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Tracing the History of the Bicycle and Its Impact on Society (November 2016): Bicycle Travel and Touring

By Duncan R. Jamieson

Bicycle Travel and Touring

Though competitive cycling is limited, the ability to use the bicycle to travel is open to all. Many cyclists took the time to write of their experiences, creating a new genre of travel literature. From trips of sixty miles from London to Canterbury to journeys of three thousand miles across the United States to treks of thirty thousand miles around the world, these pedaling travelers offer unique, personal perspectives on the many varieties of human society. Duncan R. Jamieson’s The Self-Propelled Voyager: How the Cycle Revolutionized Travel is a good beginning point to grasp the breadth and depth offered in these accounts. Karl Kron, bicycle columnist for the New York World, wrote Ten Thousand Miles on a Bicycle, which is an interesting primary source on the 1880s cycling world.

Both a primary and a secondary source is A Canterbury Pilgrimage/An Italian Pilgrimage, written by Elizabeth Robins Pennell and Joseph Pennell and edited by Dave Buchanan. American expatriates, they rode throughout England and the European continent during the 1880s and 1890s. Though they both wrote, she was the primary author while he illustrated the work with charming lithographs. On a tandem tricycle, they first followed the route of Geoffrey Chaucer’s Canterbury pilgrims, and then the route from Calais, France, to Rome of the eighteenth-century Irish novelist Laurence Sterne. The Pennells never traveled far from civilization, enjoying the pleasure of reasonable (for the time) roads and appropriate accommodations, though they applauded the accomplishments of the English-born American Thomas Stevens, the first person to take a bicycle across the United States and then around the world.

Starting in San Francisco in April 1884, Stevens completed his journey in Yokohama, Japan, in December 1886. He chronicled his journey in two volumes, Around the World on a Bicycle: From San Francisco to Teheran and Around the World on a Bicycle: From Teheran to Yokohama. Stevens was the first but far from the only person to complete the journey in the nineteenth century. John Foster Fraser, accompanied by two fellow Englishmen, outdid Stevens’s journey of some thirteen thousand miles fifteen years later. Written in a lighthearted style, Round the World on a Wheel describes Fraser's travel of nineteen thousand miles across seventeen countries on three continents. Beyond the adventure and excitement, both Stevens and Fraser offer today’s ethnographers a firsthand look, not only at the peoples they encountered but their own “white man’s burden” attitude. Stevens and Fraser repeatedly cited the problems they faced in alien lands. Hounded by hostile mobs, stoned multiple times as they scurried along, they often feared for their lives.

David Herlihy, in The Lost Cyclist, narrates the 1890s journey of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, cyclist Frank Lenz, who set out to become the second around-the-world solo rider and the first to complete the journey on a safety bicycle. He made it across the United States without incident and successfully crossed China, India, and Persia. Ninety miles from Constantinople and a return to “civilization,” he was murdered by Kurdish bandits in Asiatic Turkey. Herlihy masterfully chronicles Lenz’s journey and the investigation into his death. Despite comments that the murder curtailed around-the-world rides, those rides continue to be completed and written about. One hundred years after Lenz, David Duncan and his brother circumcycled the globe to raise funds for Project Hope. Pedaling the Ends of the Earth describes the reality that conditioning the mind to the journey is much more difficult, and important, than conditioning the body. Within a few days the body accepts the rigors of the road, but the rider needs more time to accept the mental challenge.

Today cyclists who ride across the United States often dip their rear wheel in the ocean on one coast and their front wheel in the other ocean, a tradition perhaps dating back to the second documented transcontinental ride. In 1886, George B. Thayer set out from Hartford, Connecticut, on his high wheel for San Francisco. He carried with him a vial of water from the Atlantic, which he ceremoniously poured into the Pacific upon his arrival. Kevin Hayes tells that story in The Two-Wheeled World of George B. Thayer. Beyond a biography of the man (and his equally important sister, the novelist Florine Thayer McCray), Hayes provides an interesting look at American society between the Civil War and the First World War. Earlier, Hayes wrote An American Cycling Odyssey about the experiences of George Nellis, who left his home in Herkimer, New York, to beat Thomas Stevens’s time crossing the continent.

Jim Fitzpatrick discusses the military use of the bicycle in The Bicycle in Wartime. First used in the Boer War, bicycles continue to be used today in Afghanistan. This illustrated history examines how different forces have modified the bicycle to transport men, material, and messages.

The American love affair with two-wheeled adventure dropped off dramatically with the beginning of the twentieth century, but it never ended. Men and women continued riding and writing, though not in the earlier numbers until the resurgence of interest with the maturing of the baby boom generation in the 1960s. While the Pennells have published more books and articles about bicycling and their journeys than anyone else, if one counts only monographs Bernard Newman is the most prolific bicycle writer. An English civil servant born into an equestrian family, Newman continually fell off the horse, leading his father to give in and buy him a bicycle. In 1934, Newman’s first bicycle travel book, In the Trail of the Three Musketeers, combines his love for Dumas’s classic with his love of riding. In 1955, his last bicycle travel book, Still Flows the Danube, reprises a journey undertaken twenty years earlier. His publisher wanted him to revisit countries he had traveled through before the fall of the Iron Curtain. In his first foray to the region, The Blue Danube: Black Forest to Black Sea, Newman introduced his readers to his bicycle, George. To the solo bicycle traveler, the wheel becomes a constant companion with an identity and a unique personality, just like another human being. Actually, George was a series of bicycles Newman rode. He tended to limit his daily distance to forty to fifty miles, which he easily completed during a morning’s pedal. This allowed him time to spend half the day and the evening in the company of locals, getting to know their culture. On two separate occasions, Newman met Adolph Hitler, whom he feared would ultimately draw Great Britain into war. Without avail, he repeatedly urged the British government to pay more attention to the situation on the continent.

The best bicycle travel books explore not only the people who inhabit the environment through which the rider passes; they also discuss the thoughts and feelings the rider experiences. David Lamb’s Over the Hill recounts lightheartedly his attempt to deal with the stress of aging in modern American society. He tested himself through risk taking to determine how he would respond to the challenge. In The Masked Rider: Cycling in West Africa, Neil Peart, lyricist and drummer for Rush, took a month cycling through Cameroon while he reflected on the people and places he visited and his own personal philosophy of life. In the mid-1980s, college dropout Daryl Farmer left home with his bicycle to explore the Rocky Mountains and his own future; twenty years later, overweight and with high blood pressure, he reprised the earlier journey, reliving his youth and hoping to make sense of his life. Bicycling beyond the Divide is a fascinating, introspective ride. In Life Is a Wheel, fifty-seven-year-old Bruce Weber recounts his leave of absence from writing obituaries for the New York Times to reflect on the challenges and rewards of self-reliance and strenuous physical activity as he pedaled from Portland, Oregon, to New York City.

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