Cycling through the centuries

June 1, 2015

English prof sees parallels between bike culture in the 19th and 21st centuries

Whether it’s a blossom-filled spring day or a blustery winter morning, you’ll find Dave Buchanan making his commute to MacEwan University on two wheels. The English assistant professor says cycling has always been part of his personal life, but about eight years ago, it suddenly occurred to him that it might have a place in his academic life as well.

“I’ve long been interested in travel literature and teach courses on the subject, so I started wondering about travel lit involving bicycles. When I started looking around, I discovered an enormous body of cycling-related travel literature.”

Digging into the roots of cycling culture

Dave began reading within this niche of travel lit that goes back to the 1880s, when bicycles were evolving from high-wheel racing machines for athletic young men to practical modes of transportation for everyone. Carbon fibre engineering and high-tech clothing aside, Dave says today’s cyclists are more connected to their Victorian era roots than you might think.

“In the 1890s there was this realization on a mass scale that bikes were a pretty great way to get around—they’re inexpensive, offer great exercise and give people a chance to be out in nature. Europe never really lost this, but in North America where the car took over, bicycles were relegated to a niche. Today, I think we’re starting to see this switch back again. In a way, it feels like we’re at a similar historic moment.”

Case in point: bike bloggers. Just like their 19th-century counterparts, today’s cyclists love to write and read about personal cycling experiences and interests. Whether you look at pieces from last week or more than a century ago, you’ll find people writing about gear, routes, apparel, and the most suitable food and drink for long rides. (For the record, many Victorians thought it was medically unsound to swallow water during vigorous exercise. Rinse and spit only.)

“There was an enormous amount of writing in periodicals and magazines about cycling in the 1880s and 90s,” says Dave, who, as he made his way through magazine articles, novels and poetry, discovered the Pennells, a married couple from Philadelphia who moved to London in 1884.

“They were a perfect team—Elizabeth was a great writer and Joseph was a terrific illustrator—and they were both heavily involved in cycling culture, which at that time was also a very literary culture. Their first book was published in 1885, documenting a two-and-a-half day trip they took on tricycle from London to Canterbury in the footsteps of Chaucer’s pilgrims.”

IMAGE_STORY_Pennell_coverThat first book was a big hit, so the couple went on to write a total of five cycle-travel books, including A Canterbury Pilgrimage and Italian Pilgrimage, which appear in a new critical edition Dave has put together and which will be published by the University of Alberta Press this fall.

Sharing the road

But Dave says that even in the Pennells’ time, things weren’t always rosy between cyclists and people who chose different modes of transportation. “They didn’t have to deal with cars, but there is a great image of the Pennells stuck in an alleyway while trying to head out on their trip because a carriage driver was parked sideways,” says Dave. “And there are lots of great editorial cartoons from the 1890s about problems involving cyclists running over pedestrians, and not paying attention to horses and carriages. The sense of conflict on the roads was definitely there.”

More than a century later, we’re still working on ways to for cyclists, pedestrians and motorists to share the roads and paths—including on our own campus.

“The university’s Facilities department is in the process of mapping cycling paths and their connections to the city’s bicycle network plan, and looking at how feasible it would be to designate some campus sidewalks and internal roadways as shared-use paths,” says university president David Atkinson. “Promoting alternate forms of transportation fits with the university’s commitment to sustainability, and we want to find ways to encourage cycling while ensuring the safety of everyone on our campus.”

“These conversations about cyclists and pedestrians sharing spaces go way back, even before the Pennells began writing about cycling culture,” Dave explains. “We could probably learn a few things about sharing today’s roads by looking back to how the Victorians managed it.”

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