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My Life and Times
The writer COMPTON MACKENZIE was fourteen years old when the great bicycle boom swept through the British middle classes. In this extract from his book, My Life and Times, he describes the excitement which cycling brought to his life.
At the beginning of that summer term I achieved my first bicycle, which may have been my reward for winning a Senior Scholarship. It was acquired from a boy called Henson for £7.
I had an early accident with my new bicycle when, in taking my hand from the handle-bar in order to raise my hat to a lady, I rode the bicycle into a lamp post and buckled the front wheel. However, that was the only accident I ever had, and very soon I was able to steer it with both hands off the handle-bar. Lightness was the first object for a schoolboy to aim at in a bicycle. To attain this he took off his brakes and his mud-guards, and most unwillingly left on his bell.
"What does your bike weigh?"
"Mine only weighs twenty-one."
And the owner of the twenty-two pounder would turn restlessly over and over before he fell asleep that night, racking his brain for some way of reducing the weight of this machine.
We always removed the foot-rest for mounting; we scorned to mount in any other way except by placing a foot on the pedal and flinging the other leg over the seat. It was for girls to mount their bicycles from the pavement.
There was still criticism among the populace of female cyclists. I remember riding with my aunt Isabel through Staines and hearing a brawny-armed woman with her sleeves rolled up say to another as my aunt rode by: "They don't half mind showing their limbs on those machines, do they?" I suppose my auntie's ankles were just visible.
How we did not all kill ourselves riding without brakes I do not know. I had a hair-raising time when something broke at the top of Richmond Hill and my bicycle became a free-wheel before freewheels existed. It was too late to use my foot as a brake on the front tyre. Down I went headlong through Richmond, steering around people and horses with miraculous fortune and not able to stop my bicycle until I had passed Richmond railway-station.
In the country we could coast down hills with our legs over the handle-bars; I used always to come down that way from the Abbey at Beech and it was a steep hill. My brother Frank acquired a bone-shaker for ten shillings that summer but it did not last out the holidays. One day the family heard what they thought was a runaway horse and cart clattering down Snow Hill, and running out found Frank, a little bruised but otherwise unhurt, and beside him in the ditch his boneshaker smashed to pieces.
I recall the gratification with which we heard that cyclists were now to be allowed to ride in Hyde Park until noon instead of only until 10 a.m.; we felt that at last the bicycle was being granted the regulation it deserved. Those endless arguments about the merits of the various makes -Rovers, Sunbeams, Singers, Quadrants, Swifts, Rudge-Whitworth, Triumphs, Premiers and the rest. About one make there was no argument. The Beeston Humber was to other bicycles what the Rolls-Royce is to cars, and believe it or not a Beeston Humber cost fifty guineas: even a Coventry Humber cost forty guineas. How we envied those machines of aluminium which weighed only 17 pounds, and there was another machine much envied with a sort of hammock on which one sat. (the Pedersen – Ed). There used to be great arguments, too, over the advantages and disadvantages of bamboo wheel-rims. I do not envy the next generation, which argued in its youth about the merits of motor-cars, or the generation after that which argued about aeroplanes. Et ego in Arcadia fui with bicycles.