How bicycles transformed our world - National Geographic UK

How bicycles transformed our world - National Geographic UK

How bicycles transformed our world - National Geographic UK

Posted: 24 Jun 2020 09:57 AM PDT

Gene pools and politics

With a bicycle anything seemed possible, and ordinary people set off on extraordinary journeys. In the summer of 1890, for instance, a young lieutenant in the Russian army pedaled from St. Petersburg to London, averaging 70 miles a day. In September 1894, 24-year-old Annie Londonderry set out from Chicago with a change of clothes and a pearl-handled revolver to become the first woman to cycle around the world. Just under a year later she arrived back in Chicago and collected a $10,000 (£8,000) prize.

In Australia, itinerant shearers routinely rode hundreds of miles across the waterless outback looking for work. They set out on these trips as though they were rides in the park, recalled newspaper correspondent C.E.W. Bean in his book On The Wool Track. "He asked his way, lit his pipe, put his leg over his bicycle and shoved off. If he were city bred, as were many shearers, the chances were he started in a black coat and bowler hat, exactly as if he were going to tea at his aunts."

And in the American West, during the summer of 1897, the U.S. Army's 25th Regiment—an African-American unit known as the Buffalo Soldiers—made an extraordinary 1,900-mile trek from Fort Missoula, Montana, to St. Louis, Missouri, to demonstrate the usefulness of bicycles to the military. Carrying full kit and carbines and riding over rough, muddy tracks, the Buffalo Soldiers averaged nearly 50 miles a day—twice as fast as a cavalry unit, and at a third the cost.

The advent of the bicycle touched virtually every aspect of life—art, music, literature, fashion, even the human gene pool. Parish records in England show a marked rise in intervillage marriages during the bicycle craze of the 1890s. Newly liberated young people roamed the countryside at will, mingling on the road, meeting up in distant villages, and—as was noted by scowling morals campaigners of the day—often outpacing their older chaperones.

English songwriter Henry Dacre scored a huge hit on both sides of the Atlantic in 1892 with Daisy Bell and its famous refrain "a bicycle built for two." Writer H.G. Wells, an avid cyclist and a shrewd social observer, wrote several "cycling novels," gentle narratives centered around the romantic, liberating, class-dissolving possibilities of this wonderful new form of transportation.


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