The horse, it has often been observed, is a noble and useful animal, but dealings with him have a demoralizing effect. A Bishop, it has been cynically remarked, would get the better, if he could, of his own archdeacon in a horse-dealing transaction and the evils of the race-course are too trite a subject for mention. It almost seams as if this ill-repute of the horse is being transferred to that equally useful and far more universal means of locomotion, the bicycle. Its manufacture has of late given occasion to questionable operations of unscrupulous “promoters” and abnormal profits, leading to over-capitalisation, have resulted in the victimization of unfortunate shareholders for the benefit of the fortunate few who share the Tichborne claimant’s philosophy, that “Some people has brains and some has money; and them as has money was made for them as has brains.” its use, too, we are now and again assured, leads to selfishness and disregard of the ordinary courtesies of life. The East-end or suburban “scorcher,” dashing along quiet roads and through peaceful villages with loud shouts and sulphurous language and reckless of life and limb, is not a pleasant development of the cycling craze nor are the bicycle thefts that are so easy and so common in crowded thoroughfares; nor, for the matter of that, are the costumes in which some lady cyclists in England are beginning to imitate those of France or Italy. Most real cyclists, too and probably every omnibus, cab, van and carriage driver in London, would consider that a lady on a bicycle is utterly out of place in Regent-street or Cheapside, or any other great artery of traffic. The office-boys and clerks, who twist in and out among the stream of vehicles, now clinging to an omnibus for support and now darting almost under the nose of a horse, can take care of themselves and a special Providence seems to watch over their wildest escapades; but no one likes to see a woman running unnecessary risk, as it has more than once proved to be, to life or limb. There is, indeed, much to be said for prohibiting bicycles altogether in the City and in certain streets between, say, 10 a.m. and 6p.m. But whether any authority, Imperial or local, will have the courage to interfere with so universally popular a pastime and means of locomotion is perhaps doubtful. If the smoker must be conciliated by reducing, unasked, the duty on tobacco, and the anti-vaccinationist by the practical abolition of compulsory vaccination, the cyclist may be able to resist registration, or taxation, or any restriction whatever. Apart, however, from its incidental drawbacks, there is no question that the bicycle is a social boon—one might almost say in some respects a social revolution. To hundreds of thousands of young men employed in City offices it gives opportunities for enjoying fresh air and wholesome exercise amid variety of scenery which he never had before and that at a nominal expense when he once possesses a “machine.” The London clerk on his Saturday afternoon Sunday can now range far afield—among Essex cornfields or Kentish hop-gardens, or the lanes of Hertfordshire and Surrey; or by availing himself of the assistance of the railway, he may ride, like some Homeric hero, “by the shore of “the far re-echoing Ocean.” There is, in fact, hardly any limit but that of time to the possibilities of wandering upon wheels that are open to young men who can travel with all they need upon their backs, or strapped to their machines. And there is no question that their leisure hours are better thus employed than in attending demonstrations in Hyde Park or low class places of amusement. The bicycle may, perhaps, tempt them away from church, but there is no reason in the nature of things why it should do so. Some clergy on the roads most frequented by Sunday cyclists have arranged services for their convenience with marked success and the time will probably come when most churches in the country and many in towns will reckon a stand for bicycles as a necessary “ornament of the church.” In country districts the bicycle has much facilitated social intercourse, especially among those who have not at command a large stable establishment and it has made easier the economy in means of transport that agricultural depression has forced upon many country houses. It may even check the tendency to leave the country and gather into towns, which is so marked and as many think, so regrettable a feature of modern life and in one very important sphere, that of labour, it is already beginning to do so. The distance from his work is one of the heaviest burdens that the country labourer has to bear. But already there may be seen on country roads labourers of various kinds going to and from their work on wheels and artisans and others in country towns are beginning to find out that the possession of a bicycle enables them to find cheaper and healthier homes for their families in neighbouring villages than is possible in the town itself The bicycle cannot, of course, check, but it may conceivably mitigate the decline of the rural population. It is also, as some think, a military future and the experiment of cycle corps has already met with approval in peace manoeuvres. It has yet to stand the test of actual warfare, under certain conditions of which it would probably be useless. But, given a region of easy gradient and fairly good roads, the bicycle may well do valuable service in outpost and reconnaissance duty and transporting small bodies of men rapidly and noiselessly from place to place. And from this point of view it might increase the effectiveness of the rural policeman, as it already does that of the rural postman. It is, however, for purposes of summer travel that the thoughts of many of our countrymen and countrywomen are now turning to their bicycles. Along the hot and dusty highways of France, through German forests and over Swiss mountain passes, or, nearer home, alongside the dykes and canals of Holland, that land of absolute yet picturesque flatness, the brethren and sisters of the wheel are even now speeding happy in the freedom of healthy out-of-door life and careless of everything but the weather. Nor do foreign countries, as a rule, place difficulties in their way. There is much international fraternity among cyclists and a kind of universal  “Zollverein”  of  cycling tourist clubs smooths the way for their members in all lands and in France, at any rate, the railways have the credit of providing much better and more cheaply than our own for the transport of bicycles. The absurd commercial tariffs of Italy require a heavy deposit at the frontier upon any bicycle of foreign make, to be returned on leaving the country and perhaps the authorities who, as just announced, feel that public safety is imperilled by a camera or “kodak” within ten kilometres of their fortifications will feel equally perturbed at the sight of a bicycle. Who knows but that this knickerbockered young man, or that young lady in a “divided skirt,” may be an emissary of some foreign Power, exploring the approaches with a view to the overthrow of the reigning dynasty? But with these slight inconveniences, easily to be avoided, cycling on the Continent is probably as free as at home; though it appears that the authorities of Switzerland, of all countries in Europe, have lately been imposing some irksome restrictions—a strange proceeding

for a country that prides itself, not unjustly, upon its freedom and its independence of Continental militarism, and depends largely for its subsistence upon the strangers who use it as their playground. But neither Swiss authorities nor Italian military officials can do much to discourage a pastime so universal, so well within reach of all and, we may add, so beneficial both from sanitary and social point of view as the use of the now ubiquitous bicycle.

The Times, Monday, Aug 15, 1898; pg. 7

Leave a Reply