Robert Hanks: The Cycling Column

Sons, lovers and the humble bike
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Indy Lifestyle Online

Listening to Kipps, the last Classic Serial but one on Radio 4, set me to wondering why bicycles have impinged so little on English literature.

In HG Wells' 1905 novel, cycling plays a vital part. One of the characters, Sid, is a fiercely independent socialist who lives out his principles by setting up a bicycle shop in Hammersmith, selling the working man a means of liberation. The bike was a liberating force in the decades before the First World War, offering freedom, geographical and social, to men and, more significantly, women.

But few authors seem to have thought this was worth recording, even though some of them were keen cyclists. Thomas Hardy is the most notable cycling author, having taken it up in his fifties and kept on riding energetically into his eighties; but he was already done with fiction when he started. Kipling cycled too - in fact, he and Hardy rode together - but you'd never know it from his stories.

Elsewhere, you can find the odd cycling archaeologist in MR James' ghost stories, and there are a couple of references in Sherlock Holmes - in The Priory School, Holmes revealed that he was familiar with 42 different impressions left by tyres.

I can't omit Flann O'Brien's The Third Policeman, which features a pair of policemen obsessed with bicycle theft and the atomic theory of bicycles: as you jolt up and down on your bike, atoms are swapped between you and your saddle; so that after a while a man becomes bikeish - leaning against walls, wobbling if he goes too slowly - and his bike mannish - hanging around near the fire, eavesdropping on conversations. It is the only novel I know that really catches the obsessive side of cycling.

But for the humdrum, everyday side of cycling, you have to turn to Wells and DH Lawrence - both working-class boys made good. Lots of Lawrence's characters ride, including Paul Morel, his alter ego in Sons and Lovers. And 10 years before Kipps, Wells wrote The Wheels of Chance: A Bicycling Idyll.

Anyway, I wanted to mention a new work of cycling literature: the online diary of the Tall Bike Tour of Britain. Since April Fool's Day, Ed and Will Stevens have been circumnavigating mainland Britain clockwise on tall bikes - peculiar, cobbled-together giraffe-like structures that originated in late 19th-century America - with some vague charitable purpose, but mainly for the heck of it.

I met Ed just before they set off, and the sight of him towering above the traffic is inspiring. At the time of writing, they've been right along the south coast, round Land's End, over the Severn and round Wales. Will's diary, at tallbiketourbritain.com, tells the whole story in loose-joined trochaic couplets - tumti tumti tumti tumti: a difficult metre to maintain, but I think Will pulls it off.

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