A well-written and engaging history of the bicycle in Britain from its earliest days through to the present

Duncan R. Jamieson
Ashland University, Ashland, Ohio

Neil Carter
Cycling and the British: A Modern History
368 pages, hardcover
London: Bloomsbury 2021
ISBN 978-1-4725-7209-7

Growing up in Queens Village, New York City in the 1950s, we rode bicycles for transportation, fun, exercise and, for those who delivered newspapers for work. I had a Rollfast, my next-door neighbor a Columbia, other friends different American built one speed balloon-tired makes, but one kid down the street had a Raleigh, imported from England with its skinny tires and three speed Sturmey-Archer hub offering him advantages we lacked. Whenever I think of Great Britain and bicycling that image comes immediately to mind. I got to ride his bicycle for the few minutes once and reveled in changing the gears. Much later my older brother bought a 1994 Raleigh, the last year of British production, which I have ridden multiple times. But by that time, I preferred my multi-speed Schwinn Paramount with touring geometry and the Raleigh had lost its allure.

My friends and I gave up the cycle when we were old enough to drive. I cannot speak for them, but I came back to cycling in my 20s and continue to ride today. This passion carries over into my research and writing, with an interest in all things cycle related, though my special field is long distance, self-propelled travel. As a result, I am pleased to have this opportunity to encourage you to read Neil Carter’s Cycling and the British: A Modern History. The cycle is center stage throughout as Carter, Senior Lecturer in the International Centre for Sports History and Culture, DeMontfort University, UK, explores how it has a presence in every aspect of British life and culture. He carefully traces the changing fortunes of the bicycle (and tricycle) from their earliest days in the late 19th century through to the present. From its origins the ubiquitous bicycle has always represented, in equal parts, health, leisure, sport and transport in overlapping fashion. I commute by wheel, it helps me destress, it keeps my blood pressure, resting heart rate and weight low, and it has allowed me to travel far and wide enjoying the sights, sounds and smells of the natural and human built environment. While I do not race, except against myself, Carter includes a thorough discussion of Great Britain’s cycle sporting culture.

Though its fortunes have risen and fallen, the cycle never disappeared. In those early days during the late 19th century interest grew exponentially, from 40,000 in 1877 to perhaps 400,000 a decade later. In Great Britain, as in the United States, these numbers ebbed and flowed. Both nations witnessed explosive growth in the 1890s which collapsed in the early 20th century due to oversupply and a glut of used wheels on the market. The British numbers rebounded in the 1930s through the 1950s before another fall. Now in the 21st century interest is once again steadily growing. Though British bicycling has never insinuated itself as fully into the culture as it has, for example, in Holland or Denmark, it has always been tied to politics, society and modernity, reinventing itself as the nation’s interests changed.

I commute by wheel, it helps me destress, it keeps my blood pressure, resting heart rate and weight low, and it has allowed me to travel far and wide enjoying the sights, sounds and smells of the natural and human built environment.

Originally a status symbol for the well-to-do who had both the funds and the leisure time to ride, it soon spread to the middle class as seen in the establishment of the Cyclists’ Touring Club in 1878. Next came working-class men and women who used the bicycle to commute to work. As the bicycle included more segments of British society, new cycling organizations reflected that widening interest, such as the socialist Clarion clubs, clubs for women or for communists as well as local clubs and independent riders. As cycling spread throughout Great Britain, it had a leveling impact on British society, reducing the distinction between the classes. Carter makes clear cycling consists of riders from young children to senior citizens, serving a multitude of purposes and riding styles for any and all, concluding there is no one cycling culture. Even with the “scorchers and furious riders,” phrases coined in the early days of cycling to identify those whose riding habits seemed a danger to the life and limb of others on the road, and even as the numbers of urban cyclists continued to grow, the cycle still symbolizes the middle-class, slow-paced rural idyll as demonstrated by the cover photo’s romantic image of the couple on the tandem casting their tourist gaze on Stonehenge while enjoying a relaxing time in the countryside. Notice the photo provides no hint as to how the people standing among the stones traveled to the site.

The late Victorian era may have been a carefree golden age for cyclists but “it was the interwar period that ushered in mass cycling where more people rode bicycles more often than ever before or since” (p. 89). The cycle was and continues to be a symbol of freedom. At this time especially, bicycling represented “companionship, hard exercise and fresh air” (p. 90). While not necessarily demonstrating companionship, two individuals show how the bicycle captured the interest of the sporting world. Born in 1907, Walter Greaves rode 45,383 miles in 1936, a record that stood for only a few years. Born in 1914, Billy Dovey rode 29,603.4 miles in 1938 to set a woman’s record that stood until 2011. Obviously, Mr. Greaves and Ms Dovey had freedom from time constraints to devote to wheeling to amass such prodigious numbers.

Cycling to work in Oxford in the 1950s.

Throughout its history the cycle has had a significant impact on clothing style and fashion. Bicycling has for decades helped women escape from their traditional roles in society, reinforcing emancipation and modernity as cycling women took the lead in clothing style and fashion. They began riding in shorts following the Great War. The men followed this relaxed clothing trend when they began wearing open neck shirts and shorts instead of riding in jackets, stiff collars, ties, and trousers.

To put the importance of cycling in the sporting world in perspective, The International Cycling Association was formed before both the International Olympic Committee and FIFA. The bicycle sparked a sports revolution with track and road races as well as time trials. As class barriers softened, so did the rigid distinction between the amateur and the professional sportsman. This led to the rise of mass start racing in the 1930s, Britain’s concession to “the broader context of international sport during the 1930s” (p. 126). But it was not just men who engaged in sport—more women took to racing; 1934 saw the founding of the Women’s Road Records Association. Another change came with the increasing motor traffic which made road racing increasingly difficult and dangerous. Nationalism shows through as beginning in 1930, instead of riding for manufacturers, cyclists joined national teams in the Tour de France. Twenty-five years later the first British team completed in the French classic, and four years later Brian Robinson became the first Brit to win a stage, followed fifty-three years later when Englishman Bradley Wiggins won the 2012 Tour.

As elsewhere around the world, the motor car pushed British cycling to the margins. In 1934 social activist J. B. Priestly identified three Englands: first the benign rural; second the ugly industrial; and third the modern, car owning suburban society. “Cycling’s cultural gatekeepers… struggled to reconcile a planned modernity at odds with the England of their youth, and which would continue to challenge ideas of ruralism associated with cycling. It was this contrast that would continue to shape the place of cycling in British society, as well as the tone of the debate over its status, not just for the rest of the 1900s but also into the twenty-first century” (p. 88).

I wholeheartedly agree with my colleagues on both sides of the pond; this well-written and engaging monograph will appeal to bicycle historians and enthusiasts as well as sport historians and the general reading public.

Throughout, Carter examines how the bicycle has influenced British society, politics and the spreading environmental movement; of special interest to me is Chapter 8, “Cycling, Politics and Environmentalism,” demonstrating the close connection between the cycle and British politics. While the push for more electric automobiles is obviously a significant move in the right direction, they will still not be as environmentally friendly as the two or three wheeled cycle. This clearly connects the environmental movement to politics as Carter writes “the riding of a bicycle—mostly unconsciously—is a political act. … [T]he bicycle emerged as an explicit instrument and symbol for political and cultural change through both activism and the emergence of environmentalism as a political creed” (p. 185). Another advantage is the reduction of road congestion which might in turn reduce the need to pave over more land. Fewer vehicles on the road would hopefully lower the number of accidents, injuries and deaths.

Professor Carter has written what Tony Collins sees as “the story not just of cycling, but also of British society’s changing relationship with the bike,” while Richard Holt agrees, writing “this is by far the best history of cycling in Britain.” Mike Cronin notes “Carter has meticulously researched across a staggering array of sources to produce the definitive history of cycling.” I wholeheartedly agree with my colleagues on both sides of the pond; this well-written and engaging monograph will appeal to bicycle historians and enthusiasts as well as sport historians and the general reading public.

My only criticism is, while I do acknowledge that one cannot include everything, I would have liked a bit more recognition to those British cyclists whose goal was two-wheeled travel. Claimed by both the Americans and the British, from 1884 to 1886 English born Thomas Stevens became the first cyclist to travel around the world with his high wheel. A decade later the English trio of John Foster Fraser, S. Edward Lunn and F. H. Lowe recounted their 31,000-mile journey awheel around the world on English safeties. Bernard Newman, a career British civil servant, spent summers from the 1930s through the 1960s bicycling through every country in Europe on his beloved George, a series of BSA cycles. From the first, women have also been active participants, riding and then writing of their experiences awheel. American expatriates Elizabeth Robins Pennell and her husband Joseph lived in London from the 1880s until just before the Great War. Together the Pennells rode through Great Britain and the European continent for more than twenty years. Continuing in that vein Louise Sutherland, Bettina Selby, Anne Mustoe and Josie Dew covered tens of thousands of miles, writing of their exploits through six continents. Finally, a nod to Mark Beaumont who held the Guinness Book of World Records for cycling 18,300 miles around the world in 194 days, and to Tim Moore whose cycling exploits are many and varied.

Copyright © Duncan R. Jamieson 2021

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