Cycling through history at PAM exhibit

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PORTLAND — The bicycle isn’t just an efficient means of transportation, according to Michael Embacher. “It’s an example of wonderful handcraft,” he said at the opening of the Portland Art Museum’s “Cyclepedia” exhibit last June.

The elegance of bicycle design is obvious to anyone who visits “Cyclepedia,” which is drawn from Embacher’s private collection of bikes.

From utilitarian bicycles of the 1920s to sleek, lightweight racing bikes of today, the exhibition shows how the bicycle can combine brawn with beauty.

Open through Sept. 8 at PAM, this is the exhibit’s only showing in the U.S., which is appropriate considering Portland’s mania for bicycles.

Embacher, an architect who lives in Vienna, Austria, said he doesn’t consider himself a bicycle historian or expert on how they’re made. He’s simply fascinated with them. In 2003, he started turning his curiosity into a collection. “I just bought what I could find,” he said.

Embacher now owns 200 bicycles, 40 of which are displayed at the Portland museum. The collection includes “a broad spectrum of what a bicycle can be,” he said. (An accompanying $35 book offers photos and information on the other 60 that he owns.)

The ones in the exhibit hang from the ceiling in a museum hall, several feet off the ground so that the intricacies of frames and derailleurs are easier to see.

In his talk at the museum, Embacher highlighted several of his bikes.

The Zoombike, which came out in 1995, is a curious boxy contraption with small (14-inch) wheels when it’s ride-ready. The advantage of the Zoombike is that it can be folded up easily to carry on public transport. “It’s reminiscent of a folding umbrella,” Embacher said. “They are fun to ride but the speed is not high.”

Several other folding bikes are here, including the Skoot, which collapses into a yellow suitcase.

The collection also encapsulates the evolution of bicycle technology.

The oldest bike is a 1925 French model with an odd-looking chain configuration that allowed riders to shift to a lower gear by pedaling backward. Such technology eventually gave way to the derailleur, still in use today.

A 1954 French bike has coil springs to soften the ride. The One Off, which came out in 1991, has a titanium frame and rubber suspension parts. Embacher has the only model ever built.

Then there’s the Lotus Sport 110, which was revolutionary when it came out in 1994 for its extremely light carbon frame and four-spoke carbon wheels. Embacher said such a bike costs “as much as a compact car.”

He described taking the Capo Elite Eis for a spin — actually a slide. The 1996 Austrian bike has a studded rear tire and a ski in place of a front wheel. “It was a cross between an ice skate and a bicycle,” Embacher said. His first ride on it was marred by a flat tire, not surprising considering all those spikes.

Embacher also pointed out the clunky yet functional BSA Paratrooper dating from 1940. Made for the British Army, it folded in two and had its own parachute. BSA (Birmingham Small Arms), also known for motorcycles, produced 60,000 of the bicycles, some of which were used on D-Day.

The exhibition includes several unconventional bicycles built for two. A 1980 Tur Mechanica di Bici isn’t much longer than a conventional bike, with the second rider sitting atop the rear wheel. On the 1988 Bike Buddy, riders sit side-by-side, though only one of them controls the steering. The 2008 Taga has room for one adult and one baby in a wooden cradle — the entire contraption converts to a stroller.

Not everything in the exhibition is two-wheeled. The collection includes a 1995 Bob Jackson racing tricycle.

The bling-iest bike may be a 1973 Raleigh all-steel model, with enclosed chain and solid rods rather than cables connecting handlebar levers with brakes. It gleams, but at 46 pounds, it’s a tank.

Another shiny bike dates from 1937. The Caminade Caminargent Bordeaux–Paris, made of aluminum, wasn’t durable, however.

Also from the 1930s comes an early model of a recumbent bike, in which the rider sits low to the ground with feet extended in front.

The last bike in the exhibition is the most artful. The 1987 Bianchi has a sleek white carbon frame and matching white disc wheels.

Asked which is his favorite bike to ride, Embacher replied, “That’s too hard. It changes every day.”

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