Dr. Hutch: The history of the bicycle

The history of the bicycle has never run smooth, says the Doc, which makes it all the more fascinating

That the incredibly complicated steam train was invented before the incredibly simple bicycle is something I’ve mentioned before. I make no apology for bringing it up again, because I feel that it’s one of the most peculiar kinks in humanity’s timeline. In fact, it’s more than a kink: it’s another balls-up on the scale of our having managed to perfect the Daily Mail website comments section before the puncture-proof tyre.

‘Smug’ is an accusation we’re all used to fending off, but in a very broad sense there is actually some truth to it. We might not be as pleased with ourselves as is commonly claimed, but we are very, very pleased with ‘the bicycle’.

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And by extension, we’re more than happy to claim a collective credit for it. We, my friends, invented the thing that will save everyone from all the other terrible things that have ever been invented, from global warming to sausages.

Use and improve
Yet in so many respects it’s been one cock-up after another. Rolling the product out 200 years behind schedule was just the beginning. No sooner had we invented it than we ‘improved’ it, by making the front wheel absurdly large and the back wheel absurdly small — think of it as our Windows Vista moment.

In order to produce something a bit more user friendly, we had to add the chain drive — invented a mere 2,200 years earlier by Philon of Byzantium. It was probably quite an obvious idea to anyone who wasn’t scorching round the countryside on their high-wheeler wearing a tweed riding uniform and playing the bugle, but unfortunately in the 1880s, that was all of us.

“We might not be pleased with ourselves, but we are very very pleased with the bicycle”

“Ah,” you say. “While we accept that our engineering wasn’t always perfect, the real strength of the bicycle has been in its social impact, where it has always been a force for progressive liberality and for social mobility.”

And to give ourselves some credit, we invented trousers for women. Or rather, a small handful of women riders invented trousers for women, while the rest of us howled in outrage and told them in no uncertain terms that there were no finer garments for cycling in than a corset and a hooped skirt.

In the same era we devised a tandem steered from the rear, on the socially progressive basis that no man should ever turn his back to a lady, no lady could be trusted to steer, and no one who was allowed to vote would want to go cycling without having his wife as an airbag.

Make our own rules
We also stood foursquare against social divisiveness and discrimination. Or at least we did if you discount the very serious attempt that the tricyclists made in the 1880s to have the bicyclists expelled from the Cyclists’ Touring Club. This was on the basis that riders of two-wheelers were just the wrong sort of chap altogether, much inclined towards furious pedalling, and who were prevented from running through red lights only by the fact they had not yet been invented.

No such double standards now. Nothing so hidebound. Now we like to think that we’re the kind of people who play by our own rules. And what rules!

Last year, when I wrote 600 words on exactly what did and did not constitute an acceptable length for a sock, I was deluged with emails telling me I had been insufficiently fascist in my strictures, and that I had entirely failed to suggest suitable punishments. There are similar obligatory conventions concerning bar-tape colour, what you wear for any given temperature, and whether and how you wave at fellow bike riders. Devil-may-care we are still definitely not.

Still, we did more or less get the bike right, eventually, and the rest of the world will one day thank us for that. Even if in return for this, we are going to have to hate them for their choice of socks.


How to… take advice

Advice is easy to come by in cycling. Just stand around. Or sit in a cafe. Or go for a ride. Whatever you do, one of our advisers will be with you shortly.

Advising isn’t the same as coaching. Coaching is normally a consensual relationship, voluntarily entered into by both parties. Advisers are almost invariably self-appointed, usually when someone sees an opportunity to expand the role of annoying critic into a longer-term relationship of annoying mentor.

The fundamental criticism will often be rather general. “You’ve got a huge amount of potential, and you don’t even know it,” for example. The correct response is, “I know, but I don’t really care.”

Anything else will open the floodgates. At first, advice will continue to arrive as criticism. “You really need to concentrate on your ankles. That’s a lot of your problem right there.” You now have to ask what he means. “Look, see what I’m doing with my mine?” your adviser will say, while doing nothing that is in any way different from what you’re doing. “Like that.”

Later on the advice might become more specific. “You need to factor your post-session nutrition to take advantage of the insulin spike by modulating your maltodextrin to glucose ratio.” Never ask what a statement like this means, because the reply will be more opaque still, leaving you trapped in a spiral of increasing incomprehension.

There is a solution. Start to advise someone yourself. Your mentor will give you advice on how to give advice, followed by self-importantly taking over your role. At which point you can quietly leave him with his new victim.

Acts of cycling stupidity

A discussion I was part of at a cycling club dinner not long ago turned to the subject of self-driving cars. One of the guests was an engineer working on such a project, and he was very enthusiastic about what it would mean for cyclists.

“The safety implications are huge — we’ll eliminate driver error at a stroke. Even if we do have occasional glitches, the accident rate will plummet.”

“That’s not all,” I said excitedly. “If you get a self-driving MPV or something, you’d be able to turbo-train in it while it drives you to work.” I’ll admit that I hadn’t really thought this through.

I have to report that the looks of contempt I got were quite something.