The Bicycle Book
The Bicycle Book
A rip-roaring narrative celebration of the 21st century’s great transport success story: the bicycle. Millions of us now cycle, some obsessively, and this glorious concoction of history, anecdote, adventure and lycra-clad pedalling is the perfect read for two-wheelers of all kinds.‘At last – a bicycle book for the rest of us…. A book for the sort of cyclist who likes cycling and reading and stories.’ GuardianTwo wheels. A frame. Two pedals. What could be simpler than a bicycle?And yet the bike continues to inspire a passionate following. Since the millennium its use in Britain has doubled, and then doubled again. Thousands now cycle to work, with more and more taking it up every day.Acclaimed 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 train and several of today’s top cyclists, she offers us a brilliantly engaging portrait of cycling’s past, present and world-conquering future.
The Bicycle Book
I want to ride my bicycle I want to ride my bike I want to ride my bicycle I want to ride it where I like QUEEN, ‘Bicycle Race’
Beloved friend, teacher and fellow traveller, 1997–2010
Title Page (#u1d9d5a28-c438-5d6e-a34c-f46e73294797)
Chapter One - Framebuilding
Chapter Two - You Say You Want a Revolution
Chapter Three - Feral Cycling and the Serious Men
Chapter Four - The Great Wheel
Chapter Five - Watercycling to France
Chapter Six - The Worst Journey in the World
Chapter Seven - The Silent Black Line
Chapter Eight - The Burning Man
Chapter Nine - Bad Teeth No Bar
Chapter Ten - Axles of Evil
Chapter Eleven - Knobbled
Conclusion - Love and Souplesse
List of Illustrations
About the Author
Also by Bella Bathurst
About the Publisher (#litres_trial_promo)
‘The gross and net result of it is that people who spent most of their natural lives riding iron bicycles over the rocky roadsteads of this parish get their personalities mixed up with the personalities of their bicycle as a result of the interchanging of the atoms of each of them … you would be surprised at the number of people in these parts who nearly are half people and half bicycles.’
THE THIRD POLICEMAN
A bicycle undoubtedly has its downsides. It won’t shelter you from the elements, or protect you from the fury of your fellow traveller. It lacks the romance of a sailboat or the simplicity of your own two feet. It will not give you the same sensation that sitting in £180,000-worth of over-charged horsepower does. It is miserable in the wet. No other form of transport ever takes it seriously. It is sliced up by cabs and menaced by buses. It is loathed by motorists and loved by the sort of politicians who would never dream of actually using it. It can’t transport you from one end of the world to the other in time for Christmas. It doesn’t have a particularly distinguished industrial history. It gets stolen, on average, every minute and a half. It delivers you at the end of your journey covered in a light film of sweat and toxic diesel particulates. It requires a lot of silly clothing. And, of course, it is occasionally fatal.
And yet cycling obsesses people. They take it up for practical reasons – health, economy, twelve points on their driving licence – and before they know it they’re gleaming with zeal and talking slightly too fast about fixies and resting BPMs. Things that they hadn’t thought about since they were children start to preoccupy them – the stuff of bikes, the speed of them, their grace or style or character. It doesn’t take long before the daily commute to work becomes a journey to be looked forward to, an adventure instead of an ordeal. There are conversations with colleagues about bikes and the experience of cycling; new connections are made. On the road, they start silently checking out fellow converts. Looking for short cuts and alternative routes, they ride past bits of the city – intriguing, come-hither bits – they never knew existed. In their houses, items of bike kit start to multiply. Tyres and lights now take up as much space as hats and coats. They persuade themselves that lugging a muddy vintage steel-framed roadster up three flights of stairs at night is a reasonable way to get fit. Cycling starts to become as much a way of life and a philosophy as it does a form of transport. It spreads from work to weekends to holidays. They nominate themselves for sponsored rides and charity marathons. They stop thinking in miles and start thinking in kilometres. Almost by mistake, they find themselves in possession of a whole fleet of bikes: one for work, one for speed, one for the wet, one for annoying other people who know about bikes. They realise that one of the major advantages to cycling is the ability – more than that, the need – to consume their own bodyweight in spag bol and chocolate cake every day. Instead of road-tripping it round America as in the old days, family holidays are now spent hurtling through the Austrian Tyrol like two-wheeled von Trapps. They arrive at work early every day now, radiant with sweat and self-satisfaction. At home, they talk about getting rid of the car. In the evenings, they admire their newly altered profile in the mirror; the helmet hair, the buns of steel, the bloody knees. After a while they find themselves making unexpected judgement calls – can one cycle elegantly in a pencil skirt, what is the optimum number of children per bicycle, how wet is too wet, is Kent too far, perhaps an Étape might be nice. They discover that the thing about cycling isn’t that it’s healthy, or environmentally friendly, or fast, or convenient, or politically correct. The thing about it is that it’s fun.
Part of that is the straightforward childlike joy in riding a bike, the urge to yell, ‘Whheeee!’ on the way downhill. There’s a huge pleasure in going places cars can’t go, in dodging and weaving, in a bike’s simple agility. It makes previously unknown districts more accessible and familiar ones more difficult. It reinvents familiar geography, opens up towpaths or riverbanks or favoured rat runs across town. It offers the little tremor of happiness from bending urban by-laws back to suit the individual, and the constant delight in going straight to the front of the queue. It allows one to feel smooth and charged and graceful in a world full of blocks and obstructions. It has the peculiar attraction of being healthy, dirty and risky all at once. It offers the interesting discovery that getting to and from work need not necessarily mean the abandonment of sanity. It can be companionable or solitary, competitive or amicable. And, like the horse or the sailboat, it feels somehow as if it’s exactly the right pace for a human to travel.
And so the bicycle – old, and cheap, and slightly comic – has become the twenty-first century’s great transport success story. Since the millennium, its use in Britain has doubled and then doubled again. Thousands now cycle to work, and more take it up every day. It has allowed the reinvention of the British landscape, opening up miles of Forestry Commission land to mountain bikers, and in doing so has given us back both the countryside and our sense of ourselves. It’s introduced thousands of people to racing and to the world of European pro-touring. It’s offered those of middle-aged mind and limb a chance to see themselves renewed. It has connected people through events and races and just hanging out. It has become the fastest and most reliable form of transport for people all over the country. In trial after trial, it is the bike which reaches its urban destination faster than the car, the bus, the tube or the pedestrian. It represents the power of self-reliance and the triumph of straightforwardness. Cycling has recycled itself. It is an ancient idea, and its time has finally come.
I started writing this book because I wanted to read something good about cycling and bikes, and there didn’t seem to be that much around. There were books, certainly, but none of them were written for people like me. There were route guides or sports science manuals or conspiracy theorists poring over Lance Armstrong’s doping record or biographies of individual heroes. There were instructions on mending a puncture at 10,000ft or nerdy accounts of club cycling. There were breathless records of difficult trips and books hung just on the cycling-related pun in the title. But there wasn’t anything for the sort of cyclist who liked cycling, and reading, and stories, and who had long ago given up any desire to experiment with exogenous EPO.
This, then, is not designed to tell the reader how to differentiate between brands of derailleur or explain why riding a bicycle is good for your health. There is plenty missing. I’ve left out most of the political and environmental debate (provision of facilities, zero emissions etc.) because it is either obvious or it is already well served by innumerable blogs and forums. I haven’t included anything on track cycling on the grounds that if you need a velodrome to do it then it is out of most people’s reach. There’s nothing on folding bikes, Moultons or recumbents because they look ridiculous and can’t corner. I cannot tell you about your VO2 max or how to lace a wheel. I don’t know how to stop your bike getting nicked and or how you become an Iron Man. I’ve picked and chosen quite shamelessly from all the available information on the basis of what I felt was interesting and useful. Because almost all cyclists feel a strong sense of ownership of both the bicycle and the experience of cycling, there will almost inevitably be some I can’t satisfy, and who will wish I’d included less of some stuff and more of another. That, I’m afraid, is an occupational hazard of writing about a subject about which so many people feel so passionately. The other occupational hazard, common to all non-fiction, is discovering that half the best stories come to you after the book is published. People write in, talk to you at book events, offer fabulous heaps of gold-mine material. Sometimes you get to include some of that material in future editions. Even if you don’t, there’s always the pleasure in knowing that the subject has inspired readers to dust off their own untold stories.
My own background is straightforward. I ride a bicycle every day in London, I do as much mountain biking in Scotland as I can, I’ve done long tours abroad, I’ve taken part in sportives and audaxes, and that’s it. Like thousands of other cyclists around the country, I also use every other form of public and private transport available – cars, cabs, trains, planes, buses, the London Underground. I’m not a cyclist because I hate cars or can’t understand the pleasure of driving – I’m a cyclist because I reckon there is no lovelier form of transport.
Far away in a corner of Lincolnshire, there are men looking at the sky. They stand in a row in a car park and they stare at the clouds. They stay like that for quite a long time. In order to see the sky more closely, most of them have got cameras with huge white lenses of the type generally used by paparazzi photographers to take covert shots of celebrities’ deodorant marks. The lenses are the size and shape of ships’ foghorns, and are so heavy that they require a whole separate entourage of kit to support them – sandbags, tripods, vans, wives. Despite their supporting role, the wives do not seem to be that interested in either the cameras or the sky. Instead they sit patiently, sharing out home-made pasta with other wives or lying back on deck-chairs soaking up the flatland sun while the men swing their lenses from ground to cloud and back again.
When the men have looked at the sky for long enough, they go and stare at a wall instead. Directly opposite the car park is a wooden perimeter fence a couple of metres high. With a small stepladder, it is easy enough for the men to press their lenses to the gaps or for the taller ones to see over the top. Anyone passing down the road from the nearby town can see a long line of men wobbling on their ladders with their noses pressed to the planks. It looks like a convention of trainee window cleaners, or maybe peeping toms – very British, but a little bit sinister too.
It’s midsummer in the countryside, and this is the sort of scenery to make you believe in England again. Somewhere nearby, there are canals, bright expanses of poppies and the occasional heart-lifting lilt of a lark’s call. Once in a while a hare lollops out of the high fields of green grain and tears off into the distance, pursued by invisible demons. In the distance Coningsby’s church tower sails over the surrounding fields and the proper old-fashioned bell still tolls the hour. Even so, the men with long lenses have not picked a particularly restful place to sit back and picnic. Every twenty minutes or so there is a low rumble from somewhere far away. The men take it as a cue to start twiddling dials and taking urgent meter readings. The wives get up suddenly and run for the cars. The rumble moves closer, resolves itself into an approach from east or south and alters from a mutter to a roar. A small black dot appears over the tree tops. It is moving very fast. The sound has sharpened and is suddenly so huge that you have no choice but to stop whatever you’re doing and turn towards the source, so huge it blots out everything except itself. And then for a second a vast black triangle slides over the sun. It is very low now, low enough to see every detail. The men with the lenses click silently, their movements frantic. Indifferent, almighty, the triangle heads towards the runway. Even with your hands over your ears, the sound of it is now so overwhelming it makes your vision go fuzzy. Its passage makes your heart squeeze tight with fear and excitement, and when it has gone it leaves a stinking rip in the summer air.
This is RAF Coningsby, home not only to the surviving RAF Battle of Britain planes (a Lancaster bomber, several Spitfires, a couple of Hurricanes and a Tiger Moth), but to the British contingent of Eurofighter Typhoons. The Lancasters and Spitfires alone would probably bring the planespotters in their droves, but the combination of nostalgia for World War Two and anticipation for the thrills of World War Three is almost irresistible. During particularly busy periods, including training days for the Battle of Britain displays, the car park and the whole surrounding area is full of people all busily destroying what remains of their hearing. Each man has his camera and a little notepad on which to keep track of dates, times, radio frequencies and serial numbers. If you like fighter planes, this place is Mecca.