I was reading the other day on the Guardian about the upcoming Cycle Show in Earl’s Court, London. The article started with a fabulous quote from American suffragette, Susan B. Anthony: ‘The bicycle has done more for the emancipation of women than anything else in the world’. Although I’m not sure I’m qualified to comment on the emancipation of women, I do love the feeling of freedom and, admittedly, shadenfreude-tinged glee that comes from whizzing down the street and inwardly laughing at all the grumpy people stuck in endless queues of traffic. Through my time in Ireland, I’ve lived in several cities, some more cycle-friendly than others, but I’m always thankful for my bike and the ability just to jump on and cycle into the sunset, as it were.
Anyway, after inspiring me with a renewed love for my bike and its possibilities, the article got me thinking about the history of cycling. It turns out that I’m not the first to become intrigued by the subject. A random internet search reveals some interesting homages to the humble bicycle and its history. There’s a National Bicycle History Archive of America as well as a Bicycle Museum of America, for instance, and in Wales, there’s a National Cycle Collection (located, ironically, in a place called ‘Automobile Palace’!), with a searchable archive of nearly 5000 cycling-related documents. The University of Warwick houses the National Cycle Archive, founded in part by the Cyclists’ Touring Club (itself founded in 1878), in order to preserve ‘archives, books and journals relating to cycles and cycling’. The holdings can be searched via the library’s catalogue, and there is also a list of the archive’s main holdings – fascinating reading in and of itself! Once you’ve delved into a bit of cycle history research, you can attend the annual International Cycling History Conference, which has been held throughout the world for over 20 years. The 2011 conference will take place in Paris, in case you’re interested!
Before I decided to change my field of research completely in the face of such interesting internet finds, I decided it’d be wise to see what’s been published and what scope for original research remains. A leisurely trawl through Amazon and Trinity’s library catalogue revealed the usual suspects: fitness manuals, cycling guidebooks, urban planning handbooks, and memoirs of cycling legends. There were also, however, several intriguing entries for historical studies. Ashgate, for instance, has recently published two studies of cycling history: Raleigh and the British Bicycle Industry: A Economic History and Business History, 1870-1960 (2000), by Roger Lloyd-Jones and M.J. Lewis, and Cycling and Society (2007), edited by Paul Rosen, Peter Cox, and David Horton. In specific relation to Irish cycling, two 2006 texts caught my eye: Brian Griffin’s Cycling in Victorian Ireland, and Kevin Howard’s Territorial Politics and Irish Cycling. Earlier works that also look interesting include, Cycling History: Myths and Queries (1991) by Derek Roberts, and 100 Years of Cycling Road Records (1988), published by the Road Records Association. Then, of course, there are all of the published proceedings from the International Cycle History Conferences held over the years – a not insignificant amount of research devoted purely to cycling history!
Given the centrality of cycling to twenty-first century culture, as attested to by the seemingly countless country- and/or region-specific cycling guides I found, I was surprised there weren’t more academic studies of the bike and its history. Perhaps now, when we’ve become increasingly aware of the need for ‘greener’ living, thus pushing cycling as a clean and cheap form of transportation to the forefront, we’ll start to see more academic interest in it. And, while I don’t see myself doing any of that said research, I may well have a flick through the histories that are there, if only to provide further food for thought as I speed along the road on my trusty red racer.