The history of long distance bicycling and the emergence of the cycling travelogue

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Bill Sund
Department of History, Stockholm University


Duncan R. Jamieson The Self-Propelled Voyager: How the Cycle Revolutionized Travel 193 pages, h/c, ill. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield 2015 ISBN 978-1-4422-5370-4

Duncan R. Jamieson
The Self-Propelled Voyager: How the Cycle Revolutionized Travel
193 pages, h/c, ill.
Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield 2015
ISBN 978-1-4422-5370-4

In our time, the bicycle is completely taken for granted. It is used as an ordinary means of transportation for shorter or longer distances, or for long eventful trips within a country, or in other countries, or across multiple countries or an entire continent. It is also a means for competition in the increasingly growing, and now global sport of cycling. This has obviously not always been the case. The story of cycling began about 200 years ago, when the so-called treadmill was invented in Germany. Then pedal-powered bicycles were produced in France; the chain driven bike, known as the safety bicycle, was introduced in England; and pneumatic tires were invented in Ireland. These important inventions dates back to various times from 1817 until 1888.

By the late 1880s, safety bicycles were mass produced, and cycling became an accessible means of transportation for more and more people. Before that, to acquire and ride the velocipede, also known as boneshaker for its discomfort, with its large front wheel to which pedals were connected, required both healthy finances and physical strength. Furthermore, since the velocipede had no proper brakes, riding it was quite risky.

The extensive and exciting history of the bicycle and how it transformed people’s lives in terms of travel, making it a lot easier to move from place to place, has attracted the attention of the American social and sports historian Duncan R. Jamieson. In his new book The Self-Propelled Voyager: How the Cycle Revolutionized Travel, he does not deal with the sport of cycling and its great world-famous races such as Tour de France or Giro d’Italia. That would require a completely different approach, and instead he focuses long distance pedaling, which is a much older practice than you might think. Already during the second half of the 1800s cycling enthusiasts in the upper social classes began to ride across their respective countries, such as across the United States. One can barely imagine how tough that must have been, given the bicycles of the era.

In Sweden, which is not addressed in the book, they cycled around Lake Mälaren already in 1892, which is about 340 kilometers, with participation from intellectuals and artists. At that time the safety bicycles were available, fairly low chain-driven bikes featuring inflated rubber tires and brakes. There were also tandem bicycles that allowed men and women to ride together, which was quite common during this period. Eventually tricycles, bikes with three wheels of which two were in the front, were used for transportation. Jamieson correctly makes the point that women from the early days of cycling were important consumers and riders of bicycles. Initially, owning and riding a bike was limited to the upper classes, irrespective of sex, but as bicycle production became increasingly industrialized in different countries before and after the First World War, prices decreased and the bike could be every man’s and woman’s property. For a more technological review of the development of the bicycle, Gert Engström’s Älskade cykel, 1800-2000 (Beloved bike; 2004) is recommended.

The main part of Jamieson’s study concerns the fact that the new-found ease of transportation brought about by the invention and development of the bicycle from the 1880s onwards, gave rise to a new literary genre – bicycle travelogues. Jamieson’s historic study is based on available source material and a very comprehensive review and presentation of literature and articles on cycling trips around the world, but especially in the US and the UK, by a number of authors. It certainly was and still is a great thing to do, biking far and wide alone or with friends or family, which many intellectuals have done throughout history. Early on, the need for accommodation for long distance cyclists became obvious, and hotels opened up along popular trails. It may be added that several Swedish companies such as Merlot Travel and Prima Travel now organize bike trips in Europe, and especially in France, Italy and Spain. Cross-country cycling is still very popular and is now spreading across the world. Cycling holidays have become fashionable, and for many preferable to spending their summer vacation on the beach.

Duncan R. Jamieson has brought all this to light in his study of cycling travelogues in this highly readable book that also features photographs from the 1880s up to the modern day.

Professor Jamieson himself is obviously an avid long distance cyclist and he has covered vast stretches, such as across the United States. He is thus well suited to analyze and understand all these stories about bicycle trips written by other intellectuals over the years. He emphasizes the importance of cycling for children and young people, but adds that there has been some criticism of cycling in the United States, where the car is often a priority. He believes that motoring gives freedom, but also a certain social isolation when travelling far – as opposed to cycling, which is a much more social activity given the open air and slow speed mode of travelling, so that cyclists meet other riders and all sorts of people on their journeys.

Of all the hundreds of writers Jamieson has studied and presents in the book, he particularly points out the following three: the couple Elizabeth (née Robins) and Joseph Pennell, and Thomas Stevens; they all chronicled their trips during the period from 1878 to 1887: he calls them “the pioneers”. The Pennells, and their adventures, appear in the next chapter as well, which covers the subsequent period 1888–1894, “The Early Years”, when also Frank Lentz and Annie Londonderry are presented. In that period, stories about bicycle touring in Asia and Europe are included. During “The Golden Age” of long distance cycling, 1895–1899, cycling had become a global phenomenon and Jamieson includes cycling stories from for instance Africa and Asia.

In the penultimate chapter, “Sharing the Road”, the time period 1901–1961 is focused, during which roads are gradually improved and cycling has conquered the world. The bicycle country France as well as the British Isles are introduced, and the author includes literary cyclist such as F.W. Bocketts and Bernard Newman in his narrative. He also discusses and presents the Danish cyclist Kai Thorenfeldt’s truly remarkable bike ride around the world. Arriving at the sixth and last chapter, “Renaissance”, Jamieson focuses primarily the differences between post-1960 and the preceding periods in terms of technology –improvements of the gear and brake systems, but also materials and suchlike. Moreover, based on his vast knowledge of the field, he points to a major difference, namely the involvement of women in ever greater numbers and thus more women’s bicycle stories. He refers to Bettina Selby, Anne Mustoe and Jane Schnell, whose stories provide new and interesting insights into long distance cycling and its culture.

Duncan Jamieson has performed a well-designed and comprehensive study, and in his book he draws attention to the fact that long distance cycling has been going on for centuries, and continues to attract new generations of cyclists. The bicycle is a global means of transportation and it’s gaining ever more popularity; just lately I heard thatbiking is progressing in Colombia. During the interwar and the postwar periods in Sweden, for example, many would bicycle to their summer holiday resorts. From my own upbringing I know that both women and men bicycled from Stockholm to Dalarna (some 270 kilometers) for midsummer celebrations.

In his closing chapter Jamieson summarizes the study with his own analytical conclusions, partly by emphasizing what is pointed out in the extensive cycling literature, as follows:

From the beginning, the reasons for the ride vary from cyclist to cyclist but fall within certain general categories. Like Thomas Stevens, bicyclists traveled for the adventure and the notoriety. Elizabeth and Joseph Pennell rode to their work. Anne Mustoe loved traveling, and the bicycle seemed the perfect vehicle.

Despite the technological advances people still turn to the cycle for the same reasons. Thomas Stevens set out on his the around-the-world adventure. Further, nearly all cyclists mention the healthy exercise gained through miles of cycle touring. Elizabeth Pennell’s words from 1890 are as true today: ‘The world is one great book of beauty and romance; and on your cycle you can gradually master it, chapter by chapter, volume by volume’.

How very true, and well put. It’s easy to understand why Jamieson was affected when he read her book.

In short, the sport of cycling with all its doping problems over the years, is but one part of cycling in and between different countries. In my younger days I was a competitive cyclist, and I never fail to follow the Tour de France on TV or on-site. But nowadays I do long distance cycling myself every summer, in France and Italy. Traveling by bicycle offers various and useful experiences. You exercise in a highly pleasant way. The cultural experiences are manifold and very rewarding. Duncan R. Jamieson has brought all this to light in his study of cycling travelogues in this highly readable book that also features photographs from the 1880s up to the modern day, illustrating the development of the cycle through history.

You read mostly about competitive cycling here on idrottsforum.org, but it is obvious that sport is just one side of the bicycle coin. The other side is recreational long distance cycling, which is gaining renewed popularity of late. But let’s not forget the all-important everyday bicycle commuting – to and from work or school; versatility is the bicycle’s star attribute.

Copyright © Bill Sund 2016
(Translated by Kjell E. Eriksson)

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