Bicycle Riding and Walking (1870)

Bicycle Riding and Walking (1870)

Sir, – As various letters on the ‘Bicycle’ have lately appeared in the English Mechanic, all very much in favour of this new machine, I think a few words from myself – I having been in continual practice for over twelve months – may be of some interest and save much disappointment to those of your readers who are about to learn.

Some time back, at the first introduction of these machines, I, Herman Sloman and others, while advocating the use of them for amusement and exercise, deprecated their utility for practical purposes or economising force. A correspondent at that time calculated theoretically the difference between bicycle riding and walking; he concluded an elaborate calculation proving that the force necessary for walking a distance, say five miles, if put into use on the machine, would only carry three miles, or little over two thirds. These calculations were based on the fact of the bicycle not taking the rider, but rice versa, the rider pushing the machine, of which, by experience, I am painfully aware.

I have travelled most of the Surrey and Kent main roads and find (with the bicycle), taking the roads as they come and using force enough to thoroughly exhaust myself on a twenty mile journey, an average of about four miles an hour to be the outside speed, I can continue the journey – this being less than my walking pace. The machine I ride is a 38in. wheel; my height is 5ft. 10in.; weight 11 stone. On a walking tour I manage generally to do about 30 to 40 miles a day, which, up to the present I have not been able to do on the bicycle; although, had I trained twelve months for a walking expedition, I am satisfied 50 miles within the 24 hours would be rather under than over my power of endurance. My experience makes me believe that those of your correspondents who write of travelling 15 miles an hour on the bicycle mast either be joking, or totally unacquainted with the subject. I will admit that on a level asphalt road, say a quarter of a mile round and perfectly level, a very high rate of speed may be obtained; and so it is with the locomotive, which on a plain road travels at 10 miles an hour, but on rails, where the friction is reduced to a minimum, 40 miles is done easily. I therefore consider the bicycle a toy and only fit for exercise; although there are some men particularly fitted for these exercises, which perhaps may explain some of the astounding feats of which we read; but I find, on enquiry amongst my friends, that the majority join me in discarding the machine for all practical purposes.

If enthusiasts think it necessary to have a manual machine for utilizing force, I cannot recommend them anything better than a round wire cage similar to that of the squirrel; by imitating the movements of that industrious little animal, they may produce motive power to their hearts’ content. A wheel-barrow, also, would do, but has the disadvantage (as some bicyclists say) of not utilizing the weight of the body. I can quite agree with your sensible, but facetious correspondent, ‘W.,’ who on along journey thinks it better to carry the bicycle; and I am perfectly satisfied, joking aside, that on ordinary hilly and dusty roads it is much easier to walk behind and push the machine with the hands than to mount and force it forward by using both hands and feet.

R. G. Bennett.

Sir, – I have read, with some surprise and considerable amusement, a letter from Mr R G Bennett, in your issue of the 12th inst., in which he asserts the bicycle to be a mere toy and useless for all practical purposes. This opinion he alleges to be derived from twelve months’ experience of the machine, during which time he has not attained an average speed of more than four miles an hour, ‘using force sufficient to thoroughly exhaust himself on a twenty-mile journey.’ That Mr Bennett’s statement is true as regards himself, I am, of course, bound to allow; but that it represents the general experience of bicycle riders, I most emphatically deny. That he has failed in accomplishing in twelve months what ninety-nine persons out of a hundred could do in three weeks, I can quite believe; but I am bound to protest against his holding up his own lamentable failure as a scarecrow to intimidate others from learning the machine.

The bicycle club to which I belong always travels at the average of eight miles an hour for the whole journey. When the road is down hill, we frequently run, for some two miles, at the speed of twelve to fifteen miles per hour; uphill, we work at from four to six miles an hour; on level roads at seven to eight, or even nine miles an hour if the ground is smooth. If I go out with only a single companion, I travel faster than this, as the delays incidental to a large number riding together do not occur.

Mr Bennett calls to his support the testimony of a correspondent, who, he states, ‘proved,’ some time since, by an ‘elaborate calculation,’ that the force necessary for walking a distance of five miles, if put into use on the machine, would only carry three miles, or little over two-thirds. I have no doubt that a person who ‘proved’ three miles to be a little over two-thirds of five, would be capable of proving anything; and in any matter of theory, I should certainly beat a retreat from so unscrupulous an arithmetician. But I should be most happy to afford Mr Bennett the opportunity of practically testing the ‘elaborate calculation’ before mentioned, by matching my bicycle against his legs for a day’s journey. I may mention for his comfort, that I could travel sixty miles in a day with the greatest ease (I have ridden forty miles after five o’clock in the afternoon); and as I should have to work as hard to get three miles as he has to do five (vide the ‘elaborate calculation’), it follows, of course, that to prove this theory he would require to walk one hundred miles a day. I hope he can. I may add that I am by no means a first-rate rider (compared with others in the club to which I belong), nor am I either physically or constitutionally strong; and again, I have not had anything like twelve months’ practice.

I cannot, of course, account for Mr Bennett’s ill success in utilizing the bicycle and the consequent striking difference between his experience and mine, no more than I can account for the fact that I am unable to swim a dozen yards, though I have been learning for years and go into the water a hundred times in a season, while others acquire the art almost instinctively. But this is no reason why I should set down swimming as a useless and unprofitable pursuit, or assert that no one can swim a great distance because I cannot myself get the length of a London bath. It is quite sufficient for me to know that most persons can learn swimming with ease and that my failure is entirely exceptional and of course owing to my own dullness. I would have Mr R G Bennett take to himself the same comfort.

W E Maverley

Sir – Your correspondent R G Bennett is wrong in supposing that I said it would be better on a long journey to carry the bicycle. I never made, nor should I ever think of making, such an absurd statement. I can, however, bring the testimony of a year and a half’s bicycle riding to bear out the general tenor of his remarks, which are, nevertheless, in my opinion, a little too condemnatory of the machine. As Mr B’s letter is sure to evoke answers from lovers of the bicycle, I trust you will allow me to make a few remarks on the subject in order that your readers may hear both sides of the question from those who have had real experience in the matter.

Every one will admit that the best means of locomotion under the greatest diversity of circumstances, such for instance as the crossing of rough country, is to use the legs with which nature has provided us, supposing of course that the motive power is supplied by the traveller himself. Our natural powers of locomotion are intended to be, as they in reality are, perfect in their adaptability to diversified circumstances. It is under particularcircumstances that art steps in and for the time being, supersedes nature. Thus a locomotive carries as easily and quickly over an iron road, on which a man could not walk any quicker than on a grass field – the particular circumstances in the present case being of course the smoothness and hardness of the road. If the velocipede question be viewed in this light, the whole matter may be summed up in a few words.

Presuming that we have good machines (and I think they are sufficiently good), are the particular circumstances of the case, or, in other words, is the –quality of our roads such as to give bicycle riding the advantage over walking to the majority of people? I maintain that the true answer to this question is not to be looked for from those few athletic individuals who, if the bicycle was twice as hard to work as it is, would still go tearing about to the risk of their necks; neither ought we to accept the testimony of those who naturally speak in favour of the machine, because they happen to live where the roads are as smooth as a board. The real answer to the bicycle question can only be given by the general public and their opinion can only be measured by the use which we see can be made of the machine. It is now about a year since I wrote and predicted the decline of the bicycle fever and I think we need only look about us to see that it is already taking place. For my own part, I now only see one or two bicycles where I used formerly to see a score and my observations extend over a pretty considerable area. The fact is the machine has utterly failed to establish its utility either, as Mr Bennett says, for practical purposes, or for economising force. On the first appearance of the bicycle in England, it was supposed to be everything that one could wish. It was to be ridden at the rate of 8, 10, or 12 miles an hour and was, in fact, to go almost ‘by itself.’ The experience of a couple of years has I think, dispelled the illusion and the instances in which the bicycle is put to any really practical use, such for instance, as a business man travelling to and from his office, or a postman carrying his bags, are remarkably rare. The machine is almost exclusively used either by those who are young and strong and who find pleasure and benefit in active muscular exertion, or by those who merely use it for the sake of practising ‘fancy’ riding and for showing off their skill in such feats as standing on the saddle.

If anyone buys a bicycle with the hope of, with ease and comfort, getting any practical use out of it on our roads, just as they happen to come, I am afraid he will be doomed to disappointment and will be like many others, who, buoyed up with the same hopes, have made a like investment of hard-earned money and would only be too glad to get it back again into their pockets. I do not attribute the failure of the bicycle to the machine itself, though there is ample room for improvement on this point, but to the state of our roads. Let the road surveyors lay us down an asphalt path from town to town and I will undertake to say that the use of the bicycle will be as common as that of a horse and trap.

With regard to the rate of speed at which a bicycle can be driven, I quite agree with Mr B. that some of your correspondents speak in a very random way. They talk, for instance, of riding ten miles an hour. Do they mean that they can really keep up that speed for any distance, say for ten or twenty miles; or only that they can for a short distance ride at the rate of ten miles an hour? I fancy the latter is the real state of the case. Very few riders can, I am sure, keep up a higher rate of speed than six or seven miles an hour for any distance. I have frequently travelled eleven measured miles, containing a fair amount of up and down hill, in an hour and a quarter and from my own experience I am perfectly certain that the same rate of speed could only be continued by a practised athlete. If every man in the kingdom learnt to ride a bicycle, I very much doubt whether the average rate of travelling would exceed four or five miles an hour. I am quite aware that Messrs. Jones, Brown and Robinson have occasionally gone 100 miles in a day and have, moreover, appeared at their desks the next morning as if nothing had happened – their spirits, no doubt, being kept up by the pleasing thoughts of seeing themselves immortalized in the papers; but performances of this kind may very well be classed with such feats as walking 1,000 miles in 1,000 hours. A sensible man would undertake neither the one nor the other and neither the one nor the other could be performed without the expenditure of a very considerable amount of vital energy, which would require a great deal of rest and food for its proper restoration.

If the machine is good, the road very smooth, the wind not in the face and the rider strong and healthy and fond of muscular exertion, he may, with ease and comfort, get some substantial use out of the bicycle; but just in the same proportion as one or more of these favourable conditions fail, in just the same proportion does bicycle riding become a ‘toil of a pleasure;’ and it is the improbability – I may almost say the impossibility – of making these favourable conditions universal, that renders impossible the universal adoption of the bicycle.


English mechanics and the world of science, Volume 11, Aug 26 1870, p. 543-4

Leave a Reply