The Trickster Prince

Matt Houlbrook: mobile historian; beard growing, head shaving; occasional cycling.

Cycling and history


Both regular readers of The Trickster Prince will know that I love cycling and history. This has not always been the case—I only started mountain biking in my early 20s and took to the road more recently still. Yet for the past decade these have been the twin obsessions around which much of my life has taken shape. What might seem a random series of posts reflects how I spend my time and the different directions in which my gaze shifts. Although cycling and history sit alongside each other in this blog, however, I have never thought about the relationship between them until now.


For many aficionados, following contemporary cycling is bound up with understanding its history and traditions. Follow the wheel of professional road racing and you invariably find the tyre tracks lead back into the past. Magazines like Rouleur are filled with dramatic or tragic stories of Bartali, Merckx and Hinault; they reproduce evocative photographs of Le Tour and the Peace Race, cobbles and classics, elegantly retro frames and components. More recently, cycling’s growing popularity as a mode of transport and a leisure activity has lead to renewed interest in the everyday experiences of cycling and cyclists in the past. In the latest issue of Boneshaker, for example, Will Manners reveals the heated debates prompted by the emergence of the disreputable, inconsiderate and invariably working-class ‘scorcher’ in the 1890s—‘pedalling furiously’ on urban streets and country lanes. In The Ride, Matilda Welin talks to Sheila Hanlon, the curator of a recent exhibition on ‘Cycling to Suffrage’ in London’s Women’s Library, about cycling’s place within the new personal and political freedoms claimed by Victorian and Edwardian women. Interweaving the ordinary and the extraordinary, John Foot’s wonderful Pedalare, Pedalare! is nothing less than a history of modern Italy, told through the prism of its passionate relationship with the bicycle.


A quick glance at the bookshelves in my flat will make it clear that I find this history fascinating and compelling. It does not quite encompass how I understand the relationship between cycling and history, however. For a start, this is not research and writing that I can imagine doing myself. I have blogged about the grave of Albert Harris one of the ‘brightest and most genial spirits in cycledom’ in Victorian England; I have been distracted by the race results in fading 1920s copies of Cycling magazine. Beyond that I have tried to stop my obsession with the past disrupting my love of cycling. The activity of history can become consuming: being out on the bike is one of the very few times that I do not think about research or writing or teaching. Unlike running (when I would often write lectures or put the historical world to rights with my colleague and friend Dan Scroop), cycling has always been my escape from history.


That distraction comes, in part, from the feeling of moving through ever changing yet always fascinating landscapes. The beech woods of the Chilterns or the distant Berkshire Mountains can often insist that we give them our attention from the saddle. Yet the distractions of cycling also come from its physical demands. I find that is especially true when the roads are heavy and the trails muddy, when it is cold and wet, and when I’m exhausted or injured. At such times cycling comes to me as a raw and painful physical sensation. Far removed from the routine of working at a desk, it leaves my legs aching and my breathing ragged and absorbs my concentration as I work to keep moving and stay upright. Where is the space to think about history when you are struggling against the limits of your body and the demands of the terrain?


Of course, cycling is not always like this. At other times, body and bike and landscape meld together and the sensation of escape becomes somehow more immediate. Under the sun of a Massachusetts summer with the smell of pine fresh, the movement of my legs gets into a rhythm with the buzz of cranks and wheels and I carve through the bends of the Green River Road. More rarely, for me, the twisting contours of the narrow trail draw me forwards and faster. Rather than being reminded of my body, I forget it and register only blurs of light, colour, sound and feeling. For a short while, at least, I enter that reverie which is the greatest pleasure cycling can bring.


This is the moment at which cycling and history seem furthest part. Yet it is at precisely this point, that they somehow manage to become entwined again. In an essay on dreaming, the American historian Christine Stansell has written movingly about the nature of historical work. Rather than being defined simply by an active and engaged quest for knowledge, she argues, making sense of the past demands moments of pause and peace. ‘What happens’, she asks, ‘as the mind sinks into the evidence and spies elements were invisible at the start?’ Stansell describes these dreamlike moments as sitting quietly before the sources: deliberately not thinking, the historian gives themselves up to the necessary reflection and distancing that follows any period of intense research and writing. They are ‘a temporary deferral of one’s usual preoccupations while waiting for the mind to arrange things anew.’


They are not quite the same, but I think that cycling has at least some resemblance to this kind of activity. I never consciously think about the historical problems or inscrutable sources that I am grappling with while riding: this is not the time nor place to consider the legacies of the Great War or the significance of Queen Mary’s parrot. At the same time, it is often in the hours and days after a ride that I have my best ideas. Insight into history follows on behind time spent in the saddle. The opposite is also true: in those long periods when I can find no time to get out on the bike, I can sense how my mood becomes irritable, my body tense and my imagination constrained. Even now I do not quite understand how cycling and history are related. Yet not riding and not writing are frequent—if unwelcome—companions in my life; and the words come fastest when the miles also tick round.


I didn’t mean for it to happen, but this has turned into a long-winded way of justifying going for a ride.


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