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A Spokesman for Cycling History, Every Last Inch of It

By Colman McCarthy,
a former Washington Post columnist who directs the Center for Teaching Peace and commutes by bicycle
Tuesday, December 14, 2004; Page C04


The History

By David V. Herlihy. Yale Univ. 470 pp. $35

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Except for the literature of golf, which has been produced by everyone from the lyrical swinger John Updike and the laugh-a-minute P.G. Wodehouse to the master reporter Michael Bamberger, the literature of bicycling is unrivaled. Shelves sag with the freewheeling and free-spirited words of Reed Whittemore, Gene McCarthy, Leo Tolstoy, Iris Murdoch, Henry Miller, D.H. Lawrence and William Saroyan, to cite just a few. If anything is lacking in this cascade of essays and poems, it is the history of the machine itself.

Help has come, in detail so copious that the reader is taken on a joy ride of stories, facts and anecdotes. David V. Herlihy, whose membership in the Harvard Cycling Club in the 1970s soon led him to a more intellectual kind of legwork, traces the bicycle to early 19th-century Europe. Then, it was more contraption than machine. Before it was called a bicycle, the early human-powered vehicle was labeled a velocipede -- from the Latin velox pedes, swift of foot. Forward motion came from two feet shoving off against the ground, not from pushing pedals attached to a chain linked to the rear wheel.

This form of kick propulsion wasn't exactly smooth riding, either physically or politically. The velocipede, Herlihy writes, "was ridiculed in the press, harassed on the road, and legislated off the smooth sidewalks." But velocipedes hung on, owing to a few European entrepreneurs who thought the two-wheeler had marketplace potential, plus a random customer or two who actually bought the things.

Rear-drive and chain-propelled bicycles were still decades away, not to be patented until 1866 by France's Pierre Lallement. It was in France, too, that Pierre Michaux, a blacksmith tinkering at his workplace near the Champs-Elysees, put pedals on a velocipede. Parisians soon took to the mechanical horse, savoring it like a Bordeaux wine. The boulevards of Paris were commandeered by joy riders, with hardly a one of them realizing that they were in on the creation of the bicycle movement that now sees as many as a billion of the machines in use worldwide. Whether ridden by the fun-loving rich, who sought recreation, or by the practical poor, who couldn't afford a horse, the bicycle was about to become king of the road.

By 1890, Americans were atop 150,000 bicycles. Stephen Crane, an admirer, extolled, "The bicycle has everything." Not everyone agreed. Herlihy reports that the Woman's Rescue League of Washington, D.C., "claimed that the activity prevented women from having children, promoted immodest attire, and encouraged improper liaisons with the opposite sex." The grouching had little effect -- women accounted for about a third of the nation's cyclists. Instead, another problem loomed: motorized travel. Henry Ford's Model T rolled off the assembly line in 1908. Within 12 years, its sales would reach 750,000. The king of the road was dethroned.

While immensely enjoying Herlihy's able blend of history and storytelling, I had to ask whether my pleasure came from having been a bicycle commuter for the past 30 years. A non-bicyclist might well weary after a few hundred pages, or after reading arcana about the 1930s differences between the Schwinn Aerocycle, the Shelby Air-Flow and Monark's aluminum-alloy Silver King. Or learning that a 1930 study in Copenhagen found that a third of Danes were getting around town on bicycles. Or that in West Germany in 1972, urban bicycle use was 8 percent but had jumped to 12 percent by 1995. Or that the Touring Club of France in 1903 had nearly 80,000 members. Or that an 1898 law in New York forbade bicycle racers to ride more than 12 hours a day. Or that in 1908 Winston Churchill recommended that explorers in the jungles of Africa use bicycles. I was delighted to get all this skinny -- lots of facts to ponder during commutes -- but I'm not sure how it might go down with those outside the cycling community.

Herlihy wrote 15 chapters, but a 16th was needed -- on bicycle crashes, including the injury and death tolls. Having been hospitalized twice and banged up a half-dozen other times, plus all the uncounted close calls, I'm curious about the cause of the mayhem. How much of it, for example, comes from cyclist error, roadway potholes, uncivil motorists, bicycle design or the absence of bike lanes?

This lapse aside, Herlihy deserves praise for his exhaustive research. One imagines that after he began poking and digging into the archives, starting with newspapers and magazines in the early 1800s, he kept finding more and more information and then, like a downhill racer, the thrill of it all took over. I'm glad he invited us along for the ride.

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