Bike Week 2018: Dan Albone and Biggleswade’s cycling heritage

PUBLISHED: 17:01 15 June 2018

Dan Albone riding his 1886 Ivel 'Hands Off' Safety Bicycle. Picture: Biggleswade History Society.

Dan Albone riding his 1886 Ivel 'Hands Off' Safety Bicycle. Picture: Biggleswade History Society.

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With Bike Week 2018 well under way, the Comet has been looking at how Biggleswade played a crucial role in the development of the bicycle as we know it today.

Dan Albone driving his 1902 prototype tractor, the Ivel Agricultural Motor, on Biggleswade bridge. Picture: Biggleswade History Society.Dan Albone driving his 1902 prototype tractor, the Ivel Agricultural Motor, on Biggleswade bridge. Picture: Biggleswade History Society.

When Dan Albone was given a homemade ‘boneshaker’ – the first true bicycle design given the name due to its uncomfortable ride – by his cousin at the age of nine, the youngster and his bike became inseparable.

Over the next three decades, he and his business would revolutionise bicycle design.

Born on September 12, 1860, Dan grew up at The Ongley Arms, a small inn near the River Ivel run by his mother, Edith. The Albone family had more than 300 years of history in Biggleswade.

By 1873, he had started work as an apprentice engineer and, inspired by the bike he had been gifted, he began to design his own – as Jane Dale, editor for the Biggleswade History Society, explains.

An 1888 advert for Dan Albone's revolutionary interchangeable bicycle. Picture: Biggleswade History Society.An 1888 advert for Dan Albone's revolutionary interchangeable bicycle. Picture: Biggleswade History Society.

“At about the same time, working at home, he built his first bicycle the hard way and during his years as an apprentice engineer took a keen interest in developments in cycle design and became an active participant in the increasingly popular sport of cycle racing,” said Jane.

Upon completing his apprenticeship, he sat up a bicycle and tricycle repair business at his childhood home called The Ivel Cycle Works, taking its name from the river that ran nearby.

As the years passed, Dan’s business developed.

Jane said: “By 1885 Dan was employing three men to help him in his cycle works and his reputation as a designer, manufacturer and rider was about to take off.

“Competition was large and manufacturers were constantly developing new designs and improvements in performance to give themselves the edge.”

Bikes were beginning to change from the penny farthing design to two smaller wheels, similar to modern designs.

His 1886 Ivel ‘Hands Off’ Safety Bicycle won Dan great acclaim and filled his order books. The success forced the works to move to the newly built, larger Ivel Hotel, with Dan able to boast that ‘nearly every road race held during 1887 has been won on the Ivel Safety’ in advertisements.

His business was now booming and his designs continued to evolve.

“Dan perfected and patented the tandem bicycle and first practical drop-frame ladies’ safety bicycle, and won still more acclaim,” said Jane.

“He also offered the possibility to adapt his machines for multiple uses.

“By the time the 1891 census was taken Dan was at the height of his success. The Ivel Cycle Company was the largest employer in Biggleswade, with more than 100 employees.”

As well as a designer, Dan was also a keen racer. He won more than 180 cycling prizes and was a founding member of the North Road Cycling Club in 1885 that shared the same headquarters as The Ivel Cycle Works and attracted racers such as George Pilkington, the most dominate British cyclist of the late 1800s.

In 1893, with bike sales declining across the country, Dan put his company into voluntary liquidation. This was a severe blow to Biggleswade’s economy but, just 12 months later, the firm returned – making more than just bicycles.

“He restarted in 1894 with 20 men,” said Jane.

“While continuing to produce cycles to order, Dan was now diversifying and exploring new technologies.

“He designed and produced axle boxes, motor cars and motorcycles, and in the final years of the century was developing the plans for what would become his crowning achievement, the Ivel Agricultural Motor tractor.”

The tractor was the first lightweight, petrol-driven machine that could be use for a number of farming tasks such as ploughing, harrowing and haulage, spelling the beginning of the end of steam traction engines and horses on farms.

Dan continued to develop the tractor until suddenly – on the morning of October 30, 1906 – he collapsed at work and died later the same day from a stroke. The business continued but struggled, before eventually going into receivership in 1922.

Although his legacy is remembered with a road, picnic area and car park named after him in Biggleswade, The Ongley Arms, Ivel Hotel and Ivel Works have all gone.

Dan Albone’s true legacy, however, is the bicycle itself. It would not be the same without him.

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