Here are some
more of the heroes, rogues and knaves populating my
Left to right: The aforementioned Maxim, exhibiting the
Pope Company's horseless carriage in 1899. Pope was the largest
bicycle manufacturer in the country when it signed young Maxim
as chief engineer of its new motor division. Although Colonel
Pope's company jumped ahead of others with its early entries
into the motorcar market, building reliable gasoline- and electric-powered
vehicles, it was unable to survive the blow dealt by the 'economic
downturn' and collapse in the bike market that occurred before
the turn of the century.
That a poor black kid enjoyed consistent access to a bicycle
in the first place was extremely lucky. "A freak of fate,"
as Taylor called it. That he was able to rise to the very top
of an aggressively racist sport was all talent, wits and determination.
The persecution of Major Taylor by his fellow competitors and
by the bicycle world in general, while not universal, was always
at a shameful level, often extremely harsh and occasionally violent.
In 1894 the League of American Wheelmen (the club started by
Albert Pope as a brilliant marketing ploy) voted itself a 'whites
only' institution. At the time blacks were not allowed to compete
in or even attend the races. Young Taylor had to sneak his way
into competition, essentially, entering only road races put on
by sympathetic promoters and disguising his entry until the last
second to keep the racist uproar to a minimum. Because the youngster
often won, his reputation grew and he thus found his way into
a few more races. He was too fast to ignore. Eventually he was
beating the best riders in the world and became a rich man. Still
many venues remained closed to him and he was in many cases denied
the same lodging and food as his opponents while on the road.
He bought a big house in a nice neighborhood in Worcester and
the people there tried to buy it back from him to keep the neighborhood
white. He found threatening notes signed 'White Riders,' telling
him to get the heck out or else, and was choked into unconsciousness
on the track. In an era of rampant racism, the wheelmen took
it up a notch or two. If it was like that for Taylor, imagine
what it might have been like for a black person of less noteworthy
ability hoping to enjoy the sport. It's worth considering their
plight when all these newfangled wheelmen start whining about
how they are discriminated against on the roads and casually
dribble out of their mouths the language of Jim Crow racism to
describe their own alleged victimhood.
It takes a village,
people. It takes a village of dudes in tophats to teach Frances
Willard how to ride a bicycle.
and Hiram Maxim really knew how to live. Both used bicycles to
inject an element of adventure into their privileged, comfortable
existences. Both appreciated the significance of the bicycle
as idea and symbol as well as machine. Maxim figured it opened
the minds of inventors to the concept of quick, independent personal
transport and led straight to the development of the motorcar.
Willard, like other leaders of the movement, saw the bike as
a tool to advance women's liberation. To Willard the act of learning
to ride was empowering in ways that reached far beyond the freedom
of transportation. She wrote a book about the experience, urging
other women to take up the wheel. She named her bicycle Gladys,
which, I'm just now realizing, could very well have been a play
on the latin gladius. Clever lady. Anyway.
Colonel Tsuji was not interested in
any of that jive. He looked to the bicycle only for its utilitarian
advantages. In 1941 Tsuji masterminded the Japanese invasion
of Malaya and the takeover of Singapore -- often considered the
worst defeat ever suffered by the British in military affairs.
To Tsuji the outcome was easily explained: his infantrymen were
on bicycles, while the defenders were stuck in armored vehicles,
or were otherwise on foot. The armor could only use suitable
roads, of which there were very few on the peninsula, while the
bicycle infantry could use small tracks, of which there were
many. Blowing the bridges couldn't stop the bicyclists when the
riders could just wade across -- the tactic caught more Allied
armored vehicles than Japanese invaders. Bicycles versus armored
cars on Malay Peninsula, 1941, no freakin' contest.
didn't bring up Tsuji's bicycle blitzkrieg to suggest that our
various wars of today would be better handled by troops on bicycles
(or to laud Tsuji, who could be described as an evil man), but
to remind us of the trade-offs that come with an all-too-often
blind reliance on motors and power to get things done. These
trade-offs are evident in all aspects of modern civilization
but have been glaring in military conflicts since motors were
invented. With the obvious advantages that motors provide has
come a certain stupidity of assumptions that has affected outcomes
in Korea, Viet Nam, Somalia, Afghanistan, everywhere you find
what is called asymmetrical warfare. The French humiliation at
Dien Bien Phu, in which the Viet Minh siege force was partially
supplied by coolies pushing heavily loaded bikes through the
jungle (pictured at left) while the French (with planes and pilots
supplied by the US taxpayer) ineffectively bombed the roads,
is probably the poster child for this. Notice the long stick
coming out of the handlebar on one side, to help with pushing
the bike. There was usually a long stick planted in the seat
tube as well for the other hand. This is perhaps the most unsexy
and most effective use of the bicycle in history.
John Forester could rightfully claim
the paradoxical title of the best and worst advocate that bicyclists
have had since the1970s. He likes to portray himself as an original
but he's really more of a throwback to a certain type of wheelman
that arose in the19th century, not long after the invention of
the bike and before cars and bike lanes (John Forester Kryptonite)
ever existed. The 'vehicular cycling' ideology was born at a
time when vehicles had animals attached to the front and were
limited by law to single-digit speeds. Forester is the Grand
Wizard of the modern version of 'competent cyclists' who cry
foul on the streets and raise the alarm of discrimination and
who hope to somehow gain 'equality' with other vehicles -- even
though bicyclists already enjoy more freedom than any other road
user. For reasons I cannot claim to understand the fact of the
bicycle's superiority among transportation modes has been rejected
by this relatively small yet vocal slice of the cycling community.
They embrace victimhood and refuse to let go.