Posted by Admin on 25 July 2011, 12:20 pm

“You’ll break your neck before you’ve finished!” That warning was given to me (circa 1925) when I was fifteen. Fortunately the passer-by’s prophesy did not break the concentration I was devoting to my trick-cycling act, and in twenty years of two-wheeled locomotion I never injured myself.

The bicycle, according to Frederick Alderson’s book, Bicycling, A History, is, through a series of increasingly sophisticated mutants, a direct descendant of the hobby-horse. In which case my association with the genre began when, at the age of four, I pranced about on a narrow piece of wood with the profile of a horse’s head at one end and two small side-by-side wheels at the other.

The transformation of the hobby-horse from a child-supported toy to a machine that carried its rider occurred, we are told, when the Comte de Sivrac, in 1791, produced the Celerifere, a board with sizeable wheels (one at each end), a padded saddle, and handle-bars that did not steer. To move it the rider pushed the ground with his feet.

By 1819 a steering device had modified the Comte’s design, and velocipedes (as they were then called) became popular amongst those who could afford them. 1821 saw the advent of a machine on which, by pulling the handle-bars, the rider could turn the front wheel. But it was not until 1839 that the first pedal-driven cycle was invented by a blacksmith named Kirkpatrick Macmillan. The pedals, incidentally, were attached to the front wheel hub. Machines of this type were, not unnaturally, called ‘boneshakers’, and some thirty years elapsed before solid rubber tyres partly absorbed the all too frequent shocks. For the first pneumatic tyres cyclists had to wait until 1898.

Strangely enough, the next development introduced the ‘Ordinary’ or ‘Penny-farthing’ cycle, which seated the rider about five feet above terra-firma. The reason for calling these potential neck-breakers ‘Ordinaries’ I have yet to discover.

In 1884 the first ‘dwarf safety’ bicycle was marketed. Named the ‘Kangaroo’, its price range was seventeen to twenty guineas – a lot of money in those days.

Some eighty years ago, a familiar sight in Cowes was a bicycle that differed from others in the town. It was a Dursley-Pedersen – a machine invented in 1893 by a Dane, a cycle in which the frame tubes were designed to take only compression loads and were, therefore, of lighter gauge material; but an even more interesting feature was a saddle made of silk cord and suspended like a hammock, the rear end being held by seven spiral springs.

When I pass a school and see large numbers of gleaming bicycles parked in the racks provided, I am reminded of the great economic changes that have taken place since my schooldays, when few of my contemporaries owned cycles and both they and the teachers walked to school. I am reminded also that, while those machines probably cost at least £100 each, my first one, a lady’s model, was bought for ten shillings from a boy who taught me to ride by telling me not to look at the front wheel, and by pretending to hold the saddle. After going fifty yards, I realised he was no longer with me. I could ride! It was a delightful sensation, soothing and yet exhilarating, and no subsequent rides on better machines ever gave me pleasure equivalent to that experienced during those early ones.

It was on this bicycle that my first and only accident occurred, caused by sheer exhibitionism. I was free-wheeling down the hill on which I lived when, seeing the girl-next-door coming up, I began to pedal and passed her at a spanking pace. A left-hand bend lay ahead and, taking it too fast, I skidded on loose gravel and landed on the far pavement, where I found myself, completely unhurt, sitting on the rear wheel. Net damage: some broken spokes and torn trousers.

At sixteen and a half, conscious that it impaired my dignity to ride a lady’s model, I had my eye on a reconditioned machine which, for several years, had stood idle in one of my grandfather’s workshops –  a bicycle with only one brake which operated n the rear hub. To apply it, one had to back-pedal. When I offered to buy it, it was given to me.

That day, at the Cowes Recreation Ground, I met one of my father’s friends, a heavy man who, luckily for me, wanted to ride my latest acquisition. He had not ridden five yards when the front wheel, its rust hidden by paint, buckled into a figure eight. I was always afraid the back wheel might do the same; but that, and the brake, never let me down.

A year later I bought a Raleigh Roadster on hire purchase. Complete with an acetylene lamp it cost nearly eight pounds, and the weekly payment of five shillings took all my pocket money. When I am asked why I did not buy a more sporting lightweight, I confess that, for the first and last time in my life, I was persuaded by super-salesmanship.

One April a report of the Cycling Festival stated that the Vectis Roads Cycling Club was formed in a Cowes public-house. This was not quite true, for a nucleus of the club was created (circa 1928) by five apprentices and myself in the machine-shop of J. S. White and Company. It was an all-male group. Only three members rode lightweight cycles, one of whom still pushes a vigorous pedal. My Raleigh was regarded with amused contempt.

One evening, in the narrowest part of the Cowes High Street, a lightweight owner allowed me to test it. Extra leverage provided by a forward handle-bar extension took me by surprise, and I executed some alarming zig-zags, endangering shop-windows on either side, before getting full control. Another member had built his machine from parts bought from specialists. After taking weeks to assemble it, he let me ride it on a country road. What a privilege!

During my cycling days I read Cycling, a weekly magazine started in 1891 and still published. Of particular interest to me were the excellent sketches drawn by Frank Patterson. In subsequent copies conspicuously absent from the advertisements are all but two of the once-familiar names – one of those remaining being inserted by a saddle-maker. The prices given for complete machines range from £117 to £400.

In the ‘thirties, the pages of Cycling often referred to a controversy regarding separate paths for cyclists. Most riders rejected the idea. Today, I imagine, heavy traffic will have caused a volte-face.

Many years ago in the Sunday Times it was suggested that, before being allowed on the road, all cyclists should pass the Cycling Proficiency Test. Recalling that to become a motor-cyclist in 1936 I was required to take a driving test, I was inclined to agree. People with no knowledge of the Highway Code, people with defective eyesight, people with no road sense, are a menace to themselves and to other road-users. On the other hand, is a test necessary for someone who rides only in a remote area – between farms on Dartmoor, for instance?

No, I shall not vote either way. My gastrocnemii (calf muscles) will help to turn no more pedals, so why should I get involved?

T. C. Hudson

© T. C. Hudson.
This article may not be reproduced without prior permission of the author.

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