Charles Dickens On Velocipedes (1869)

Mr Charles Dickens has told us in the instructive “Fly-leaf in a life,” quoted in a recent number of the Daily News, that he is accustomed to observe himself as curiously  as if he were another man, I have shared this habit during the last few weeks and with good reason, for I have practiced on the bicycle, in direct opposition to the advice of friends and out of pure love of my own way. I have been thus fighting, not merely for my own hand, like Hal o’ the Wynd, but for my own legs, my own muscles, my own strength, my own faith in myself. If velocipeding did me harm, or if I failed in mastering its mysteries, then everybody was right. If I injured myself, if I tumbled much and heavily, if I finally gave up the fantastic wheel as unsuited to my time of life, then everybody was right again. To push along the highway swiftly and surely was not for me. It was not merely that I was too old, I was also too heavy, too tall, too clumsy and too fast. Standing six feet in my stockings, weighing fifteen stone and being no longer young, were all quoted as points in my disfavour. No machine would bear me, no wheels but would form artificial ruts under my heaviness – and I was in turn affectionately, derisively, solemnly and dogmatically adjured not to give way to what was, after all, only a whim of the hour, but to contend myself with walking or horse exercise, as most rational people had done before me. In vain I argued that it could do no harm to try; that the bicycle was warmly recommended by those using it and that it would be at least satisfactory to know what the movement was like. My friends made quite a personal matter of it, eyed me all over slowly and contemptuously and prophesied the most terrible physical penalties if I persevered. It was, therefore, with a full conviction that I was running counter to the common sense of mankind that I betook myself to the Velocipede Riding School in Old Street, St Luke’s, soon after a description of the proceedings there appeared in the Daily News and it was the same conviction that I kept a minute record of my sensations on the bicycle from the commencement until now. “Now” means six miles an hour on a level road, without great fatigue and with pleasurable feelings that no other kind of locomotion gives. Neither weight, nor height, nor age have proved appreciable drawbacks; my friends were all not only wrong, but wildly wrong and I was right to an extent which makes me chuckle every time I rattle along the road. All honour to “Jem,” my tutor! His was the stalwart arm, the cheering word, the friendly guidance which lightened the first and most laborious of my lessons, on the 17th of April last; and which conducted me through all my early trials. Jem’s patient cheeriness was amazing. He used to walk round and round the school, holding me on the machine with one hand and guiding it with the other, until the perspiration rolled from him in plenteous rivulets and until I, the passive sitter, had to cry out that I was tired. “Doing beautiful you are this morning, sir; really beautiful; upon my word. Almost alone at that corner you were and never flinched. Ah, you’ll make a first-rate rider, you will and you’re all the better for not being in a hurry to learn too much at first.” This last compliment always struck me as exquisitely diplomatic, for it turned apprehension into complacency and made a merit of slowness. But Jem was inexhaustible in his encouragements, saying another day, “Going better! I should just think you were, sir and I’ll tell you how I reckon it. You only make me comfortably warm with holding you now, instead of putting me in a lather as you did at first.” My diary gives “slight aching in the hips and thighs, small blisters on the hands and a general feeling of stiffness, as if odd out-of-the-way muscles were rebelling at being employed,” as the result of the first day’s trial. The pains and stiffness increased by the third day and I began to wonder rather nervously whether the prophets of evil were right; and here again Jem was invaluable, proving conclusively that the only thing to do now was to go on, and that everybody feels these precise sensations when they begin and loses them as a matter of course. My lessons seldom lasted more than half an hour and consisted in the outset of learning the balance – that is, how to sit on the bicycle so as to keep it upright. And thus give it a power it does not possess of itself. This seemed an outstanding operation at first. When I held the queer thing in my own hands and felt it would drop the instant I let go – and when I considered that I was to acquire the apparently acrobatic feast of keeping it upright and straight – I who had not gone through the faintest imitation of gymnastics for twenty years, my heart sank within me and I almost despaired. But I laughed at my own misgivings in less than a week after they were formed and my course has been one of steady and rapid progress since. Nothing came of the aches, save some laughter at my own credulous apprehensions. The art of balancing comes suddenly and like a sixth sense. You try hard for it for a few times with no perceptible result; for your very laboriousness seems against you. Then, you find yourself, almost without warning, endowed with the power you covet and that you can and do guide and propel without looking at the moveable wheel in front and without distinct volition. There is nothing more curious in velocipede practice than the suddenness of the change from absolute helplessness to comparative skill. This transition comes to all; its arrival is a mere question of time and patience. No one need despair, no one need feel diffidence or fear. It was just before this gift came to me that I was so fortunate as to attract the attention of another visitor to the riding school, one of the amateurs who made the now celebrated journey to Brighton and it is to the judicious instruction and unfailing skill of this gentleman that I attribute such facility as I have acquired. The faithful Jem had grounded me in the rudiments; the good friend who took me in hand now added a thousand careful and well considered hints and what was better still, aided precept by example. And there is much to learn in velocipeding besides the art of sticking on and keeping up a good pace. How to point the toes; how to press the treadles so as to exercise the maximum of power; how to seat myself; how to poise the body and hold the elbows and head; how to guard against over-fatigue; how to treat the velocipede “classically,” were all told with the intelligent force which belongs to scientific knowledge when combined with practical skill. I had several lessons from this distinguished amateur, who devoted himself to my improvement with a kindness and energy I can never forget; and the end was that on the 7th of May, or twenty-one days after I began, I had the happiness of hearing myself envied by a stout clergyman, who remarked kindly in my hearing, that “if he ever went as well as that fat gentleman (confound him, he was twice my size) with the bald head he should be perfectly satisfied.” The speaker was only one of the many professional men of every degree whom I saw disporting themselves on two wheels at Old Street. The artist, whose thoughtful picture is one of the glories of this year’s Exhibition and who made his first essay on the bicycle here; the popular West End physician, whose brougham was always waiting and who doffed “the customary suit of solemn black” for a shell jacket of flannel before careering round; the officers from well-known regiments, who learnt the art so rapidly; the steeple- chasing baronet, who insisted on there being “a great difference in the way of tumbling,” and that his being ready to “take anything with a fall” in the hunting field, was a habit of infinite service to him on the velocipede; the short-sighted German student-looking young man from the City, who banged himself about and banged other people about and broke velocipedes and ran into walls and was a constant source of dread and danger; the amateurs from the German Gymnasium (where, by the way, an excellent velocipede club has just been formed), who learnt the whole business as it seemed intuitively, so rapid were they – are all people whose acquaintanceship I made on wheels. At length the eventful day for my first effort out of doors arrived. My velocipede was brought down tenderly by railway and pushed past my neighbours’, doors shamefacedly, for I scarcely knew what kind of figure I should cut and I dreaded ridicule. I live on a suburban hill and chose its sloping roadway for my first trial, my kind amateur friend and instructor coming with me and I in no little trepidation for the result. This was on the 10th of the present month and thought it would be absurd to say I felt no difference between the smooth boards of the riding school and the friction of the road, I can conscientiously say I have never looked behind me since. I go long distances, I turn sharp corners, I struggle up moderate hills, I glide with modest pride past the windows of my critically curious friends. The triumph is complete. I claim to be one of the heaviest and biggest velocipede riders in the country and I have learnt its use sufficiently well to travel alone, without difficulty, or achings, or fatigue, to the complete confusion of many estimable censors. I improve, moreover, each time I go out. The chaff of the road is considerable, but I have yet to learn that there is anything really ridiculous in an easy, pleasurable and healthy form of exercise, which has the remarkable effect of seeming to add to your personal powers. The bicycle stands alone in this particular at least; and if example would remove doubts from the minds of those hesitating whether to begin or not, I invite them to look out for a brown-wheeled velocipede and a stout rider on the road to and from Epsom tomorrow.

Daily News, May 25, 1869

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