Bicycle History

This article was published in 2013, in Newsletter 110.

by Una Brogan

After the juddering wooden, Dandy Horse,
And the rattling Boneshaker – even worse –
Otherwise called the French velocipede,
In a Coventry workshop there came a new breed,
An invention of which we’d never seen the like:
JK Starley’s incredible Safety Bike.

The basic principles of the sewing machine,
A chain drive powered by feet, not steam,
Caused all other two-wheeled models to abort
And cleared the way for revolutionary transport.

Workshops mushroomed in Coventry town
And through the midlands, till all around
Frames were welded, steel tubes grafted,
Wheels carefully built, components crafted.
And soon all sorts of people found a way
To buy a bike, saving up a few months’ pay.

Men and women, rich and poor
Threw all distinctions to the floor
In adopting the new two-wheeled contraption
They opened the door to freer social interaction.
Women, for the first time, claimed the right
To cast off their skirts, heavy and tight,
And wear trousers, or rational dress,
To be free and mobile, like all the rest.
Regardless of rank and social class,
Freedom of movement was achieved at last,
For urban workers it took just a ride
To discover the beauty of the countryside.

By the beginning of the twentieth century,
The bike had gained its place in society.
Although some rich families had a motor car,
The bicycle was more popular by far.
Cycling around was only sensible
In a world where the bike was indispensable.

At this moment when cycling could rise no higher,
A journalist, hoping to start a media empire,
Dreamed up a race of mythical proportion
A trial demanding superhuman strength
And thus threw a simple object into wild distortion
By pushing men to pedal all of France’s length.

The race that Desgranges inaugurated
Had nothing in common with the Tour today:
These men signed up to be flagellated
By stages of up to 450 k.

They were on fixed gears, like all bikes at the time,
With a low ratio on one side, so when they had to climb
They’d hop off and switch their wheel around
Then change it back to go down.

If a spoke snapped or they got a flat
No team car arrived with an identikit
The rule was, they had to fix it by the road side
One racer even re-welded his frame mid-ride.

The Tour grew more and more epic every year
Even after the derailleur, it stayed fixed gear.
They battled the Alps and the Pyrenees,
For 30 days brought France to its knees
In admiration of the men who took up the fight
To battle the mountains, long into the night.

To quote Roland Barthes, a myth was created
Cycling stopped being normal and became heroic
And all around the world the myth was propagated:
Cyclists were strong and brave and stoic.

And within a generation the damage was done
Desgranges and his men had carefully spun
A scared image of the simple vélo
And made heroes of these men in yellow.

All this was timed nicely with the rise of the car
Ford pumped them out, they travelled wide and far
Everyday cycling was pushed to the margins
The tick of the freewheel drowned out by engines.

Perhaps it takes more than a media stunt
To explain why cycling is now defunct
To justify the aggression, the sarcastic wave
The car-drivers’ heckles of “wow, you’re brave!”

But today, when you jump on your bike
Let the others choke and splutter all that they like
Remember that cycling’s the real transport solution
And each turn of the pedals is a revolution