Alan Titchmarsh and Victorian Cyclists

It must be said that I did not anticipate writing a blog about Alan Titchmarsh and Victorian cyclists. For those unaware of his work Alan is famous for being the UKs foremost gardening journalist and personality, and is certainly not renowned for pedalling old fashioned bicycles. However, after reading a recent article of his about cycling it was very hard to resist an attempted comparison with a couple of articles from the 1890s. (A link to the Titchmarsh’s article is here:

Alan used his article to proclaim his backing for ‘gentle’ cyclists, who compared to muscled men in Lycra, go cycling to admire nature and gardens whilst enjoying the scenery. He states that,

‘I know that hardy types ride their bikes at all times of year, but unlike fair weather gardeners, we fair weather cyclists are not to be disparaged on account of our apparent lack of grit. For we are the gentle ones. To us, cycling is a calm pursuit. We may pant a bit on uphill stretches and we may even dismount and push our charges while other cyclists (the ones in national costume) power past us wearing sunglasses on the dreariest of days. But we enjoy our sedate pedalling and try not to frighten the wildlife.’

‘We whistle softy to ourselves while admiring the gardens we can see over the tops of hedges. We may have a wicker basket on the front, or panniers on the back. We tinkle our bell to warn pedestrians of our approach and we are ever ready with a cheery ‘Good morning’! This is quite unlike our bulging-limbs counterparts who seem to have muscles in places where we don’t even have places and whose eyes are riveted on the tarmac.’

‘I love cycling, but sedately. Give me what they used to call a, ‘sit-up-and-beg’ machine in shiny black with proper chrome handlebars and metal brake leavers. Give me a wicker basket on the front, proper metal mudguards and one of those bells that goes, ‘ding-dong-ding-dong’ and I will show you a happy man.’

The ‘Mamils’ (middle-aged men in Lycra) who Titchmarsh complains about certainly did not exist in the 1890s. However, in this period a similarly new breed of cyclists appeared, who in more traditional circles were the cause of just as much comment and complaint.

Cyclists who had always used penny farthings or ‘ordinary’ bicycles suddenly encountered a new generation, mounted on ‘safety’ bicycles with pneumatic tyres who were capable of travelling much faster than themselves. This, combined with the greater safety and comfort of ‘safety’ bicycles meant that as the 1890s progressed ‘ordinaries’ and their riders increasingly became a thing of the past.

It would seem that those who clung onto penny farthings did not welcome this changing of the guard. The piece below, which appeared in Cycling in 1893, bemoaned the fact that,

‘Coasting is a practice which seems to have died out in the most inexplicable manner. In the old days, when the high bicycles ruled supreme, a cycler was considered to be a sorry exponent of wheeling if he could not coast in good style. Every slope, not absolutely dangerous, was always navigated ‘legs up’, with hand on brake ready for emergency; an productive of gloriously exciting and delightful sensations were these swift passages of flight, as, perched high above the hedgerows on his wheel, the rider whizzed on his way.’

‘The old order changeth. Whoever thinks of ‘coasting’ nowadays? It is considered old fashioned, an almost forgotten luxury of bygone times, now only to be indulged in by elderly tourists, and faddists lost to all sense of deportment. Advise the youth of today who contemplates the purchase of a machine, to have footrests and a break. He will regard your suggestion with scorn, and will later on be seen humping his back and labouring intensively in his efforts to back pedal down a steepish slope; whereas by carrying a few ounces of extra weight in the shape of footrests and brake, he might have flown swiftly and safely down the hill, resting his legs the while, besides enjoying that delightful sense of exhilaration we have endeavoured to describe.’

Of course the writer may have exaggerated the benefits of ‘coasting’ on penny farthings. Another writer, reflecting on their experiences of penny farthings in 1892, recalled how

‘You would be speeding head, shoulders and body above the hedgerows, when suddenly you would feel magnetised, and with arms outstretched, a tickling sensation in your throat, and a mighty rushing of wind by your ears, you would swoop through the air, arriving on earth with a ‘Ugh!’ and proceeding on your journey for a yard or so like a grovelling reptile.’

However, if Alan’s main needs for a bicycle are for it to be clearly visible to acquaintances whilst allowing him to peep over hedges and admire gardens, perhaps the way forward is not sit-up-and-beg models, but rather the approach taken by the gentleman below,