One February morning three men set out from Trafalgar Square, on bicycles, bound for Brighton. They rode over Westminster Bridge and through the suburbs of south London. Thirty miles into the journey two of the trio gave up and returned to London by train. The remaining rider, sporting a moustache, long wavy hair and wearing a peaked cap, a thick frock coat and leather boots, rode on alone. He arrived at the coast some twelve hours after setting out, in good time to enjoy a meal in a restaurant and catch the second half of a show at the theatre.

The year was 1869 and John Mayall’s Brighton run was not only the first London to Brighton bike ride, it was the longest journey in the very short history of the bicycle. The feat was reported in The Times and the world took note of yet another landmark in the new era of human powered travel. Mayall had shown that bicycles were more than mere playthings, a passing fad, good for circus tricks and short races. Though heavy, noisy

and roughly made from iron and wood, here was a machine with the potential to revolutionise the art of travel.

It’s a revelation that most of us experience for ourselves the first time we ride a bike somewhere that feels a long way away, somewhere we have previously only travelled to by train or by car. For some, it’s that same London to Brighton run, on one of the massed charity rides that attract tens of thousands of participants. For me, it was a ride when I was thirteen, from London to Cambridge, on my pride and joy at the time, a sleek new Peugeot ten-speed ‘racer’ in pale blue.

A month after Mayall’s Brighton run, two members of the Liverpool Velocipede Club rode the two hundred miles to London in a shade over three days. The sight of two men astride newfangled machines with whirling wheels caused a commotion among passers-by along the route. Near Wolverhampton, children pelted the pair with stones.

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"The most celebrated adventure cyclist of the high-wheel era was Thomas Stevens, the first man to ride a bike around the world"

The early, primitive velocipedes quickly evolved into sleek, refined ‘high wheelers’ (later known as ‘penny-farthings’). A bigger front wheel gave a bigger gear, more speed and a higher riding position. In 1873 one man toured most of Britain and remarked on having spent ‘some of the happiest hours of my life on a bicycle’. In 1875 another rode the seven hundred miles from Paris to Vienna and despite the terrible roads he arrived ‘as fresh as a daisy’, and three days faster than the record time for the same journey on horseback. Before long there appeared a whole new constellation of cycling clubs and cycle tours to increasingly exotic destinations. In September 1879 a group of cycle tourists from the London Bicycle Club rode across France to the Pyrenees. More than thirty years before the riders of the Tour de France first ventured into the mountains these London cycle tourists tackled the celebrated ascents of the Aubisque, Tourmalet, Aspin and Peyresourde. In 1880, a pair of cyclists rode from Lands End to John O’Groats, the famous End-to-End route, covering the 896 miles in thirteen days and establishing Britain’s classic long-distance touring challenge.

Most cyclists were happy with sociable weekend trips and the occasional longer tour during the summer but for some the lure of bigger adventures was irresistible. The American Karl Kron financed a five year, ten-thousand mile bicycle journey around the United States with the nineteenth century version of a Kickstarter campaign: pre-selling copies of the book he would write about his adventures. The most celebrated adventure cyclist of the high-wheel era was Thomas Stevens, the first man to ride a bike around the world. Born in Berkhamsted, just outside London, Stevens emigrated as a teenager with his family to the United States, where he learned to ride. In 1884 he set off from San Francisco, crossing America and continuing by ship across the Atlantic, riding through Britain, across continental Europe and – travelling by sea where unavoidable – through the Middle East, India, south-eastern China and Japan. He often found himself pushing his high-wheeler across rough terrain totally unsuited to such a tall, precarious machine. Danger was the major downside of the high wheeler.

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"The Rover Safety was...easier and less perilous, it was better suited to climbing hills and - critically for touring cyclists - the design offered more room for carrying luggage."

The era was one of feverish technological innovation and experimentation, with novel and freakish designs of bicycles, tricycles and even quadricycles hitting the market all the time. Most were evolutionary dead ends but while Thomas Stevens was off riding his high wheeler around the world, a British inventor unveiled a revolutionary new design. Instead of pedals connected to the front wheel, John Kemp Starley’s machine had pedals connected by a chain to the rear wheel. This allowed a big gear without the need for a big wheel. Improved safety compared to the high wheeler was a major selling point and in Starley’s Rover Safety we can discern the essential form of the modern bicycle. Some maintained that the high wheeler was the more noble machine, but there is no doubt that the Rover Safety was an improvement over its predecessor in every way. Learning to ride was easier and less perilous, it was better suited to climbing hills and – critically for touring cyclists – the design offered more room for carrying luggage.

If bicycles were one aspect of late nineteenth century high technology, another was photography. In the hands of touring cyclists the two technologies came together. For cyclists, photographs were a way of bringing their travels home with them while early photographers used bicycles

(and especially tricycles) to carry bulky photographic equipment out into the landscape.

One early cycling photographer was a young American accounts clerk named Frank Lenz. He lived in Pittsburg and spent his spare time exploring the mountains of south-west Pennsylvania, venturing as far as New Orleans and Chicago. Experimenting with photographic equipment Lenz invented a remote trigger to take pictures of himself while riding, a very early form of today’s ubiquitous smartphone ‘selfie’. Lenz’s pioneering use of photography convinced Outing Magazine to finance his round-the-world journey on one of the new safety bicycles, to be serialised in the magazine. Having crossed the US, Japan, China, India and Persia, Lenz set out across eastern Turkey but was never heard from again. Outing Magazine sent William Sachtleben, one of Lenz’s cycling friends, who had not long ago returned from his own round-the-world journey to investigate his disappearance. The mystery was never solved and Lenz was presumed dead. Photographs of the young adventurers, some of which have only recently been unearthed by historian David Herlihy, are an enchanting glimpse into the earliest years of adventure cycling:

 

Photographs of Frank Lenz courtesy of John Herron and courtesy of John Lenz. Photographs of William Sachtleben and Thomas Allen courtesy of UCLA Library Special Collections. With thanks to David Herlihy, whose book The Lost Cyclist tells the story of Frank Lenz’s doomed round the world tour and the quest to discover his fate.

 

On the road photographs owed everything to advances in the miniaturisation of photographic equipment, in particular the new Kodak cameras which used rolls of film instead of glass plates. By 1891, the authors of a popular book about cycling had cause to note “the strange but undeniable fact that every third cyclist is a photographer”. In 1897 Kodak published a special catalogue of compact, lightweight cameras specifically for cyclists with special brackets for mounting them to the bike. That year a new magazine, “Cycle and Camera” was launched, recognising the new breed of ‘cycle-photographers’.

With the exception of adventurers who managed to attract a commercial sponsor, it was only the relatively wealthy who could afford to buy a bicycle and had the leisure time to use it.

But for those who did, cycling presented an entirely new, more independent and more adventurous way to travel compared to the well-worn tourist trails of the time. Joseph Pennell and Elizabeth Robbins Pennell were a cultured American couple who had emigrated to Britain and succeeded in turning cycle touring from a hobby into a living, writing and illustrating articles and best-selling books about their travels. As newlyweds they spent their honeymoon following the route of Chaucer’s pilgrims from London to Canterbury. They went on to cover the length and breadth of England and ventured onto the continent to tour France, Italy, and central and eastern Europe. Years later, they reflected on their lifelong passion for cycle touring:

“To us of yesterday, the joy was and still is, in discovery of the unknown road and the untried inn. For the motorist of today, all is charted, certified, and known, and even if he camps out, he camps out in a crowd!”

 

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Cycle touring was a popular pastime among leading lights in Britain’s intellectual elite. Arthur Conan Doyle, George Bernard Shaw, Bertrand Russell, Beatrice and Sidney Webb, Thomas Hardy and Edward Elgar all enjoyed exploring the English countryside by bike. HG Wells criss-crossed Kent and Sussex by bicycle and his tours provided the material for a novel, The Wheels of Chance, about a young draper’s assistant who finds freedom and romance on a summer cycle tour. Among the themes of the novel are the rigid class and gender divides of Edwardian England and Wells suggests that cycling, originally a rich man’s pastime, would be even more appealing to the lower middle classes who worked hard for their living:

Only those who toil six long days out of the seven, and all the year round, save for one brief glorious fortnight or ten days in the summer time, know the exquisite sensations of the First Holiday Morning. All the dreary, uninteresting routine drops from you suddenly, your chains fall about your feet. . . . There were thrushes on the Richmond Road, and a lark on Putney Heath. The freshness of dew was in the air; dew or the relics of an overnight shower glittered on the leaves and grass. . . .

He wheeled his machine up Putney Hill, and his heart sang within him.

In the four years to 1899 membership of the Cyclists’ Touring Club (CTC) rose from 16,000 to 60,000 and publishers cashed in with a flood of new road books, maps, itineraries, guides and travelogues. Bicycling was booming across the Channel too. Wells’ contemporary Émile Zola was also an enthusiastic cyclist and in his novel ‘Paris’ his characters relish the thrill of exploring the countryside around the capital:

The two let their machines carry them down the hill. And then this happy rush of speed overtook them, the dizzying sense of balance in the lightning-like, breathtaking descent on wheels, while the grey path flew beneath their feet and the trees whisked past at either side like the slat of a fan as it unfolds… That is the endless hope, the liberation from the all to oppressive fetters, across space. And no exultation is better, hearts leap under the open sky.

Zola saw cycling as a way of escaping the very constraints of time and space, an expression of the freedom of the spirit:

"The bicycle is subservient to no time schedule; it is free. It does not follow the beaten path, rather roves along a thousand freely chosen paths...it does justice to the endless variety of human desires and endeavours"

 

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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:

“Is your life spent among whirring machinery, in adding up columns of figures, in attending to the wants of often fractious customers? Don’t you sometimes long to get away from it all? Away from the streets of serried houses, only a few miles away is a different land, where the white road runs between the bluebell-covered banks crowned by hedges from which the pink and white wild rose peeps a shy welcome. Sheltering amongst the trees you see the spire of the village church-beyond it that quaint old thatched cottage where the good wife serves fresh eggs and ham fried ‘to a turn’ on a table of rural spotlessness, for everything is so clean in the country. Rosy health and a clear brain is what Raleigh gives you.”

 

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Cycle touring fitted in alongside rambling, camping, swimming and gymnastics as the mainstays of the ‘outdoor movement’ of the late twenties and thirties. Based on a German idea, the Youth Hostel Association offered cheap and basic accommodation in the countryside and was an instant hit with touring cyclists. Even though trips into the countryside using motor coaches or ‘charabancs’ were immensely popular, many preferred the freedom of the bicycle, and manufacturers soon sensed a new market for higher quality machines designed specifically for touring. At the same time, a new wave of small, independent frame-builders began

making high performance ‘lightweight’ racing machines for racing clubs. Central to these changes were new materials originally developed for aircraft, such as Reynolds’s famous “531” tubing first introduced to cycle manufacturing in 1935.

It is lucky for us that the cyclists of the 1930s were just as enthusiastic photographers as their forebears back in the 1890s. These photos taken by Ralph Jeggo of the Shropshire branch of the Cyclists’ Touring Club are an evocative expression of the pleasures of cycle touring in those days:

 

Photographs of the Shropshire District Association of the Cyclists’ Touring Club by Ralph Jeggo, courtesy of Chris Jeggo.

Looking at these photographs, many of them taken in the Welsh borders where I now live, some on the same roads where I ride, the scenes seem both near and distant. The bicycles look like modern touring machines, give or take a few gears and the latest mod cons like GPS devices and LED lights. But in other ways, there is much in common with John Mayall’s first London-Brighton run. I envy the emptiness of the main roads and the character of the countryside and its local distinctiveness before the advent of mass motoring, clone towns, motorways, sprawl and industrial agriculture. If there is a perfect half-way point, a happiest of mediums between the pioneering days of cycle touring and what we have today it can be seen in these photographs. They are in black and white but this was, to my mind, a golden era.

And like all golden eras, it would not last...

 
 
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