The Bicycle 
by Pryor Dodge.
Flammarion, 224 pp., £35, May 1996, 2 08 013551 1
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There is not much left that cannot be done on two wheels. On the last page of this opulent book is a photograph of the Young Theatre of Riga performing Brecht’s Fear and Misery in the Third Reich on bicycles. We are not told what the critics said about this event. Was it an experience to lift the soul on wings, a mind-blowing epiphany? Or was it in the same class as a file of messenger boys delivering pizzas on unicycles? The author, Pryor Dodge, withholds his own opinion. He is introduced to us, not just as a bicycle buff, but as ‘a classical musician and aspiring Argentine tango dancer’, and should therefore be better equipped than some to interpret wheeled burlesque on the Baltic.

It was roughly two centuries ago that the human race, chafing at the Creator’s negligence in not fitting it with wheels, made tentative steps to repair the deficiency. There were stagecoaches in plenty and steam trains in prospect, but what was needed was a personal accelerator to speed up individual travel. Among the first devices was the Draisine, invented in 1817 by a German aristocrat, an elementary hobby-horse which was hard on the leg muscles and even harder on footwear. If any Scotsman ever used one on the way to London his feat has gone unrecorded. But the Draisine led to an important discovery: namely, that almost anyone, even an imbecile, was capable of balancing upright on two wheels, given a reasonable momentum. People clustered to watch this marvel, as they had once thronged to see the young Benjamin Franklin, a proselytiser for the virtues of swimming, paring his toenails as he lay on his back in mid-Thames. There seemed no limit to man’s ability to defy the natural laws. It was not essential to limit the number of wheels to two, but tricycles and quadricycles were heavy going. A fetching illustration by George Cruikshank, dated 1819, shows two young women, each mounted on a Draisine-type Female Accelerator, taking grateful advantage of the breast-rests fitted above the handlebars to ease the strain of leaning forward while on the march. Such supports (if they existed) were rendered unnecessary by the use of pedal power in the later velocipede. Nervous neophytes who doubted their ability to balance two-wheelers were taught by instructors in riding halls or on rinks; a drawing shows riders spilling freely in the Velocipede Riding School in New York (a foretaste of those electrifying velodrome pile-ups occasionally seen on television).

The bicycle, as its advocates pointed out, did not need to be fed oats. It was cheaper than a horse and perhaps cheaper than a pair of dogs (we have forgotten that in the early 19th century canine traction had spread to Britain from Holland, where every fat Dutchman was pulled by panting dogs, and survived here until 1854, when it was banned). What held back the advance of the bicycle for most of the century was what also held back the roller-skate: the bad state of the roads. The first hobby-horse riders chose to use the foot pavements, thus sparking the sort of ‘pavement rage’ which increasingly has its outbursts today. At least the riders of the high bicycle, or ‘penny-farthing’, knew better than to ride their towering contraptions through the closely-packed ranks of shoppers. Many have wondered why the penny-farthing was ever invented. Dodge says that it was all a matter of physics: each revolution of the big wheel translated itself into a greater distance covered, while the flywheel effect enabled the driver to keep up momentum. Colonel Albert Pope, sometimes called the founder of the American cycle industry, could hardly believe that anyone but an acrobat could control a high-wheeler. Mounting his horse, he took to accompanying an English high-cycling friend around Boston and was outdistanced every time. There is a picture strip showing the author of this book mounting a penny-farthing, achieving legover after a skilful ascent from the rear; which is how elderly gentlemen mounted ordinary bicycles a couple of generations ago, using a step protruding from the rear hub. Another picture shows a daredevil riding a high-wheeler, small wheel first, down the steps of the Capitol in Washington. Was there not a Huxley who traversed the Alps on such a mount? (It was not Aldous, that’s for sure.) High-wheelers suffered as much as any kind of bicycle from bad road surfaces, though there were strong men who rode them from Land’s End to John o’ Groats without suffering too many ‘headers’. As everyone knows, the golden age of cycling arrived in the 1890s, with the invention of the inflatable tyre. This was a golden age, too, for the admen, who readily saw that the way to symbolise pneumatic bliss was to identify the product with an ample, bare-bosomed female – in classical mode to allay criticism. Such pictures did more for the cause, at a guess, than the full-length portrait of the courtesan Blanche d’Antigny in her species of bloomer suit. Cycling girls were soon to be seen on posters everywhere, promoting all kinds of goods. Jerome K. Jerome noted that they were always portrayed being ‘wafted along by unseen heavenly powers’.

It is a much-told tale how the bicycle helped to emancipate women; less familiar is the claim that it helped to stamp out endogamy in our midst. At first men were not supposed to go riding with women other than their wives and sisters. In 1896, we read, the Chaperon Cyclists’ Association advertised in the Queen, offering to ‘provide gentlewomen of good social position to conduct ladies on bicycle excursions and tours’. Now, if Alan Bennett had picked on a bicycle outing like that ... Young women seized every opportunity to evade the rules, including the suggested speed limit of seven miles an hour. They were notyet free enough to put up at the cheap lodgings recommended by the Cyclists Touring Club (below five shillings, as one remembers from the Twenties, there was a possibility of finding a late-arrived traveller asleep on the other side of the bed in the morning). It was not long, we learn, before piano-makers were complaining of a slump, thanks to wheel-mad women abandoning the keyboard. Cigar manufacturers feared ruin because men were spending so much time in the open air. There was an anxious period when cycling was in danger of being tainted by socialism, as in the working-class Clarion Club, but it was left to Germany to turn a craze into a solidarity movement, with groups calling themselves ‘Enlightenment Patrols of Social Democracy’.

The great events of history take on a bizarre aspect in this book. Who would have supposed that bicycles played such a part in the gold rushes in Australia and the Yukon? Why did Robert Service and his fellow poets not tell us about the rigours of the 400-mile cycle trail from Dawson City to Whitehorse? Or of the thousand-mile ride from Dawson City to Nome in Alaska undertaken by Edward Jesson, who narrowly avoided cycling on to a stretch of ice which was heading out to sea? Again, who would have suspected that the Tour de France was an offshoot of the Dreyfus case? It is a complex story, involving fierce rivalry between two publishers of cycling magazines on opposite sides of the Dreyfus divide. One of them, in a desperate throw to ruin the other, launched the Tour de France. His rival refused to print a word about it. All very French.

Cycle sport has always worn a pleasing air of lunacy. As early as 1875 a six-day bicycle race was held in the Agricultural Hall at Newcastle-on-Tyne, with the winner putting in 18 hours a day. Such events were mounted by bookmakers and publicans, who might otherwise have been organising ratting pits. Ernest Hemingway, it seems, became so excited by the six-day bicycle races in post-1918 Paris that he could not bring himself to read the proofs of A Farewell to Arms. The Tour de France went from one excess to another. It is puzzling to read that the competitors who ascended the Pyrenees in 1910 lacked sufficient braking power for the descent and ‘had to rent bunches of twigs on top of the mountain to slow their descent’. Yes, but how? Were the twigs held against the wheel, or (God forbid) thrust through the spokes? If they were used as a drag they would have had to be in heavy bundles rather than bunches. Dodge leaves us in the dark. He does tell us that at this period dérailleurs were not in use. (Dérailleurs? Oh, of course, variable speed gears.) Today the field of sport has been vastly extended thanks to the versatile mountain bike and soon no natural feature will go undesecrated. It seems there is an extinct volcano 10,000 feet high on the Pacific island of Maui down which cyclists plunge for 38 miles. Perhaps the lane discipline there is better than it is on the motor road up Etna, where the standard of driving is deplorable.

Sooner or later, most new inventions are adapted for the purposes of war. Dodge offers us a splendid photograph of Lieutenant Moss leading the 25th US Infantry Bicycle Corps on its 2800-mile tour out of Montana in 1896, an odyssey intended to show the suitability of bicycles for military use. The sight of black soldiers, thus mounted, ‘disturbed residents of Missouri, as they were reminded of the black members of the Union Army during the Civil War’. This, however, was not the reason Lieutenant Moss and his riders were ordered to return from St Louis by rail; someone had decided that the bicycle had no real future in war. The French and the British persevered with the idea of cycling troops. Dodge seems not to have come across those French military manuals which described, among other exercises, how wheeled battalions should deploy themselves to face a cavalry charge. The machines were to be laid on their sides and the rear wheels spun as fast as possible, a spectacle calculated to strike the horses with terror, especially if there happened to be sunlight playing on the defiant scene. Other cycles were to be strewn freely so that any charger advancing that far would trap its hooves in spokes. It is a great pity that Lady Butler was never able to do justice on canvas to a battle-scene like this. As it turned out, the two world wars offered small scope for wheelmen, but Dodge does well to note the part played by the bicycle in the Japanese advance on Singapore and by the well-organised supply lines on the Ho Chi Minh trail in the Vietnam War.

It may well be that the real heyday of the bicycle will come only when the world’s fossil fuels run down. ‘In Asia alone,’ Dodge writes, ‘bicycles transport more people than do all of the world’s automobiles,’ and China ‘produces more than 40 per cent of the nearly one hundred million bicycles built every year’. Yet China is now rushing to embrace the motor-car and its multiple-lane cycle tracks are already being invaded by lanes for cars. How much longer will the Chinese bride be content to demand only ‘the three things that go round – a watch, a bicycle and a sewing-machine’? The attitude to bicycles varies greatly round the Pacific Rim. From the streets of Djakarta 50,000 despised tricycles were tossed into the sea to make a reef for fishes (which is what America has been doing, more sensibly, with old cars). If that is bad news, the good news is that fishermen salvaged many of the machines and sold them cheap. Whether human traction is acceptable or degrading depends on circumstances, but in the Third World bicycles remain an indispensable means of shifting goods which would otherwise have to be piled up on women’s heads. Whatever Gloria Steinem may have said, a fish may well need a bicycle. According to Dodge, more than 95 per cent of American bicycles are now of the mountain variety; good news for a nation which is in urgent need of exercise, bad news for the landscape.

The Bicycle is full of delights but is not always reader-friendly. No one should have to read a page of small type superimposed on a nest of radiating spokes, or be compelled to reach for a magnifying glass to decipher page numbers little bigger than microdots. The book is designed and typeset by ‘agence comme ça, Paris’, whose layout could best be described as comme ci, comme ça. There are polar expanses of white space everywhere, yet posters by Toulousecautrec and his distinguished contemporares are reduced to the size of postage-stamps, while pieces of minor machinery or ornamentation are pictured across two pages. Yet it still adds up to what used to be called I wonder book. And, to be fair, close-ups of clean, shining mechanism can have an elegance all their own, so different from the filthy stretched chains and worn sprockets of far-off memory, and the faulty free-wheel hub which had to be dipped in the river to reactivate the stuck ratchets. The pictures of cyclists performing advanced stunts will be seen as deeply humbling by those of us who could never achieve a decent ‘flying angel’; one luckless rider is shown plunging from a wall of death’ into a den of lions. In our day we were adept at carrying siblings standing on the rear step, a fitting long since anished, and some of us contrived to cling with one hand to the backs of lorries, a parasitical practice nowadays adopted by skateboarders and roller-blade enthusiasts, which unflamed other road-users (including the sorry-driver) and was highly dangerous even in those slower times. There should perhaps have been a picture in this book of Leandro Basseto, who according to the Guinness Book of Records achieved ‘the longest bicycle wheelie’ at Parana, Brazil in 1990: ten hours, to minutes, eight seconds. In those distant days we managed only one second.

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