A Conversation with the Printing Bike Pilgrims

Master framebuilder Robin Mather and photographer and printer Nick Hand of the Letterpress Collective work 20 metres apart in the Centrespace workshops and artists’ studios in Bristol. It was there they dreamt up the Printing Bike Project – to design and build a bike to carry a printing press, and then ride it to Mainz in Germany, sending printed postcards to people along the way. Mainz was where Johannes Gutenberg invented printing with moveable type in the 15th century, and there is still a museum there in his name.

How did the project come about?
Robin Mather – It was a combination of things we’d been thinking about separately that all fell into place. I’d been thinking about making cargo bikes, then Nick said to me one day he wanted to give printing courses to schoolkids. But it’s logistically difficult to get school kids out of school, so he asked if it would be possible to put a printing press on a bicycle. We figured out it probably was, and if we did it, it would be a good idea to go on some kind of journey.

Nick Hand – I have a friend called Cally Calloman who did a talk in Bristol, and showed a little film about a knife-grinder who rode his bicycle from Scotland to Cornwall every year for about 40 years. It would take him a whole year, and people would know when he’d pass through their village – for example, if you lived in Gloucestershire he’d come through your village in about March. You’d keep all your blunt knives waiting for him, and quite often you’d give him a bit of money and feed him. Then he’d just go on his way. It intrigued me, this idea of journeymen cycling who made a living on their bikes. I was a little bit inspired by that, carrying out a trade on a bike.

So it was a craft-inspired thing. But did you also think about it as an art project, an adventure…?
NH – I’ve always been interested in doing bike tours, but seeing how much you can push it, what else you can fit in to it, and it’s always kind of worked.

Also, because of the Tour de France in Britain, cycling seems to be all about going fast these days. Even cycling home from work there’s always someone trying to race you. I kind of don’t mind, but it’s nice to show a different kind of cycling.

RM – I’ve done quite a few bike tours, certainly, but none that involved printing or art projects!

NH – I suppose the fundraising through Kickstarter almost formulated the concept for us, as you have to offer things to people. That’s how we decided to send postcards to people from stops along the route. People loved that old-fashioned idea of receiving a postcard, because nobody writes postcards or letters any more. A lot of people said how nice it was to look forward to getting home and seeing if there was a postcard on the mat.

As far as the artists went, I had a list of around 15 artists who said they’d like to be involved. They all had different agendas – some wanted to come along and meet us somewhere, but some had to drop out because they couldn’t travel or were ill. One came and did a linocut just outside of Paris, where we were sat, Robin and I, drinking beer, and she was cutting the lino. Some of the lino we just carried with us the whole time. We stayed with a group of anarchist printers we’d met in Bristol for a day on their commune. One day I got a train into Paris, went into a little bookshop to pick up a lino that a friend had cut and left there. It ended up being an odd mixture of things, and it was quite full on!

RM – The schedule turned out to be pretty tight and we were spending more time than we’d planned actually riding. Often we got to the campsite when it was a getting dark, and set up and print at night, with head torches.

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How did the actual riding and touring go?
RM – We spent the first two days riding from CentreSpace in Bristol down to Poole, stopping in Frome overnight. Then the ferry over to Cherbourg, down passing very close to Bayeux and cutting south of Paris. We avoided as many of the larger towns as we could.

NH – We did 830 miles to Mainz in 19 days. There were a couple of short days where we did 20 or so kilometres, like the day I went to Paris. We did it all in kilometres but now I’ve converted it into miles… We generally did between 60 and 120 kilometres a day. Cycling a really heavy bike is not something you do very often and it’s a whole other thing. I always think it’s the equivalent of driving a really big lorry instead of a car.

RM – You just have to take it really steady, it’s not like a normal bike where you can sprint up a couple of hills and carry on for a few more hours. If you sprint up a couple of hills on a touring bike you’re done, really. You have to approach it steadily and accept it’s going to take hours and hours, but it’s still pretty remarkable the kind of distances you can cover.

NH – You find a lot out about yourself. You realise very quickly your own strengths and weaknesses. Like I have to keep eating. If I don’t find somewhere to eat I get really low. Robin bore the brunt of that a couple of times.

RM – Nick doesn’t like Nutella, it turns out!

Tell us a bit about how you designed the bike.
RM – As I said, the idea for a cargo bike of some kind had been stewing for a while. I’ve ridden the long bikes like the Surly Big Dummy, the things with really long chain stays and the load on the back, and they’re amazing, really useful, but they’re also big and quite ungainly to store. And I’ve ridden the Dutch Bakfiets-style with all the load at the front. Again they’re useful, but difficult to handle when you get off and structurally not that efficient. They have a long beam and the front wheel stuck way out in front, and a fancy linkage for the steering. I wanted to find something that was a better compromise. It seemed to me that putting a bit of load on the front and some on the back, and using smaller wheels would shorten it a lot. It’s about the same length as a normal bike, compact and a bit more usable. I stumbled on a way of joining the dots structurally, arranging the tubes in a way that was pleasing and quite efficient. It’s quite nice to ride without any weight on it, and not too terrible, I think, to ride without.

NH – It’s really nice to ride. There were a lot of times when it just felt like I was out on a Sunday ride and I just forgot. Out on those plains of northern France, there’s nothing nicer and the weight doesn’t mean a thing because you get up a head of steam. It was amazing. Very comfortable. It has drops, too, so it felt like my normal bike.

RM – We took the riding position directly from one of Nick’s existing bikes, it has pretty much the same position.

For me, I realised a few months out that I would end up carrying a lot – camping and cooking gear, as well as some of Nick’s stuff – and that I didn’t have a bike that I would be comfortable carrying all of that on. So a few weeks out I thought maybe I should do something about it. I made myself what is basically a mountain bike, with a rigid fork and loads of rack mounts brazed on, and built it up with bits I had knocking around. It was a bit of a rush job but I’m actually very happy with it. All my touring has been on mountain bikes or mountain-bike variants, starting with an old Kona in the 1990s. So it’s very similar to an old Kona.

NH – It was a little bit in the shadow of the print bike, because that was so striking, but Robin’s a bit modest. He built it in a few days! And he didn’t have time to get it painted, so he put something on it to seal the paint work.

RM – It was a mixture of oil and varnish, which was partially effective but not really.

NH – It changed colour a little during the ride, but it looked beautiful. It still does.

RM – I’m super happy with it. The other thing is it represented, for me, a bit of a shift away from finely finished show bike-type things to something that was utilitarian and quite tough. Which I didn’t mind getting a bit scratched or knocked around. Just something to do a job, and it really succeeded at that.

What about the printing element?
NH – The printing press is called an Adana. They were designed in the ‘50s for people to print at home, they’re called hobby presses. They’re tabletop presses and they’re not super heavy…

RM – It weighs about 15kg. Crucially, the printing element didn’t involve any testing or dry runs.

NH – No it didn’t, no! It’s a really basic thing, actually. The whole thing you can see how it works, it’s all on the surface. We carried all the cards, ink, a little tray of type.

As for the printing, there were things we hadn’t appreciated. The postcards were beautiful. Some worked really well, some were hard to print. And the days were drawing in. One day I said, why don’t we print early in the morning rather than late at night. We were right by a river, and it was misty and damp and cold. But the inks just reacted really badly. The waterproof ink got really runny and wouldn’t print, then the oil-based ink got sticky and blotchy because of the cold. It was a bit of a disaster.

RM – But you managed to print.

NH – So it was all about solving little problems. I mean, who would have guessed that would have been a problem.

RM – Or trying to manoeuvre around a tent with 60 postcards drying.

NH – We went through several different methods of drying the cards. We pegged them up, and then I was in a stationery shop and I found little ring binders that were 2” wide, which were perfect for resting postcards in.

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How about the museum at the end?
NH – We had arranged something with a German cycling group…

RM – It was the German Bicycle Advocacy Association…

NH – And the woman was in Mainz, where we were going, so she arranged something with the Gutenberg Museum. The woman said they were really looking forward to meeting us, there’ll be a reception and they’ll get some presses out. I was almost expecting an oompah band or something.

RM – There was going to be bunting.

NH – Yeah, there was going to be bunting! But as we got nearer we started getting emails saying they would all be at the Frankfurt book fair until the Sunday. Then it was the Monday, and eventually it was the Tuesday. So it kind of petered out. But in the end I thought, it was all about the journey. It was about printing on the way. It was about the community of people that supported the project.

That said, the Gutenberg museum is amazing. They have two 42-line Bibles, which are the first books printed using moveable type, printed in 1450. They’re the most valuable books in the world. And what Gutenberg did then was astonishing. He changed the world forever. As much as Apple or anything in the last 50 years. It’s definitely on an equivalent level.

RM – I’ve done some touring where there hasn’t been a defined destination, and it’s been nice, but aimless and slightly unsatisfying. The bike tours I’ve done where we’ve chosen the destination – and it can be slightly arbitrary – you get more of a structure and a sense of your progress within that story you are. It was really important for us to go somewhere.

What will happen with the printing bike now?
NH – The idea is to take the bike into schools. Schools don’t have budgets really to come here, and it’s cheaper for me to go there. I love the idea that kids will see you can do all sorts of things on bikes. You can cycle to school, do a paper round, deliver stuff, go off on holiday, go racing, but also it can do a job. Also what I’ve found with letterpresses is that the kids who struggle a bit – and I was a bit dyslexic as a kid – is that when you put type together, its very tactile, you feel the letters, you put words together in a different way. I love the way kids compose letterpress type. Kids love it. It’s a mechanical, magical thing.

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