In this long read from the Mondial archives, author Jon Day looks at how the bicycle has helped us find the answer to social, cultural and political questions for more than a century.

Rapha Mondial: A Revolutionary Vehicle

In this long read from the Mondial archives, author Jon Day looks at how the bicycle has helped us find the answer to social, cultural and political questions for more than a century.

08 June 2018

In 1924 the Guardian journalist C. E. Montague set out on an overnight bicycle ride from Manchester, then the home of the newspaper, to Charing Cross in London. He left at midnight, on the summer solstice, from outside the Manchester Royal Exchange. “By 1.40 A.M”, he wrote in Along an English Road, his meandering, essayistic account of the ride, “the miles had begun to draw out between my forsaken pyjamas and me.” Eighteen hours and 200 or so miles later, he arrived in London.

His ride took him along the backbone of England: through the Peak District, across the Midlands, over the Chilterns and down into the Thames basin. He rode alone, and his description of the journey is a lyrical, meditative one: a nocturnal blur of place names soundtracked by the pumping of pedals and the gentle thrum of rubber on tarmac.

Most people these days seem to go on long bicycle rides to find out if they can, or to raise money for charity, or to get to know the limits of their own bodies, but Montague’s journey was, as he saw it, more important than that. For Montague the ride was an act of almost mystical geographic reclamation. It was emphatically not a feat of endurance (“a ride from Manchester to London within twenty-four hours has no sort of rank as a physical feat,” he wrote, “any long-distance cyclist who counts would jeer at an average pace of ten miles an hour”) but a way of connecting himself with a landscape he had known until then only as an abstraction, as a series of anonymous points on the map.

Above all Montague’s essay was a love letter to the road. In it he wrote of the expressiveness of roads, of the way their layers can be can be read as a kind of palimpsest. “There is no end to the expressiveness of ancient roads,” he wrote. ‘They are dinted with history; they echo with it.” To ride the road network of England was to read its history, Montague felt: old Roman roads running alongside meandering medieval ones, which once served individual villages, and which again are paralleled by the great coaching roads that were constructed in the 18th and 19th centuries. “In the straightness of the straightest road of the three is written the nature of Roman rule in Great Britain”, Montague observed, “and in the modern straightening of the least straight road is recorded the English settlement of Ireland, and perhaps the Act of Union.”

In its forensic attention to place and the texture of the land his ride was a product of its time. It was borne of an anxiety over the retreating English landscape, a landscape that was increasingly being colonised by cars and trains and the mass infrastructure of modernity. The bike was the perfect vehicle with which to conduct a personal survey of a vanishing territory – faster than walking, more intimate than driving. “By car the thing would be easy”, he wrote, “but then travel by car is only semi-travel, verging on the demi-semi-travel that you get in trains.” On his bicycle Montague would be able to “make friends with some great trunk road” and spend some time with it; would be able to feel the warp and weft of the land he travelled over, his arms and legs acting as seismographs or divining rods as he rolled along the tarmac.

There was a political element to his journey also. For Montague the bike represented a social and public good; a way of bringing about what he called rather grandly “the rebirth of lost perceptions”. By riding you would be able to “scrap your old and feeble semi-comprehension of the natural things around you”, he argued, “and gain a happy new sense of the piquancy of their being just what they are – this is real regeneration, a rare and mighty operation of the spirit.”

The chain-driven safety-bicycle was invented less than 50 years before Montague set off on his journey, but it was quickly seized upon as a symbol of ideological as well as physical freedom. The bicycle broke down social boundaries as never before – encouraging women to campaign for ‘rational dress’, and allowing people of all classes to share the democratic space of the road together. As bicycles became cheaper cycling clubs proliferated, particularly in the northern towns of England, where they were often explicitly political organisations. The socialist Clarion newspaper, based – like the Guardian – in Manchester, gave its name to the Clarion Cycling Club, which survives to this day. In the early years members of the club would deliver the newspaper by bicycle, carrying the good news up hill and down dale as they went. This was a nostalgic, elegiac way of connecting cycling with radical politics. It is wonderfully captured by Alan Bennett’s first television film A Day Out (1972), in which a group of working-class Sunday riders travel from Halifax to Fountains Abbey, discussing the changing landscape, and the new social relationships it engendered, as they go.

In the early years of its existence the bicycle had the potential to be a revolutionary vehicle, therefore. Across the land, riding their bikes, people could leave the towns and villages in which they’d grown up and explore the surrounding countryside under their own steam. One typical newspaper account of this cycling revolution described the bicycle as a technology of liberation and of discovery:

Our high pressure, our covetous greed of the minute, have placed the bicycle upon the road in its thousands and out of evil there has in this way come good, for it is to the green country that the fevered youth of the nation race, with rustling rubber and sharp-sounding bell. As they rush through the air and flash past the village and field, there is borne in upon them the educational germ of a love of landscape; they see, and they cannot help noting, the contrast between smoke-grimed cities and ‘fresh woods and pastures new’.

In France and Italy the bicycle had quickly been seized on as a heroic machine, as a means of celebrating masculinity and an appetite for grind. But in England the bike was always viewed as a more eccentric and marginal invention. Perhaps it still is.

Many writers have been attracted to walking, to the rhythms, thoughts and sensations that emerge from foot travel. The Romantic poets arguably did most to popularise the image of the walker-writer, going out into the world on foot to beat its bounds. Jean-Jacques Rousseau, famously, described walking as a catalyst to thinking: “There is something about walking that stimulates and enlivens my thoughts,” he declared in his Confessions, “I can only meditate when I'm walking…When I stop I cease to think; my mind works only with my legs.” Wordsworth and Coleridge too were great walkers, their poetry inflected and infused with the rhythms of shoe leather slapping on stony ground. The writer Christopher Morley argued that Wordsworth was “one of the first to employ his legs as an instrument of philosophy” but many have followed his path since.

The bicycle is less well represented in the literary imagination, but a few writers have reflected on the idea of using the bike as vehicle for philosophical speculation. Ten years before Montague, the poet Edward Thomas had set off on his own bicycle ride from London to the Quantock Hills, a ride he described in In Pursuit of Spring, the last book of prose he wrote before he was killed during the First World War.

"It Is By Riding A Bicycle That You Learn The Contours Of A Country Best, Since You Have To Sweat Up The Hills And Coast Down Them. In A Motor Car Only A High Hill Impresses You"

Thomas was a nature poet first and foremost, but he was also a scholar of the road. He read road surfaces with all the precision of a naturalist, embodying the practice of what the German sociologist Walter Benjamin termed “botanising on the asphalt”. For authors like Thomas and Montague the bike provided the perfect way of connecting persons with places. Cars were isolating, reverential, disconnecting. Trains, cutting their way implacably through the countryside on the paths of least resistance, isolated travellers from the landscape still further.

Ever since I learned to ride a bike I have been attracted to the way cycling seems to uncover, almost unconsciously, the secrets of a landscape. I grew up as an urban cyclist, learning to ride in London, and later working as a cycle courier in the city. As a courier I grew to love the proprietorial knowledge provided by the bicycle: an intimate knowledge composed of cut-throughs, gradients and road surfaces. I relished uncovering London’s deep topography by bicycle – tracing the routes of its hidden subterranean rivers; scoping out its gradated geological rises and hidden cols, pedal-stroke by pedal-stroke, as I did the day’s work.

It soon became clear to me, as it does to all cyclists, that cycling is both a mode of transport and a mode of experience. Mark Twain described the process of discovery that accompanied learning to ride his 50-inch high-wheeler – what he called his “graceful cobweb” – as a way of uncovering previously occluded topographical secrets. In Taming the Bicycle, his essay on the mysteries of cycling, he described the way the bike could unlock the secrets of a landscape in a way that walking or driving never could. “I have been familiar with that street for years”, he wrote,

“and had always supposed it was a dead level; but it was not, as the bicycle now informed me, to my surprise. The bicycle, in the hands of a novice, is as alert and acute as a spirit-level in the detecting of delicate and vanishing shades of difference in these matters. It notices a rise where your untrained eye would not observe that one existed; it notices any decline which water will run down.”

For Twain, the bicycle was both a collaborator and a guide.

Ernest Hemingway, too, thought of the bicycle as an educative tool. “It is by riding a bicycle that you learn the contours of a country best”, he wrote, ‘since you have to sweat up the hills and coast down them. Thus you remember them as they actually are, while in a motor car only a high hill impresses you, and you have no such accurate remembrance of country you have driven through as you gain by riding a bicycle.” Cycling can be an act of memorialisation, inscribing the world onto your body even as you move through it.

I left early, with the dawn, under a Turner sky. Foxes were rising too. In the feral suburbs they picked their way past bins and through the back alleys. The wind riffled the plane trees as I cycled out of London, kicking off their lethal fluff that stabs the eyes and catches in the throat. The air cleared as I cycled up the Lea Valley towards Waltham Abbey, following the course of the river Lea. I’d follow Watling Street once I got out of the pull of London, but this was a pastoral prologue to the ride. By midday the sun was high, and beating on my back. The morning dew steamed off the tarmac. The hills of England lay ahead of me. I pushed on, wanting to find out where this road would take me.

Jon Day is a writer, critic and academic. He worked as a bicycle courier in London for several years, an experience he wrote about in his book, Cycleogeography.

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