Mailstar Delivery BikeIf you think about it, the toughest most cost-effective bicycles on the planet will be machines honed to perfection in a tough commercial environment. Forget those fair-weather mountain-style machines with wobbly suspension pivots and 521/2 useless derailleur gears; the ultimate bicycle will be a machine designed for daily commercial use, where time means money.

Mail deliveries rather lend themselves to the bicycle, which helps to explain why most postal services round the world use bicycles for at least some deliveries, and posties in the UK alone clock up a remarkable million plus miles in the saddle each week.That, says the Royal Mail, is the equivalent of riding 40 times round the world, or if you prefer, to the moon and back twice… every single week.

Back at the dawn of mail deliveries, the Post Office experimented with early velocipedes, much in vogue with dandies of the time (a bit like today’s equally useless MTBs), but the machines proved impractical, which shouldn’t really come as a surprise.

Numerous trials followed, as both the bicycle and the Post Office evolved, but it was not until 1896, when an initial fleet of a hundred machines were purchased, that bikes began to be taken seriously. In 1929, a standard design was introduced, with a carrying capacity of 50lb (22.7kg), and a service life of four years. By 1935, this standard bicycle had swept away all previous designs. It was to remain essentially unchanged for an astonishing 63 years, produced by a number of companies, including W R Pashley of Stratford upon Avon, who became a primary supplier from the 1970s onwards.

…By this time, the British bicycle industry had more or less evaporated…

In 1992, the familiar postie bike, now coded RM92, was upgraded and renamed the Millennium.The principal changes were Sturmey-Archer hub brakes in place of the reliable, but archaic, rod-operated type, a lighter frame (not difficult), wider tyres, 26-inch wheels, and a few plasticky bits. Incidentally, records suggest that an electric version was introduced in January 1993, but no one seems able to verify whether this was a single prototype or a large-scale experiment – it certainly didn’t catch on.

Mailstar delivery bike - Spectro 5-speed

Spectro 5-speed hub, well protected cable and (just visible below) sprung chain tensioner

By the late 1990s, the Royal Mail was running the largest and possibly the oldest fleet in Europe – more than 30,000 machines, many still with rod brakes and other pre-war fittings. Despite some tentative experiments with mopeds, it was clear that bicycles would always be needed, and the Royal Mail invited 12 companies to tender for the contract to replace RM92, of which six expressed an interest and supplied a prototype.

Mailstar Delivery bike panniers

Big panniers and plenty of room for awkward parcels on the rack. An LED light completes the package

By this time, of course, the British bicycle industry had more or less evaporated, and of the three short-listed for evaluation, the only truly British contender was the Pronto workbike from Pashley, the company already building the post bikes. The other shortlisted manufacturers are thought to have been Dawes (but made in the Far East) and Valdenaire. The Royal Mail ordered 60 of each design and began a twelve- month trial.

…our bike broke the Royal Mail testing machine! The Pashley Pronto was the winner…

With such a large and hard-working fleet (surprisingly, the Royal Mail has more bicycles than vans) reliability was to prove a crucial factor, working in favour of hub brakes and gears, and against flash derailleurs. Posties had also asked for stands and locks (which would be easy) and suspension, a much more difficult proposition within the strict price, weight and reliability constraints of the contract.To add to the pressure, one of the stipulations was that the bike should carry more than the 23kg payload of its predecessor.

According to Dan Farrell of Pashley, the selection procedure was extremely rigorous, but where the Royal Mail testing machine eventually broke the other bikes, ‘our bike broke the testing machine!’

In 2000, the Pashley Pronto was pronounced the winner, and the Stratford upon Avon manufacturer geared up to start replacing the Royal Mail’s ageing fleet from 2001. The MailStar name was chosen by Royal Mail from competition entries submitted by Pashley employees.

SRAM Hub BrakeThe bike has a rugged specification: simple, but immensely strong step-thru frame, 5-speed SRAM hub gears, hub brakes, alloy rims, ‘multi- surface’ Nokian or Schwalbe tyres, plastic chainguard, aluminium mudguards, rugged centre stand, frame lock, automotive-grade brake cables and front and rear carriers. Interestingly, lights are not integral with the design, and with the accent on safety and reliability, a front hub dynamo would seem an obvious upgrade.The design load (rider and mail) is 150kg, with a total mail capacity of 32kg, split evenly between the front tray and rear panniers and rack.That’s appreciatively more than the RM92, provided, of course, that postmen and women don’t weigh more than they used to.

The design life was five years, but this is expected to be exceeded in practice – quite an achievement, considering the environment the bikes operate in. Not only does the MailStar carry impressive loads, it also has to withstand being dropped (sometimes literally) from vans, to speed up deliveries to outlying suburbs. Not surprisingly, it’s a fairly chunky machine. Complete with massive rear rack, twin panniers and front letter tray, the bike weighs about 26.6kg (59lb).Weight is one of the few complaints from staff, who are otherwise very appreciative of the improved brakes and gears.

Safety is paramount these days, thanks to Health & Safety legislation. Helmets have recently been made compulsory for posties – an unpopular move in our part of the world, at least, but perhaps inevitable in the current climate.

Health & Safety excesses aside, the Royal Mail shows no sign of giving up on the bicycle.The company has experimented with bikes other than the MailStar in recent years, but none has quite made the grade.The Brompton has been considered for pecialist deliveries and the Royal Mail has held trials with Powabyke machines in Essex and Plymouth to judge whether power-assisted bikes might speed things up in hilly areas. The electric-assist bikes proved popular with postmen, but were not judged tough enough, and none have yet been adopted.

Pashley Pronto Bike

The Pashley Pronto is the ‘civilian’ MailStar and shares the same chunky rear rack, centre stand and simple but rugged construction

OK, it’s a classic workbike, but can I buy one? The Post Office refuses to pass on time-expired bikes to the public, presumably to avoid fraudulent use. Until recently, these were cut in half and scrapped, but many thousands of older machines are now shipped off to start a new life in Africa, where the rugged construction and sturdy carriers must make them prized possessions. Of 9,000 bikes exported to date under the Re- Cycle scheme, half have come from the Royal Mail.

Officially, you won’t get a postie to part with his bike for love nor money, but Pashley continues to produce the identical Pronto for some £450, although you can’t buy one in Post Office Red for obvious reasons. Many bikes are sold to overseas postal services, and a few to  industry.

Meanwhile, Pashley continues to churn out some 4,000 to 5,000 MailStars a year, replacing the hard-working machines on a never-ending seven-year cycle. After the expenditure of a considerable amount of time and money refining the product, neither Pashley nor the Royal Mail are planning changes. Seventy years in the making, and still delivering 75 million items a day to 26 million addresses. MailStar, a transport icon.

Pashley Cycles tel 01789 292263 fax 01789 414201 mail