The Joys of Middle-Aged Cycling

Of all the different age groups who took to cycling, I have most often found that it was those men and women at a more mature stage in life who would most vividly write about the joys their cycling excursions brought them. To again quote from the self-titled ‘middle aged’ women who wrote in The Guardian,

‘We have had many pleasures in the way of travelling, but we have never yet experienced such exhilarating enthusiasm or such complete recreation. What once was impossible has become possible, and distance is no longer the barrier to the refreshment of country life or contact with kindred spirits. The woman who is neither strong nor young can throw herself free for a time into all that invigorates and renews, and in the midst of a busy life, both of public and private duties, find that contact with nature and humanity which enriches and emancipates.’

Male and female cyclists at this stage in life would often acclaim how, if only for an afternoon, their cycling excursions allowed them to escape the pressures of work, responsibilities and duties. Reflecting on a day cycling in the Cotswolds, the essayist and author Arthur Benson, aged forty-one, described how,

‘It was a very pleasant feeling up in the wolds, to be out in the brisk air and warm sun, miles from everything, no one knowing where one was. I have had a very gentle and pleasant feeling of content all day. This is one of the happiest days I have had for a long time.’

It was not only cycle rides that allowed such feelings of escape and freedom. One of the main events in the social calendar of cycling clubs in this period were national ‘cycling camps’, in which different cycling clubs from all over the country would meet up for a week of camping in the English countryside. Whilst in theory these ‘camps’ were about healthy outdoor living and opportunities for racing and competition, in practice they often descended into rather hedonistic, all-night drinking affairs (more on them another time). Whilst you might expect this aspect of camp life to appeal mostly to the younger attendees, it would appear that older cyclists also made the most of the opportunities for revelry and merriment. One more senior member of the Stanley Club, describing their experiences of one of these camps, stated how,

‘Social distinction, rank of fortune, vanishes as you take your place at the shrine of Bohemianism; equal in one accord- the desire to knock as much enjoyment as you can into four days of grace. Can it be wondered then that men grown grey, be-bearded solemn pards, faced with the inevitable scourge of time, take to Harrogate as a duck to water, and for a brief spell throw aside the decorum and dignity incumbent with their station in life, to revel as they did in the heyday of their youth, when the blood ran freer and the pulse beat quicker? Such enthusiasts can fully endorse the poet’s couplet,

‘The age is on his temple hung,
His heart, his heart is very young’

Looking forward to revelry and merriment. Source:

That once on their bicycles older men would throw off many of the conventions they usually adhered to, and instead ‘revel’ as their younger selves had once done can be seen in an article in Cycling from 1893, which commented how,

‘Cycling seems to possess a potent and peculiar charm to the middle-aged, aye, and even the elderly man. It is not unusual to see swarthy, bearded men, the sober head of a business house, perhaps, and perchance the father of grown-up children, cutting capers that would put to shame the rollicking fledglings of some sixteen summers. It is no uncommon thing to see the man of forty, in company with a party of younger men, acting in a manner that seems positively childish, when considered, though, perhaps at the same time circumstances would hardly warrant you thinking so.’

‘We have noticed this levelling influence of the sport, and when you see bearded men- rulers among men, we may say- beyond the prime of life, vaulting five barred gates, turning somersaults, and otherwise sacrificing the dignity and discretion that is generally supposed to pertain to age for the frolicsomeness of youth, you cannot help believing that cycling does in reality give man a new lease of life.’

Further evidence of how, ‘swarthy and bearded men’ returned to more primitive states of existence when they took to their bicycles can be seen in an article written by a more senior member of the Bristol Bicycle and Tricycle Club. The writer described how cycling in South Devon allowed a cyclist to,

‘Forget your cosmopolitanism and every other ism, again a British boy and proud of it, remember Nelson and Wellington and the brave tars and soldiers, who prevented the Corsican usurper from ever planting his foot on old England’s shores. Presently you’ll find yourself humming or shouting as of yore- Two skinny Frenchmen, One Portuguese, One jolly Englishman, Can lick ‘em all three.’

Further on it was described how cycling around Plymouth and Torquay, where ‘old England’s watch dogs’ sailed out and ‘singed the King of Spain’s whiskers’ when the Spanish Armada threatened, meant you could,

‘In imagination become a boy once more, and again experience that exultation that fired you when you first read ‘Westward Ho’, and when you took two slabs of wood and a tintack and made a sword with which you slew scores of moustachioed Spaniards, and rescued fair damsels and countless treasures (not forgetting the treasures) from their clutches.’

Who knows, maybe Federico Garcia Lorca was inspired by similar thoughts when he wrote,

‘My heart of silk,
is filled with lights,
with lost bells,
with lilies and bees,
I will go very far,
farther than those hills,
farther than the seas,
close to the stars,
to beg Christ the Lord
to give back the soul I had
of old, when I was a child,
ripened with legends,
with a feathered cap
and a wooden sword.’