For people living amid rapid urbanisation and industrialisation, much of the allure of the bicycle was to be found in renewing a lost connection to nature. Wilhelm Wolf, the author of a 1890 cycling guide written for German-speaking cyclists, channelled pure Romanticism:
“How greatly does cycling ennoble one’s spirit, heart and frame of mind! When the cyclist roams freely on his steely steed in the godly world of Nature… his heart rises and be-wonders the splendour of Creation.”
It must have been an idyllic time to be cycling, not least because cyclists enjoyed country roads more or less to themselves. But the arrival of cars and motorcycles in the early years of the twentieth century soon put an end to that. Even if cyclists far outnumbered motorists – and they would continue to do so for years to come – all of a sudden the bicycle was no longer cutting edge. The motor car – large, fast, loud and leaving a cloud of dust wherever it went – was the new ‘king of the road’.
Pioneering cyclists and bicycle manufacturers switched seamlessly to motoring and the market for new bicycles collapsed. In 1906, members of the Cyclists Touring Club voted by a margin of five to one to admit car drivers to their club, a decision that was subsequently overturned by a High Court judge who ruled (with some prescience) that it wasn’t possible for a single organisation to promote the interests of both motorists and cyclists. By 1910 the CTC had lost two thirds of its members. As the wealthy recreational cyclists of the 1890s dropped cycling as a pastime, the bicycle began to take on a new, more mundane role as everyday transport.
Yet touring never entirely lost its appeal for the adventurous and the free spirited. While a student at Oxford in 1908, T.E. Lawrence (‘of Arabia’) toured France by bike to visit the remains of Crusader castles as part of a study in military history. Three years later, while resident in Algiers, Gustav Holst – who rode many miles on the roads of southern England – took his bicycle into the Sahara desert, gathering inspiration for Beni Mora, his oriental suite for orchestra.
As the baton of progress passed to the motor car, the bicycle, once the future of travel, had suddenly become part of its history, a stepping stone in the development of the automobile. Innovation in bicycle design came to a near standstill as the radical potential of human powered travel was abandoned in favour of the internal combustion engine.
One contemporary observer was disparaging of the attitude of the bicycle manufacturers of the early twentieth century: “They were interested in selling bicycles, but not a bit interested in cycling or cyclists.”
After the horrors of the first world war, the 1920s saw a new kind of cycle tourist exploring the countryside, not just in Britain but across Europe. People were winning new rights at work and the two-day weekend and a week’s paid holiday opened up new possibilities for travel and leisure among working people, many of whom were now using bicycles to get around. With the encouragement of neighbourhood and workplace social cycling clubs, it was only natural that some would be tempted to go for a spin in the countryside. In 1923 a Raleigh pamphlet asked: