The Bicycle Book
Two wheels. A frame. Two pedals. What could be simpler than a bicycle? And yet the bike continues to inspire a passionate following. Since the millenium its use in Britain has doubled, and then doubled again. Thousands now cycle to work, with more taking it up every day.
Award-winning author Bella Bathurst takes us on a journey through cycling’s best stories and strangest incarnations, from the bicycle as a weapon of warfare to the secret life of couriers and the alchemy of framebuilding. With a cast of characters including the woman who watercycled across the Channel, the man who raced India’s Deccan Queen tarain and several of today’s top pro racers and mountain-bikers, she offers us a brilliantly engaging portrait of cycling’s past, present, and world-conquering future.
“Drat and double drat. I had an idea for a money-making venture. I would write a book in praise of cycling… Curses, curses, when I find Bella Bathurst has blown me out of the water with her Bicycle Book, and she has done it beautifully…In Bella Bathurst the bike has found the best and brightest booster so far.” Boris Johnson, Mail on Sunday
“[Bella has a] sharp eye…[and] elegant prose: like a tail wind pressing on your back, it propels the reader through the pages… With The Bicycle Book Bathurst adds her voice to the call that we are now at the dawn of a new golden age of this versatile machine.” Robert Penn, The Observer
“…filling a yawning gap in the market… Bathurst is an ideal observer: someone who is interested in finding out, not showing off. Someone with a keen eye for the ridiculous, but who isn’t supercilious.’ Scotsman
“Her joyful freewheel through the world of bicycles and the people who ride them not only affirms her as an elegant chronicler of quirky subjects, but fills a gap in the pantheon of cycling literature… The Bicycle Book is unique in appealing to both cycling nuts and those of us who mean to dust off the flat-tyred two-wheeler” The Economist
… That’s the received view, anyway. The alternative view is that mountain biking was invented by the British decades before anyone in Marin County got hold of the idea. According to this view, the seventies fire-track story is a self-serving myth designed to sell bicycles, and mountain biking (or at least cycling up unpaved mountains) had existed since the 1890s.
Thus the modern sport was in fact invented by people who didn’t know they were inventing anything. Instead, they called it ‘rough stuff ’. The Captain Oates-style tone of rough-stuffing was set by W. M. Robinson, who wrote a column for Cycling magazine for many years under the pen- name of Wayfarer and was a keen advocate of making life as difficult for himself as possible.
His description of a jaunt to Wales’s Berwyn Mountains in March 1919 is a good example. Having ridden sixty miles to the starting point, he meets another couple of cyclists who ‘reported passing storms of snow and hail, through which they had ridden – a pleasant change from the monotony of sunshine cycling’. They ride on through the Glyn Valley in darkness to a local inn where they are told that their proposed route over the mountains is blocked by blizzards. The previous night, according to the innkeepers, a woman had set off on foot to visit a sick relative in the next valley, got lost in the drifts and only been rescued by chance.
Wayfarer absorbs the information and goes up to his bedroom where he notes approvingly that the window has been left wide open and that it is now snowing hard inside as well as out. The following morning, having slept well beneath the bracing winter frosts, Wayfarer takes a look at the weather (blizzard, zero visibility) and concludes that conditions are ideal for recreational cycling. Despite a few false leads and blocked gates, he and his companions get going. Sinking up to their waists, unable to find the path and carrying their bikes for much of the way, the group reach the other side in four hours. ‘It is an infinitely more interesting and adventurous trip when done in deep snow,’ Wayfarer concludes. That afternoon, he cycled a further fifty miles over another mountain just for fun.
Modern readers may find Wayfarer’s relish for discomfort extraordinary, but it struck a chord with readers at the time. Many of those who followed his column were young soldiers returning from the trenches of the First World War for whom pass-storming through March snowdrifts probably did qualify as light relief. He himself had been wounded in the leg as an infantryman.
His lectures were always oversubscribed, and when his bicycle was stolen his fans raised enough money to buy him a new one within two days. Wayfarer believed in ‘as little bicycle as possible’. Gears were obviously unnecessary, wide tyres pointless and mudguards slightly suspect; he rode a light roadster with North Road bars and a Brooks saddle. Like his readers, he took a no-nonsense approach to repairs. Belt braces could be pressed into use to fix dynamos, bean cans would patch cracked down tubes and postage stamps could mend punctures.
Many of those who followed Wayfarer adopted the same tone of bluff sufferance as he did. ‘I took my cycle, a Raleigh weighing over 45 lbs, over Sty Head Pass,’ wrote A. J. F. Field in 1928, ‘and have nothing but pleasant recollections of the crossing.’ Or, as K. E. Walker put it in 1954, ‘In several hundreds of miles of diverse surfaces, across fields, bogs, boulders, and the like, my machine has yet to suffer damage of any kind. Admittedly the going can be rough, but the reward far outweighs the effort.’ Inevitably, a strong but covert sense of competition developed among Rough Stuff Fellows, with members suggesting routes of increasing length, complexity and difficulty.
The Fellowship still exists and is still active; its website gives a list of popular routes, many involving the high Scottish summits known as Munros. Cape Wrath is a good example of the type of route recommended. To reach the north-westernmost tip of mainland Scotland off-road takes one across a beach, a river, a seven-mile bog and an MoD firing range covered in old and unexploded ordnance.