Friday, 13 August 2010

Lady Cyclists

Ladies cycling (often rather aristocratic ladies, as well as their social inferiors) was a hot topic in the summer of 1896, when a craze for women's cycling swept London. I've just uncovered a lovely article by an ardent proponent of the woman cyclist, one Susan, Countess of Malmesbury; and it makes me think we should have more countesses writing in popular magazines. It begins, in Saki-esque style (before Saki, thus showing how his prose is not too far from the wry stylings of many a Victorian aristocrat) thus:

A new sport has lately been devised by the drivers of hansom cabs. It consists of chasing the lady who rides her bicycle in the streets of the metropolis. If not so athletic a pastime as polo, the pursuit on wheels of alien wheels surmounted by a petticoat which 'half conceals, yet half reveals' the motive power within, appears to afford these ingeuous persons exactly that exhilirating and entrancing sensation without which no Englishman finds life worth living, and which apparently is to the heart of the cabby what salmon-fishing, golf, shooting, the rocketting pheasant, hunting the fox, or, in fine, what war, that highest expression of sport, can be to those who are usually called 'the leisured classes.'
    I am given to understand that so far the scoring is altogether on the side of the pursuer. He has bagged, we are told, many ladies whose mutilated or decapitated forms have been hurried into silent and secret graves at the instance of the great Bicycle Boom. Their relatives, we hear, have laid them to rest quietly in back gardens until such time as they can realise what shares they possess in cycling companies.
I find it fascinating because the article establishes the rancorous relationship between taxi-drivers and cyclists (which exists in London to this day) started from the very first cyclists on the roads. Unlike many a modern cyclist, however, Susan reveals that she learnt to cycle in the grounds of the exclusive Queen's Club 'where I was taught, until I could turn easily, cut figures of eight, get on and off quickly on either side, and stop without charging into unwelcome obstacles.'

 Much of what she says is still valid today:

To my mind the great accomplishment for the cyclist in traffic is to be able to ride steadily, without too much wavering of his front wheel, at a very slow pace, so as to avoid getting off, and then with quick eye and judgment to make a dash where he sees his opportunity, never forgetting to look some distance ahead so as to avoid stoppages. In these cases, like all others, prevention is better than cure.
I encourage all London cyclists to read the full article 'On a Bicycle in the Streets of London'  here (half way down the page).

1 comment:

  1. It is especially relevant now that Boris's hire bike racks seem to have been filled at last and the machines, with their blue Barclay's logo, are becoming a familiar sight on our roads.

    Two passed within inches of my person only yesterday - on the pavement.

    The author of the article may have been as well-mannered as she was articulate, but I fear that today's cyclists are far from being as considerate.