Martin Ellis presents a social and cultural history of the bicycle.
The 19th century velocipedes were heavy, slow and expensive before an English engineer James Starley developed the high bicycle or penny farthing which overcame the difficulties of gearing and weight. Although these ‘high bicycles’ were dangerous and unstable they were eagerly taken up by fashionable young men who formed cycle clubs and took to the open road with gusto.
In the 1880’s the safety bike arrived, it was very similar to the bikes of today, with a chain drive and smaller wheels anyone who could afford it could easily ride. The women who defied the dress codes of the day to ride in culottes or bloomers contributed to the emerging movement for women’s suffrage and liberation.
Artists, musicians and writers found inspiration on two wheels and the socialist Clarion Cycle Club cycled to spread their message. Then, in World War One, cycle battalions went to France with bikes adapted to carry kit and rifles to the front. Between the wars mass production delivered bikes cheap enough for everyone and fuelled by the outdoor and fitness movements cycling entered into a golden age, the working classes now had the freedom of the open road.
After the war people once again took the road in freedom on the only transport available in the years of frugality. The 1960’s brought prosperity, mass car ownership and a fascination with modernity and speed that didn’t include cycling and bikes were left unused and rusting in garden sheds. Then a group of young people in California developed the mountain bike and again cycling became fashionable. A fashion for fitness was back on the agenda and there were the added incentives to reduce pollution and congestion in cities and seek more environmentally friendly ways of getting about. Today the bicycle is once again in the ascendency.
Part 1 – From the beginning the bicycle has been far more than just a means of transport.
Part 2 – Hobby Horses, velocipedes and penny farthings, the early evolution of the bicycle brought about by Victorian ingenuity and the developing engineering industry.
Part 3 – Pneumatic tyres and the development of the safety bicycle allow the wealthier middle classes to take to the road in the bicycling craze of the late 19th century.
Part 4 – Cycling, suffragettes and socialism, the new political pioneers of the open road as freedom of movement brings political freedom and the ability to campaign for your cause.
Part 5 – Elgar, Vaughan Williams and Percy Grainger all drew inspiration in the saddle along Conan Doyle whose detective Sherlock Holmes could identify a suspect by his tyre tread.
Part 6 – The bicycle is pressed into service in then Boer War and again in 1914 when thousands sign up to join Cyclist battalions who rode them to the front with full kit and rifles.
Part 7 – The fitness and outdoor movements of the 1930’s coupled with the advent of cheaper mass produced bicycles brought the freedom of the open road to the working classes.
Part 8 – With petrol rationing during WW2 the bicycle came into its own again to be followed by a golden age of cycling in the 1950’s as the nation emerges from the darkness of war.
Part 9 – Increasing prosperity and car ownership displaced the bicycle in the 1960’s and foreign holidays replaced cycling, campsites and youth hostels. Bicycles belong to the past.
Part 10 – The mountain bike arrives from California and coincides with a new fashion for fitness and concerns for the environment. Bikes are back in fashion for work and pleasure.
Presenter: Martin Ellis
Producer: Simon Evans, A Pier Production for BBC Radio 4.