celebrated adrenaline junkie who took his own cycling to the wire.
By Alistair Lawrence.
We don’t mean the penny-farthing riders who would drop by Tom’s workshop, although those early machines could play havoc with a cyclist’s front teeth. Rather, those brazen daredevils who knew how to whip up a crowd. None more so than tightrope walker Charles Blondin, a global celebrity and most renowned showman of his era.
Born Jean Francois Gravelet, in 1824, Blondin understood the best way to put bums on seats, apart from cycling, was to register the biggest possible score on the ‘gasp-o-meter’. In the mid-19th century, Blondin became the first man to walk a tightrope above Niagara Falls, a feat he undertook no fewer than 17 times.
The first occasion, in June 1859, came just a year before Pearson was founded. Teetering 50m above the water, on a rope 7.5cm wide, Blondin traversed a ravine 500m wide. Subsequent trips were made on a specially adapted bicycle, complete with headlamp (safety first), and another carrying his manager, Harry Colcord, in a wheelbarrow.
We’re certain the latest machine in Pearson’s Urban bike collection, Now You See Me, will draw appreciative, if more restrained, murmurs of its own. A phrase synonymous with showmen and illusionists of a bygone era might seem an unusual name for a bike created for city riding, where visibility is all. Until we tell you it’s been created using Pearson House Design, our in-house geometry system. Not only does it offer a commanding position when cycling in traffic, it also enables you to keep riding comfortably for longer. The emphasis here is on simple, hassle-free riding. The tough, double-butted chromoly steel frame soaks up potholes, without compromising handling.
A flip-flop hub lets you switch between single-speed and fixed gear, while chain tensioners ensure a quiet ride and minimise wear. The ideal town machine, the bike can be pared back to its bare essentials; or add a pannier-rack to convert to an out-and-out commuter. According to posters advertising Blondin’s exploits, spectators were guaranteed to see him perform ‘come wet or dry’. Much like Now You See Me, where the addition of mudguards will keep you riding whatever the weather. Designed for long-term strength, the 2021 edition also has chrome rear stays for a truly classic finish.
Two years after his Niagara debut, in 1861, the globetrotting Blondin arrived in England, where he thrilled crowds at Crystal Palace. Built for the Great Exhibition a decade previously, the south London venue was a stone’s throw from Pearson’s original London store. Walking 55 feet metres above the ground, across the Palace’s Great Central Transept, Blondin’s wheelbarrow on one occasion bore his five-year old daughter, a fact which led to the intervention of Sir George Lewis, then Home Secretary.
Charles Dickens, a grudging contemporary, was sniffy about the Frenchman’s star billing, insisting half his audiences only turned out in the hope he might fall. At Pearson, we like to think that artists, like our perfectly fitted bikes, come in different shapes and sizes. And just as the Pearson family have an affinity with the Crystal Palace area going back generations, so too the ancestors of Blondin. A full 100 years after his Niagara exploits, his grandson arrived at Pearson’s Sutton store, bringing with him a rather famous bicycle and equally renowned wheelbarrow. Whether or not that Monsieur Blondin asked the proprietor, our grandfather Arthur Pearson, for a squirt of oil, we don’t know.
And while our bikes are pieces of engineering, we think there’s something of an art to their creation. The generations of craftsmanship that have gone into their design are, today, allied to data from the thousands of fittings carried out in our state-of-the-art studio. When it all comes together, as Blondin would attest, it feels as if there’s magic in the air.