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Bicycle built for Two. An American tour, 1938.
Reviews of a book caught in its time. Jim and Elizabeth Young quit their jobs and crossed America Reviews by EDGAR NEWTON and GABE KONRADBY.
Edgar Newton writes:
This is the freshest book about bicycle touring that I've read for some time. Which is remarkable as the trip it describes took place in 1938 and the book was first published in 1940. Its vitality derives partly from the natural exuberance of a recently married young couple obviously delighting in each other's company, partly from the novelty of their writing the book as a dialogue and greatly from the talents of the pair both of whom pursued careers in writing.
Having quit their jobs on a San Francisco magazine, they decided to make the most of the opportunity By cycling to Gettysburg for the occasion of the seventy-fifth anniversary of the battle, then on to the Atlantic and back again. The vehicle for this was a tandem imported from England, equipped with hub-brakes, a dynamo and a three speed derailleur. “Lettered on the frame was our name and address. It was typical of the Englishman's concept of America. It said ‘Mr. And Mrs. J.P.Young, California'”
Their riding costumes of jeans, sweatshirts, basketball shoes and cork sun-helmets that they'd shellacked against rain show the couple in photographs to have a contemporary retro-chic appearance which would not be out of place in an MTB magazine. The bike sported the name ‘The Spirit of Fun'. A spirit which carried them through the rough patches:
Jim and Elizabeth: It rained all day. The road forded two streams the rain had deepened. We churned through with the water above our pedals. About two o'clock there fell upon our ears a familiar ghastly sound – the snapping of a spoke. As usual, we taped it to the one next to it and rode on. As we were riding through the little town of Rising Sun – snap! – another broken spoke.
Elizabeth : At this gruesome juncture Jim had one of his moments of mental might. He decided that instead of taping the broken spoke to the one next to it, he'd screw it out of the nipple and remove it. A good idea. The trouble was that he turned it the wrong way, screwed it in instead of out, and pierced the inner tube. With a hiss that Jim deserved, down went the tire.
Jim: I looked around for an open grave.
The writers have the gift of describing impressions with a simplicity that make their sketches all the more vivid:
Jim and Elizabeth: As we were riding through a little place just north of Cincinnati a charming incident occurred. It consisted of the most spontaneous, natural, and innocent reaction the sight of the tandem produced. A tiny little girl standing in a yard caught sight of us, and before she thought cried out “Can I have it?” then, immediately realizing what she'd said, she clapped both hands over her mouth
At Uniontown we stayed at a hotel. By standing The Spirit of Fun on end we were able to take it up in the elevator with us. While we were registering, with the bike in the lobby with us, we suddenly found ourselves bosom friends of a gentleman who said he knew all about tandems, and who talked like Mr Jingle in Pickwick.
“Years ago – rode forty miles on a tandem – partner a girl who weighed a hundred and sixty pounds – she back-pedalled all the way – lumbago in my back ever since.”
On a long lonely stretch beyond Portsmouth there was a negro standing beside the road. He looked like a fugitive slave – he was powerfully built, and his shirt was so torn that the upper part of his muscular torso was practically naked. He grinned and held up a coffee can full of huckleberries he'd picked in the woods. We bought a wrinkled paper bagful.
When we reached the outskirts of the resort town of Virginia Beach we could see an ocean down at the end of the road. We got pretty excited. We reached the beach. We carried The Spirit of Fun down a flight of steps and across the sand through a crowd of bathers. At exactly 6:59 p.m., July 14, we dipped our hands in the waters of the Atlantic. Hot dog! We'd done it! We'd completed the first west-to-east transcontinental tandem trip ever made. Miles – 3,795.
Book reviewer Gabe Konrad had a different take on the book:
Bicycle Built for Two…tells the tale of the authors' tandem tour across the United States and back. After having an argument with the editor of the magazine they both worked for, the Youngs set off on the lightly traveled roads of the depression. Jim Young was a Civil War buff, and their destination was the 75th anniversary gathering at Gettysburg. The first thing you notice about this book is the unusual way in which it's written, like the script of a conversation with either Jim speaking, Elisabeth speaking, or the duo speaking in, well, tandem. While it seemed cheesy at first, I really began to enjoy the style. It eliminated a lot of the he-said-she-said's, and did a fine job of concealing what would otherwise not have been the best writing.
Bicycle Built for Two has a bit of a slow start, but as the couple begin to get into the groove of the tour, so does the book. Nothing very dramatic happens within the pages, but what kept my interest was the setting - 1938 America. Not so long ago that it seems abstract, but long enough ago that we'll never be able to experience anything like this. The Young's book captures a vivid scene of an America of car parks and diners, safe roads and charming '30s sayings like "it smelled like a wedding" and "it was heathenish hot."
Unfortunately, the book also captures another side of America in the 1930s - the rampant racism. Jim Young states "I am a Confederate," and that "the greatest regret of my life is that I was born too late to serve under General Lee and fight for the Southern cause." Alas, Jim's "rebel" beliefs guide the tour to it's destination, and the text is dotted with his racist feelings, like this scene from Oklahoma: "...we emerged from the darkness [of 'negro country'] and were back in white folks' country again." Of course, it was in white folks' country where a child rode up and spit on them. While the racist content of Bicycle Built for Two isn't overpowering, it certainly is sickening, and may be enough of a reason for someone not to read it. But when dismissing this book because of it's racist content, be ready to cast aside Hurne's The Yellow Jersey, many of Rex Coley's writings, and several more books. In her new introduction to this edition, Elisabeth does make an attempt to apologize for her husband's racism - an effort that is truly appreciated.
Despite the downfalls of Jim's personality, it was a treat to follow the couple around the United States and share in their trials and tribulations - and their unusually high number of broken spokes. I would certainly recommend this book to lovers of touring chronicles, tandem riders, and to members of the St. Louis Cycling Club, who get a nice plug. Included are 11 full-page black and white photographs, several of which were not present in the original edition.
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You never have the wind with you - either it is against you or you're having a good day
W. Somerset Maugham