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In praise of the bicycle

Trevor Ward
30 Nov 2017

For generations, the bicycle has been a form of transport, a social leveller, a workhorse and a gateway to freedom, adventure and romance

Illustration: Rob Milton, with apologies to Terry Gilliam

In 1869, an article in the respected US magazine Scientific American declared, ‘The art of walking is obsolete.

‘It is true that a few still cling to that mode of transportation, and are still admired as fossil specimens of an extinct race of pedestrians, but for most of civilised humanity, walking is on its last legs.’

The cause of this sensational prediction? The humble bicycle. A couple of decades earlier on this side of the Atlantic, a newspaper in Glasgow had reported an unusual event in which ‘a gentleman bestride a velocipede of ingenious design’ knocked over a five-year-old girl and was fined five shillings.

The velocipede concerned was the first incarnation of the modern bicycle – its ‘ingenious design’ being pedals attached to the back wheel by a series of piston-like rods.

The rider ‘bestride’ it was its inventor, blacksmith Kirkpatrick Macmillan, who had cycled 70 miles from his home before the incident.

His design, which replaced the previous, pedal-less ‘dandy horse’ that was propelled by the rider pushing themselves along the ground with their feet, was the first stage of the bicycle’s evolution into the featherweight, computer-designed carbon fibre machines of today.

Macmillan’s daring ride along rutted cart tracks, in an age of horse-drawn vehicles and an embryonic rail network, was as groundbreaking at the time as the first email being sent 150 years later.

Suddenly it was possible for ordinary folk to travel long distances under their own steam. It opened up a whole new world of opportunities for travel, work, pleasure and even romance.

Steady progress

Over time, modifications were made to the ‘ingenious design’, such as replacing the wooden frame with a steel one and the addition of John Boyd Dunlop’s air-filled pneumatic tyres.

The bicycle also became increasingly affordable and popular with the masses. As Scientific American put it, ‘A horse costs more, and will eat, kick and die; and you cannot stable him under your bed.’

Among this newly emancipated band of bicyclists was the science fiction writer HG Wells, who is credited with the quote: ‘When I see an adult on a bicycle I do not despair for the future of the human race.’

Some of the developments since could have come straight from the pages of one of his novels. Although frames have retained their classic diamond shape for more than a century, they have become more aerodynamic, lighter and stronger thanks to technology borrowed from rocket science, F1 and yacht racing.

But all the technology in the world can’t overshadow the bicycle’s most enduring feature – its ability to offer escape.

‘It’s an adventure machine,’ says Matthew Ball, youth coach with West Lothian Clarion CC. ‘That’s how we get kids interested in cycling – by selling the adventure it offers.’

Taste of freedom

All riders can identify with that sentiment. We associate the bicycles of our childhoods with our very first taste of freedom and independence, of escaping the shackles of parental authority, even if it did only last as long as the journey to the park and back.

Recalling the bike he was given for his ninth birthday, author Paul Fournel writes, ‘Mountains, plains, bushes, trees, streams, ditches and eternal snow were hidden in my green bike – it took only some riding to learn.’

As a teenager in Liverpool, my bike (also green) led me to the great unknowns of North Wales and Cheshire. Later, I strapped a tent and panniers to its frame and caught a ferry across the Channel.

I saw the world – or at least the European and North African bits of it – from my bike. It has never looked quite as big or exciting from a car or train.

As an adult doing voluntary work in Guyana, my Chinese-built, sit-up-and-beg ‘Roadster’ wasn’t just for work, but also an accomplice in my romances.

If I asked a girl on a date, she would be expected to perch sideways on the rear rack.

It’s a testament to both the girls and the era we lived in that they all acquiesced, though I suspect Sophie, a British student with Operation Raleigh, may have been put off bicycles for life when we careered into an open sewer during a sudden power cut one night.

The inscription at the cyclists’ shrine of the church of the Madonna del Ghisallo in Italy reads: ‘And God created the bicycle, so that man could use it as a means for work and to help him navigate life’s complicated journey…’

It’s easy to forget in our motor-obsessed age that bicycles were once the most popular choice of utilitarian transport.

Years before road cycling became the new rock and roll, it was simply a way of getting from A to B for millions – ‘the poor man’s spaceship’, as Italian journalist Gianni Brera called it.

British engineer Mike Burrows once said that, unlike a football or racquet, the bicycle ‘is the one piece of sports equipment that can save the planet’.

It’s already doing this in the coffee plantations of Rwanda, where farmers harvest crops riding bicycles specially designed for them by US framebuilder Tom Ritchey.

In other developing parts of the world, tens of thousands of affordable bikes have been provided by World Bicycle Relief for use by farmers and schoolchildren in rural communities.

So while walking may not be quite obsolete, Scientific American was almost right: the bicycle really did go on to change the world.

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