A Bicycle Bytes review
The 1897 German Electra versus the
2014 Renovo 'Further' model
(in Australian conditions)
An 1897 German-made framed Electra, and a 2014 Oregon-made Renovo Touring Bike, are pictured in the following photographs.
This review is totally unswayed by any objective analysis, as I have not ridden either bicycle. The only German-made Electra I actually handled is one I renovated in the late 1970s for the New South Wales Holbrook Museum. I have admired a Renovo owned by a friend of mine (at least I thought he was, until he refused to loan it to me—and I only wanted it for a couple of months to ride across Australia).
At first glance there is not much between them. Each has two wheels, a saddle, handlebars, a crank, pedals, and a chain to the rear wheel. The power source is still the same. Little has changed in 130 years.
The Renovo offers a custom-built, multi-coloured wooden frame made to your specific body dimensions.
The Electra—only one model available, and black—was steel-framed, with an adjustable seat post, but no adjustable handlebars. However, that eliminated the need for frame assessment fittings at a cycle shop.
The Electra had a pistol hook (pistol not included), albeit probably jerry-rigged by Murif. The Renovo has none.
An Electra was the first bicycle ridden across the centre of Australia, from Adelaide to Darwin, in 1897, by Jerome J Murif. It was some 2,900 km (1,800 miles) of arid, isolated and relatively unexplored country. How unexplored? The second largest lake in Australia (west of his route), which ranks in size just behind the Great Lakes and the Great Salt Lake in America, was not even discovered until 1932—by aerial survey.
Jerome wrote a book about the trip, From Ocean to Ocean. Thus I have compared his experience with a theoretically equivalent modern-day ride on a wooden Renovo.
My friend suggested he would take the now-paved highway all the way. Which makes sense, since the overland telegraph line that Murif followed no longer exists, nor the camel patrols that maintained it.
It would appear that the weight of the Electra, 27 pounds (13.3 kg), would be a disadvantage. However, Murif carried only a small canvas bag tied on the crossbar. It contained plain water, much cheaper than the currently popular mineral-supplemented hydrational liquids.
However my friend, in undertaking a similar ride now on his Renovo, in isolated country, with only bush tracks and no formed roads over much of the journey, admitted he would be carrying camping equipment, water, and a Satnav device. That means that the somewhat lighter Renovos (17-22 lbs./7.7-10 kg), once loaded, would have no distinct advantage in weight.
The Renovo has disc brakes. Murif’s had none, a common practice in Australia at the time. Being a fixed wheel machine, the Electra was braked simply by resisting the forward motion of the pedals. If one lost control going down a hill, one simply stepped off the back, via a small step welded to the frame near the rear axle for that very purpose. The result is that Murif and others carried no luggage over the back wheel. It blocked their emergency exit.
As a fixed wheel machine, the Electra had only a single gear (with typical ratios at the time between 65 and 70). The Renovo's multi-gear system is certainly an improvement, but all those gears are irrelevant when having to carry or push the machine. Murif, in fact had to do so for some 800 km (500 miles) of the 2,900 km (1,800 mile) journey, particularly when zigzagging up and down the seemingly endless Strangways Sandhill field.
The Electra initially cost about 20% of an average man’s wages. By 1897 they would have cost about a tenth of a year’s salary. Today, a Renovo would cost, after allowing for variations in the exchange rate and shipping, about 8-9% of the average Aussie’s annual income. Again, nothing in it between them.
I can't recommend you buy an 1897 German-made Electra model because they are no longer sold. However, the unrelated current Electra Bicycle Company has a seemingly endless number of models. If it’s a name you’re after, it’s the same. But not the bike.
My question is, have wooden bicycles been adequately tested for Australian conditions? Renovo’s major markets are the United States, with only about 50 species of termites, and Europe, where termites are generally found only around the Mediterranean regions. Italy has only 5 natural species, for example, and Scandinavia, Switzerland, and Germany none. But how many years would any of those bicycle frames survive in Australia before one of our 300 species of termites has them for lunch?
Better than you might imagine. For one thing, termites tend to be choosy about what type of drywood, dampwood, and grass they eat. And having evolved in Australia, with its eucalypt trees, they might find those non-Aussie hardwoods that Renovo use downright distasteful.
My friend wouldn't agree to bury his for a scientific test, so we can only speculate. He says he leans his against steel lampposts in preference to trees, and keeps moving.
And those Renovos do move, as did the early Australian outback riders.
You can read more about them in Wheeling Matilda: The Story of Australian Cycling.
And Renovos at http://www.renovobikes.com
The concept of ‘bicycling’ is fundamental to understanding the role of the machine. A cyclist is not a person on wheels, but a person with wheels. There is an immense difference.
While ‘riding a bicycle’ is the usual image, bicycling is essentially a man-machine combination that allows mode to be matched to terrain, optimising the use of wheel and foot.
When sand, mud, obstacles, high winds, or a steep incline make pedalling difficult, the rider can get off and walk. The cycle can be pushed, carried, lifted over fences and floated across rivers. Heavy weights and bulky loads can be transported on it. Moreover, man and machine can be readily carried on wagons, trucks, cars, boats, or trains.
It was that combination that radically altered the human travel equation in the 1890s.