[ Robert Silverman ]
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"Instruments of the Devil"

The birth of the bicycle drew more than religious condemnation. As shameless women leaped into the saddle, doctors warned against “bicycle walk” and kyphosis bicyclistarium. On the bicycle's 100th birthday, Bob Silverman looks back.

The safety bicycle made its first public appearance in 1885, at the Stanley Bicycle Show in London. Its distinctive features were two equal-sized wheels, a rear driven chain and a diamond-shaped frame. It was the work of J.K. Starley. Three years later, in Belfast, Ireland, John Dunlop completed the “modern” bicycle by inventing the pneumatic tire. The air-filled tire was Dunlop's solution to the uncomfortable, bumpy rides his son was getting on the solid rubber tires of his tricycle. The new tire was a sensation. Irish cycling journalist, R.J. Mecredy, noticed the reaction it stirred when he rode the first pneumatic tired bicycle to Coventry.

“When the bicycle was left outside a hotel (not in the centre of the city) for ten minutes, a crowd of four or five hundred people were found pushing each other to obtain a sight of it.” The pneumatic tired safety bicycle which emerged from these experiments in the 1880's brought about a social revolution. Its impact was much bigger and affected many more people than previous developments in bicycle technology. It made possible a huge increase in the number of people who were initially willing to ride bicycles and later to enthusiastically propagate them. Now, for the first time, excuses about danger and discomfort were no longer valid. Before 1890, cycling had been the pastime of a small minority; after 1895 it was open to almost everyone.

The English novelist Flora Thompson writes: “Soon every man, youth and boy whose family was above the poverty line was riding a bicycle.” The women looked on enviously. At first only the most audacious women would risk social disapproval by riding. Then, a few weeks later, the ice broken, other women followed.

Gwen Raverat, in Period Piece, describes her introduction to cycling: “Then one day at lunch, my father said he had just seen a new kind of tire filled up with air, and he thought it might be a success. And after that, everyone had bicycles, ladies and all.”

The problems of whether women should ride, what they should ride, how, in what clothes and with whom they should ride, occupied many a column of newsprint. Should they accept help from unknown gentlemen (or even ordinary men) when broken down? Should ladies ride in front, and thus steer, on a tandem? Who went first down a hill? Of course bicycling had its detractors. Up till 1893 doctors had maintained that bicycling was a notorious cause of illness. The medical profession worried deeply about “bicycle walk”, “bicycle heart”, or, most dreaded of all, “kyphosis bicyclistarum” or cyclist's hum caused by stressfull pulling on the handlebars. Dr. G. Herschell's book, “The Bicycle Cause of Heart Disease” was published in London in 1895.

Sabbath breaking and nonattendance in church increased markedly. At first ministers and priests called bicycles instruments of the devil, until succumbing to the joys of it themselves.

With the mass production of cars at the beginning of the 20th century, the bicycle lost much of its social importance in North America where it was considered appropriate for children and adolescents only. In the rest of the world, bicycles became the transport of the working classes. Since 1973 the bicycle has returned in force in North America and the rest of the industrialized world.

The bicycle is the most convivial of tools. It doesn't encroach on the time and space of others. Its manufacture and use don't take up much of the earth's dwindling resources. It's a peaceful nonviolent vehicle. The bicycle is an indispensable component of a revolutionary vision of society. For social equality to really exist, and for production controlled by the producers with hierarchy virtually eliminated, the bicycle would, of necessity, be the cornerstone of the urban transport system. It is not for nothing that Daniel Berhman calls the bicycle a vehicle for revolution and that at the beginning of his book-sized bicycle manifesto, Energy and Equity, Ivan Illich cites José Viera-Gallo: “Socialism can only arrive by bicycle”.

In the long run the bicycle will win over the car in the cities. The car won't be able to adapt to the dwindling of natural resources it has itself caused. The bicycle fits perfectly into the earth's ecology. More and more people will perceive the bicycle's natural advantages in high density cities. Many will demand provisions to make bicycle commuting easy and pleasant. The bicycle's historic triumph is inevitable.

Le vélo vaincra.


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By Robert Silverman.

Published in the Le Monde à Bicyclette Journal Summer 1985.

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© Robert Silverman 2000