Part of the appeal of cycling has always been the opportunities it gives for travelling further afield and exploring foreign countries. In the 1890s, thousands of ‘Britishers’ descended upon Europe on their bicycles. A bicycle tour represented a cheap and affordable holiday, which allowed individuals to travel where and when they pleased. It also represented an opportunity for British tourists to experience foreign ways of life, enlarge their minds and engage with people from different cultures.
Or so the theory went. The reality was somewhat different.
‘If ever such a calamity should occur as a war between Britain and France’, stated Cycling, Britain’s most read cycling magazine, in 1898, ’tis the English tourist who should pay the bill’. Over the course of this decade, Cycling regularly featured articles which described the behaviours English cyclists abroad. It is fair to say their descriptions were not positive.
Most criticism started from the ‘air of effected superiority’ frequently demonstrated by English touring cyclists. This manifested itself in multiple ways. The first, and perhaps most obvious, was the manner in which British cyclists communicated with locals. In an age before most of the western world spoke English, British cyclists often had to use their rudimentary knowledge of local dialects to get by. An article from 1891 described the following conversation between a ‘dust-begrimed Briton’ and the barman of a Norman inn:
Cyclist: ‘Oh, well, er-er-moosoo, avvy voo-er-bitter, arf o’ bitter. Comprenny?
Barkeep: ‘Parlez-vous Francais?’
Cyclist: ‘Eh, oh yes, er- I mean oui- ere that is après une mode’.
The author explained that, ‘he had a sort of remembrance that mode was the French for fashion, as this was his rendering of ‘after a fashion’. However, the phrase book soon set him right.’
In another article the writer described how his touring friend ‘Tomkins’ attempted to order drinks and meals in French, but, ‘whatever he asked for the natives invariably brought us something else’. Tomkins attributed this misunderstanding not to his lack of French but rather the ‘boorish stupidity’ of the waiters.
It was not only when ‘communicating’ in French that British cyclists failed to get on with their hosts. A letter into Cycling from 1893 stated that,
‘It makes one quite ashamed of one’s countrymen, when one sees a group of English cyclists enter a quiet town in France, shouting ‘Rule Britannia’ and other patriotic songs, which we all love to hear sung on fitting occasion, but which there is no need to din into the ears of peaceful foreigners’.
British cyclists do seem to have had a peculiar talent for dinning the ears of those they encountered. Tomkins friend goes onto describe when staying at an inn one evening, himself, Tomkins and another friend named Joe filled the adjacent streets, ‘with the maddening melody of ‘Ta-ra-ra-boom-de-ay’. The author remarks that, ‘but for the timely arrival of supper, we would probably be ‘Ta-ra-ra-boom-de-aying’ in Colney Hatch (a Victorian mental asylum) at this moment’.
It was perhaps the actions of British cycling tourists which meant that when one boat arrived into France in 1900, the writer described how the tourists were greeted by,
‘The larrikins (roughly translated as ‘louts’) of Boulogne, who, bare-headed and bare-footed, lined the slimy steps of the breakwater and chanted, like some weird incantation, the chorus of the once popular song, ‘Ta-ra-ra-boom-de-aye! No doubt they thought this would be pleasing to us as evidence for their knowledge of at least a bit of the English language.’
Maybe then we can class Victorian cyclists abroad as early agents of that irresistibly modern force- globalisation.