On yer bike…

The visit of the Tour de France 2014 to England has made lots of people very excited again this week, as details of which towns the yellow jersey and his entourage will visit have been announced. Very sadly, Birmingham isn’t one of those lucky towns, but that doesn’t mean there’s nothing for us to find interesting in the history of cycling.

Bradley Wiggins displays his fine facial hair after one of his many successes in 2012

Sideburns and cycling: is Wiggo the nineteenth century incarnate? Click picture for image source.

You may think that Bradley Wiggins’ spectacular sideburns have something of the nineteenth century about them, and it’s no surprise that histories of the bicycle start in this period, with its (alleged) invention in Glasgow in 1839 (thanks, Wikipedia).

But the bicycle has inspired conflict too. The sport’s UK governing body, the British Cycling Federation, characterises late nineteenth-century resistance to road racing in terms akin to class warfare: the wealthy hated the thought of incursions into their beloved countryside by the working class pleasure-seekers racing noisily through the land on two wheels.

There have been attempts, too, to big up women’s role in competitive cycling. Claire Simpson’s chapter ‘Capitalising on Curiosity: Women’s Professional Cycle Racing in the Late-Nineteenth Century’ begins with an account of how, in 1896, ‘…Mr Ritchie’s exhibition of ladies’ cycle races ‘proved one of the most powerful attractions we ever had. And besides its numbers the crowd that came to witness the contests was … the most aristocratic of any that has ever entered our building’ (How Ladies’ Cycle Races are Managed, 1896, 221)…’ (Cycling and Society, p. 47).

The decline in kilometres cycled in the second half of the twentieth century was substantial and rapid.

Cycling and car use in Great Britain, 1952 to 1999. Click graph for image source.

However, perhaps the greatest tension in the two-wheeled sport is between those who do and those who don’t. This graph, from D. Lawlor et al’s 2002 article, shows a downhill race in kilometres cycled per year between 1952 and 1999. It’ll take a whole lot more than bushy sideburns to remedy that.

Editor’s note:
No reference to women cyclists
on this blog can appear without a link to
Kate Beaton’s Velocipedestrienne.
Ain’t give a damn.


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