In Bat­tersea Park, any morn­ing be­tween 11 and one, all the best blood in Eng­land could be seen

Urban Cyclist - - On Test -

side- sad­dle penny-far­thing in the 1870s, with both ped­als on a crank­shaft to one side of the front wheel. It was prac­ti­cally im­pos­si­ble to mount, dif­fi­cult to ride, dan­ger­ous to get off, and had all the tra­di­tional haz­ards and ter­rors of a penny-far­thing while you were up there. It didn’t catch on. The new tech­nol­ogy prompted not so much an up­swing of en­thu­si­asm as a craze. It was like a full- on play­ground ma­nia, but played out among the Bri­tish up­per classes, and cap­i­talised upon by any­one who knew how to weld a few steel tubes to­gether and put wheels on the re­sult. It seemed like ev­ery­one wanted a bike; ev­ery­one wanted to learn to ride. To run with the in- crowd, you needed a bike. This ver­sion of cy­cling was not the pas­time of the peo­ple. The Vic­to­rian craze was un­remit­tingly posh. Quite where and how it started seems lost to time. Cer­tainly the story of Queen Vic­to­ria and her Royal Salvo tri­cy­cles would have given cy­cling the sort of seal of ap­proval that high so­ci­ety cared about. Ed­ward El­gar rode a bike – a mag­a­zine cap­tion of the pe­riod de­scribed him as ‘ the noted cy­clist and com­poser’, which might not be the or­der in which pos­ter­ity re­mem­bers him, but caught the mood of the time. Ge­orge Bernard Shaw rode a bike. Arthur Co­nan Doyle rode a bike. The Prince of Wales rode a bike. It was said that by the mid-1890s ev­ery mem­ber of the House of Lords was a cy­clist, and there hasn’t been a time since when a claim as au­da­cious as that could be made. It would be fair to say that the type of cy­cling high so­ci­ety went crazy over was not a very nor­mal va­ri­ety, com­pared to what had gone be­fore, and even to what came af­ter. It was a few years of the most splen­did aris­to­cratic lu­nacy. Their ob­ject was not to race, or to tour, or to re­ally get any­where at all, but sim­ply to ride, for its own sake. If, on a sum­mer morn­ing in 1895, you had taken your­self off to Lon­don’s Bat­tersea Park, you would have found the place full of cy­clists, many of them women, and most of them gen­try or com­mit­ted so­cial climbers. Hap­pily, Jerome K Jerome was there to see it: ‘ Bi­cy­cling be­came the rage. In Bat­tersea Park, any morn­ing be­tween 11 and one, all the best blood in Eng­land could be seen, solemnly ped­alling up and down the half-mile drive that runs be­tween the river and the re­fresh­ment kiosk. But these were the ex­perts. ‘ In shady by­paths, el­derly countesses, per­spir­ing peers, still at the wob­bly stage, bat­tled bravely with the laws of equi­lib­rium; oc­ca­sion­ally de­feated, they would fling their arms around the necks of hefty young hooli­gans who were reap­ing a rich har­vest as cy­cling in­struc­tors: “Pro­fi­ciency guar­an­teed in twelve lessons.” Cabi­net min­is­ters, daugh­ters of a hun­dred earls, might be recog­nised by the ini­ti­ated, seated on the gravel, smil­ing fee­bly and rub­bing their heads.’ The ‘in­struc­tors’ were ex­actly the same sort of young man who, a cen­tury and a quar­ter later, would teach rock climb­ing or kite- board­ing. Just as in the 1870s, there were in­door schools for those too timid to learn out­side. In New York there was even an in­door school where learn­ers were wheeled around a gym­na­sium au­to­mat­i­cally by a sort of meat-hook ar­range­ment sus­pended from the ceil­ing. The rid­ers didn’t cy­cle to the park. Rid­ing in the Lon­don traf­fic was con­sid­ered nei­ther safe nor re­spectable. Gen­er­ally, the bike was placed in a mono­grammed bi­cy­cle bag, loaded into a car­riage by a foot­man and driven there along with its owner. If you were prop­erly posh you and your bi­cy­cle trav­elled in sep­a­rate car­riages. The grand houses of Bel­gravia ac­quired men and boys to groom bi­cy­cles. WS Gil­bert (of Gil­bert and Sul­li­van) had seven bi­cy­cles and a man to look af­ter them. If he was re­mark­able, it was prob­a­bly for his self-re­straint. All over the coun­try the

Lon­don parks, like Hyde (pic­tured) and Bat­tersea, at­tracted ‘el­derly countesses and per­spir­ing peers’ Left Right Ad­ver­tis­ing for the New Rapid Cy­cle Co, Birm­ing­ham, 1898-1899

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