I am about to head out on a two day cycle adventure, the first since the crash in Wyoming. The starting point is Dunblane, which I'll reach by train, and then toward Callander. In times gone by the train could have taken me all the way to Callander, but no more. Now I'll follow where once there were railroad tracks, which has left a legacy of wide, safe cycle paths.
In the US there has been a long programme of turning their redundant tracks into cycle trails, something they call "rails to trails". I loved the actual trains in the States, and marveled at the time, not that long ago, when they linked the two sides of the country by two parallel steel tracks, designed by English expatriates. It was because of them that the distance between the two rails is exactly 4 feet 8.5 inches, simply because that was the width of English rails.
But why 4 feet 8.5 inches?
Well, before the railways we had tramways, and that was the distance of those rails, which utilised current tools and technology of the time that had been used to make wagons, and that dictated the wheel spacing, otherwise they would have had to retool completely.
Those old wagons had to navigate long used pathways, what you might loosely call roads, severely rutted, and it was easier, and cost effective, to design a wagon with a wheel spacing that could straddle these ruts and so not destroy your expensive mode of transport, rather than redo all the roads. Because these rutted roads where everywhere, all across Europe, and had been made a long time ago.
A very long time ago.
By Roman chariots. And the standard wheel spacing of a Roman chariot?
Well, they were made to accommodate the rears of two horses pulling the chariot.
So, isn't that amazing?! The railroad tracks in the USA are set at the width according to the design of a Roman chariot.
This weekend I'll be on one single wheel width of course, but after a long gap since riding a bike, I hope my backside doesn't look like the width of two horses from behind.