Learning to Cycle in the 1890s

As I am sure will be the case with most people reading this, learning how to ride a bicycle is one of my first and indeed, one of my happiest memories. After much trouble and difficulty, remaining upright and moving forward without stabilizers, brought about feelings of success and, perhaps more than anything, excitement.

An exception to this rule

By contrast, for the majority of those living through the 1890s who had up until this period never before cycled, mastering a bicycle was an event which occurred at a much later stage in life. However, in the absence of any acquired experiences that could prepare you for maintaining your balance whilst pedaling forward on two wheels, this did nothing to make the whole experience any easier. In her book, A Wheel within a wheel. How I learned to ride a bicycle, with some reflections by the way (available for online reading here: https://archive.org/details/wheelwithinwheel00williala), Frances Willard, aged fifty-three, described the process by which she learnt to ride a bicycle she named ‘Gladys’ as involving,

‘First, three young Englishman, all strong-armed and accomplished bicyclers, held the machine in place while I climbed into the saddle. Second, two well-disposed young women put all the power they had, until they grew red in the face, off-setting each other’s pressure and thus maintaining the equipoise to which I was unequal. Third, one walked beside me steadying the ark as best she could by holding the centre of the deadly cross-bar, to let go whose handlebars meant chaos and collapse. After this I was able to hold my own if I had the moral support of my kind trainers, and it passed into proverb among them, the short emphatic word of command I gave them at every few turns of the wheel: ‘Let go but stand by.’

H.G. Wells also captured the difficulties you would encounter when taking your bicycle out for it’s first public spin in his 1896 novel The Wheels of Chance (available online here: http://www.gutenberg.org/files/1264/1264-h/1264-h.htm).

Cover to the Wheels of Chance. Source: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Wheels_of_Chance

The subject of the book was a ten day cycling tour taken by ‘Mr Hoopdriver’, a man in his early twenties who was based on Wells’ own experiences of working as a drapers assistant. Wells described how on the first day of his cycling holiday that there was,

‘Only one phrase to describe his course at this stage, and that is- voluptuous curves. He did not ride fast, he did not ride straight, an exacting critic might say he did not ride well- but he rode generously, opulently, using the whole road and even nibbling at the footpath. The excitement never flagged. So far he had never been passed by anything, but as of yet the day was young and the road was clear. He doubted his steering so much that, for the present, he had resolved to dismount at the approach of anything else upon wheels.’

After seeing a carter making his way towards him, Hoopdriver was able to put this approach into practice and ‘according to his previous determination, resolved to dismount’. However, this did not altogether go as planned, as,

‘He tightened the brake, and the machine stopped dead. He was trying to think what he did with his right leg whilst getting off. He gripped the handles and released the brake, standing on the brake and waving his right foot in the air. Then- these things take so long in the telling- he found the machine was falling over to the right. Whilst he was deciding upon a plan of action, gravitation appears to have been busy. He was still irresolute when he found the machine on the ground, himself kneeling upon it, and a vague feeling in his mind that Providence had dealt harshly with his shin.’


Wells and his wife awheel. Source: http://www.roadswerenotbuiltforcars.com/bitsandbins/

It would appear that such an experience was commonplace for those who learned to cycle in the 1890s, with Willard also describing how,

‘One bright morning I bowed on down Priory drive waving my hand to my most adventurous aide-de-camp, and calling out as I left behind, ‘Now you will see how nicely I can do it- watch!’ when behold! that timid left foot turned traitor, and I came down solidly on my knee, and the knee on a pebble as relentless as prejudice and as opinionated as ignorance.’

Indeed, both the writings of Wells and Willard highlight that the process of learning to ride a bike as an adult in this period, was not an altogether different one to the one which we all experienced way back when. Following these initial difficulties and injuries, came slow feelings of mastery. As Wells somewhat imaginatively put it,

‘To ride the bicycle properly is very much like a love affair- chiefly it is a matter of faith. Believe you do it, and the thing is done: doubt, and, for the life of you, you cannot.’

Drawing by Wells showing an old classmate how to dismount from a bicycle. Source: http://www.roadswerenotbuiltforcars.com/bitsandbins/

And then, of course, came the excitement of confidently pedaling a machine which opened up previously unheralded opportunities and possibilities. Soon after the quote above Wells stated how upon reaching the top of a hill Hoopdriver,

‘Put his feet upon the footrests, and now riding moderately straight, went, with a palpitating brake, down that excellent descent. A new delight was in his eyes, quite over and above the pleasure of rushing through the keen, sweet, morning air. He reached out his thumb and twanged his bell out of sheer happiness.’

Or in the words of Willard,

‘In less than a day as the almanac reckons time- but practically in two days of actual practice- amid the delightful surroundings of the great outdoors, and inspired by the bird-songs, the colour and fragrance 0f an English posy-garden, in the company of devoted and pleasant comrades, I had made myself master of the most remarkable, ingenious and inspiring motor ever yet devised upon this planet.

Moral: Go thou and do likewise!’






One thought on “Learning to Cycle in the 1890s

  1. Pingback: Cycling Schools- Part One | The Victorian Cyclist

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