bum' but with time and frequency the 'buttock-landing' .. :D .. would be 'gentlier' :P

    Try these .. how do I refer to these dual moves !!!? ... 'stunts'? ;-D It would take one just a few short sessions to muster it after one's body has been trained to 'balance' a moving bike.

    Lemony {...add zest to life ;) }

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  4. I am a firm believer in "life begins at 40"! Maybe by then I will master the graceful mount and dismount : ) For now, I will just accept myself as I am: a woman not yet in her prime, and with no sense of balance!

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  5. What do you mean by blackout parts? The bicycle is black and has no lights at all, not even a reflector. If you refer to wartime blackouts, those didn't begin before 1939 and required a bit more than the small roll of paper visible.
    And to annoy you a bit, all my female acquaintances hop off their bikes this way ....

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  6. I love these pictures (and the serendipity of having just re-read a favorite Muriel Spark novel).

    What kind of bike do you think it is that she is riding?

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  7. I just looked up Maggie Smith's bio, and apparently she was only 35 when this film was made. From the storyline, I definitely got the impression that she was meant to be older than that.

    Frits - But the bicycle is completely black, including handlebars, stem, seat post, rod brakes, and bell. I did not think that was normal unless they are blackout parts. And I was shown a bicycle that was from the mid-late 30s that also has blackout parts. Am I wrong? And I am not annoyed by your lady friends - just envious!

    Emma - I was wondering what bike it was as well; can't identify it! Maybe a Scottish brand?

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  8. That dismount looks like miss sarah chans dismount. I envy it. She does it in her video Two Wheeled Adventure

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  9. dukiebiddle said...

    The movie was set pre-WWII, so if the parts are all black because of parts being required to be so due to blackouts, that would be a time period error on the part of the film makers. At that part of the movie, the girls were supposed to be very young. At the end, when the girls are 17/18ish, one of the girls runs off to the Spanish Civil War.

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  10. I haven't seen the film for years but like Emma J recently re-read the novel. Maggie Smith is a superb actress and nobody else could have brought Miss Brodie to life in the film as she did. Love the cycling stills and I envy her her balance and floating dismount :-). I'm in my 'prime' but just can't quite achieve that level of elegance on a bike yet :-)

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  11. i'd like to be pointed to some references about a fully extended leg being the "proper" way to pedal... the only reference i can find by sheldon is: "The way the human leg is made, it is strongest when it is nearly straight". this seems to confirm what all the bike fitting sites i've perused state: to have a *very slight* bend at the knee with the pedal at full bottom. it has something to do with balancing cadence with best use of your muscles for the power stroke. also, when the leg is *completely* extended, the hips are forced to rock on the saddle, which is not desirable.

    i agree about the gracefulness of mounting/dismounting with one foot on the pedal. this is how i did it as a kid (i also did figure-8s with no hands). but as an adult just entering my "prime", i no longer do the one-pedal mount. maybe "prime" correlates with lazy?

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  12. thanks for the tip! I've added it to my winter trainer time queue.

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  13. Cosmo - Miss Sarah does have a very cool dismount! Looks especially nice when she does it in a dress and heels.

    Sigrid - Is your trainer a loop frame? : )

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  14. On blacked-out bike parts-

    Apparently early on, it was common for some manufacturers to enamel everything, including the nickel-plated hardware. Sunbeam did this (they called it "japanning" then) on their pre-war bikes, called by many the best production bicycles yet made. They certainly weren't cheap!
    Here are some current pics of a 1914 Gent's tricycle, a 1923 Gent's roadster, and a 1933 Lady's loop frame roadster, all owned by a fellow named Wazza in the UK. Note the blacked-out hardware on each of them.

    http://farm3.static.flickr.com/2669/3972507574_6f2068ed24_b.jpg

    http://farm4.static.flickr.com/3169/3030256062_feb7f503ab_b.jpg

    http://farm4.static.flickr.com/3419/3980442969_776f7e2f2a_b.jpg

    I have always enjoyed Dame Smith's acting, but have never seen but a few minutes of The Prime Of Miss Jean Brodie. I think it's time to fire up the NetFlix.

    Cheers,

    Corey K

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  15. Corey K: This reminds me. My father had an all-black bike just after the war and we never thought about why. I suppose that in our case it was just a matter of prolonging the life of the bike's blank hardware. Nickel plating wasn't all that durable most times and the steel under it was definitely not stainless. So if your handlebars blistered you simply sanded them down to the blank metal and painted it. Black of course as the rest of the bike was black, too.

    Love the flattened cat on the third photo! :-)

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  16. And just for the record: I went into town for an errand this afternoon and spotted three bikes with black handlebars and bells, an old Batavus with a berceau frame (semi-mixte), a new Gazelle and a new Giant. Both the Gazelle and the Giant were apparently black anodised aluminum. Not much as a percentage on at least 500 bikes parked, however.

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  17. Corey - Wow. Thank you for those links. Clearly I need to explore this gentleman's flickr site!

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  18. One of my Raleigh's is all black-it's just the all weather version so it's not WW2 related http://www.flickr.com/photos/26587553@N00/sets/72157622523622247/.

    I'm 39 and I make the swinging over stop too !

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  19. I agree with somervillain. If I raise my saddle so much that I can extend my legs completely, my hips start to "rock". I think it’s just not natural to extend the legs completely during the pedalling motion.

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  20. Those were the really lovely antique Sunbeams I referenced in an earlier post, perhaps on another forum. You're welcome.

    And thanks for this engaging little blog; it's a daily read now.

    CK

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  21. There's an older Asian woman that I often see along my commute who dismounts with that trailing right foot. That seems very awkward to me, but it must be standard practice in much of the world.

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  22. I hear the correct way (and the approach I use myself now) to measure proper seat post height is this: Can you reach the pedals? If so, your saddle is not high enough.

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  23. Nice stills. I've never seen that movie. The classy dismounting trick is one I need to learn, for sure. I think she could easily put her right toe down in traffic by leaning her bike and shifting her body to the right - I do it all the time on my Dutch bike.

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  24. Actually, anodizing or painting parts black on all types of bikes was very common during the 1930's. The popularity of that practice continued until WW II. Black-anodized components for road bikes didn't start to become popular again until the mid-1970's or so, when Campagnolo's top-of-the-line "Super Record" ensemble included black chainrings and pedal cages, as well as parts on the rear derailleur. Japanese parts-makers followed suit. If you look at constructeur or other fine bikes (like the Rene Herse) from the 40's, 50's or 60's, they are unlikely to be black or have black parts, save for the saddle, on them.

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  25. Isn't it the white tail (the bottom half of the back mudguard painted white) that was related to the blackout in the war? The Luftwaffe were hardly going to be able to make out the cities from a few glints of chrome on bikes - but once all the lights were off, you'd want your black bike to be a bit more visible to the cars in the dark!

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