The Psychology of Cycling (1895)

The Psychology of Cycling

The psychology of cycling sounds rather learned and indeed, the thoughtful man has probably long pondered it and hesitated as to writing about it to the Spectator. Till lately my own position has been that of M Henri Taine in his discussion of the passion of love, to him at that time unknown. Like Mr Taine, I knew not cycling; like him (in the interests of science merely), I went forth and learned how to byke. My limbs at the moment are black and blue in consequence of kicks received from various bykes and falls on red sandstone terraces. That I am an accomplished or a rapid cyclist I would be the last to aver. Speed in locomotion, personally conducted, has not been my aim; I merely wanted to know what cycling is like, and why people suffer from what the Homeric critics in France call la manie cyclique, a mania which ravaged Greece about 600BC. As far as I have gone (and I have gone over banks and braes which it was my intension to avoid), cycling is the longest, slowest and most circuitous route between any two given points. As the intoxicated person said, “it is not the length of the road it is the breadth of the road that bothers me.” And yet it is never broad enough! The early days of the cyclist are spent in getting kicked by the pedals and in falling off in postures of a complexity to which art can scarcely do justice. Never have I been so suddenly, so variously and so vigorously foreshortened! Michael Angelo himself could scarcely draw the violent and perplexed attitudes which the beginner adopts and to see a beginner practice in evening dress by moonlight is a spectacle which haunts, I am assured, the dreams of observant beauty. This course of enjoyment goes on till, in some happy hour, you can achieve four turns of the machine and then you wake from bliss in a hedge or ditch, among nettles or on a heap of stones. After that begins the wobbling stage, in which you abide for an uncertain period. Then you learn to go steadily enough for forty yards and after that, from the point of view of the philosophical cyclist, the fun is over. All consists in learning to break in a new machine and to balance yourself in a manner never contemplated by the law of gravitation. The rest, in spite of fashion, is vulgar. To see a bishop on wheels, apron and all, is to sigh over the lost dignity of ecclesiastics. When lovely women stoop to byking, her charm is departed: a high action is not an estimable thing in women. To go rapidly from place to place is a mere triumph of utilitarianism. No exercise, not even Fives, is so rapid and complete a soporific as the first days of the byke; physicians ought to recommend it and it is invaluable to surgeons, for obvious reasons. No fractures are so complicated as those of the cyclist. The pleasure of the pastime consists in the discovery of a novel and unsuspected faculty (as in swimming and skating) and in the triumph over the almost indomitable byke. To find yourself actually in motion, with not the faintest idea of how, where or when you may stop, is indeed a new pleasure and might have pleased the imperial voluptuary of the Orient. But he would soon have been stated, if he was of a sincerely aesthetic temperament. How it may be with others I know not, but this example of the poetry of motion strangely haunts and inspires my fancy. Were I a poet, like so many of my younger  contemporaries. I would revive the classic school of cyclic poetry and art. On the walls of Mr Henry Foker was hung a print of two lovers flying a gate on two fiery steeds and embracing as they flew. Bykes do not yet leap gates; no doubt they will acquire the art, but on bykes at full speed young lovers might embrace (in a work of art) and methinks the engraving would be popular.

I find myself unconsciously developing cyclic poetry, or, at least, adapting to cycles the poetry of the old equestrian age. “Young Lochinvar” would go well to a cyclic adaptation –

                                    So light to the byke the fair lady she sprung.

                                    So light to the “bantam” before her he swung:

                                    “She is won, we are gone, there is never a toll-bar.

            They need swift bykes who follow,” said young Lochinvar.

Again, there is “Lenore’s Death Ride,” by Burger, that might be accommodated bravely. The conception of the dead lover on a bicycle is ghastly beyond words –

                                    Whir, whir, along the road we byke,

                                    Swish, swish, along the sea:

                                    Men say the dead can byke with speed,

                                    Dost fear to byke with me?

The burning cry of imagination beholds a tournament of bicycles – both the individual courses of mailed cyclists, with shattering of spears and the Mellay, where swords are aloft and axes shine –

They reel, they roll in clanging lists?

This chivalrous diversion might be revived at Lillie Bridge or in the University sports; it would be a novel feature and a great attraction, “a gentle and joyous passage of arms.” No cruelty to animals would be involved; Miss Frances Power Cobbe, enthroned as Queen of Beauty, might look and rain influence without a scruple Not being possessed of military knowledge, I cannot describe the glorious scene of the two hostile bicycle divisions charging each other; but Mr Kipling might make something of it by column of squadrons, if that is the correct expression. No mean shoving a lance into the spokes of the byke could be permitted by the laws of war in this noble encounter. The days of chivalry are not over – only the vehicle is changed in accordance with the best mechanical principles. Such are the brilliant visions which swim up in the magic mirror of imagination. The passing-bell itself is transformed into the bell of the transitory cyclist. I shall not live to see the bicyclary of England take the place of any cavalry we may happen to possess, but to me a Pisgah glimpse of the dazzling future is afforded, of the time when, by some electric dodge or other, cycles will be enabled to leap walls and to career across country.

The Psychology of Cycling, Andrew Lang. Illustrated London News, October 12, 1895; pg. 462

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