Title: The Splendid Book of the Bicycle - From Boneshakers to Bradley Wiggins
Author: Daniel Tatarsky
What it is: A potted history of the bicycle
Strengths: It's a quick read, with plenty of graphics to distract you
Weaknesses: Like most miscellanists, this is the history of cycling as told by a generalist, and thus prone to errors
“There are a number of moments that serve as waypoints in everyone’s life. Your first childhood memory, your first day at school, a kiss, a wedding, the birth of a child. But among these memories one remains indelible – the day you first learned to ride a bike.”
So begins another miscellany of happy-clappy pro-bike propaganda. A lot of you like this stuff, I know, so do please forgive me my inability to join in the happy-clapping. But, you see, I worry about the sort of insecurities people have that drive them to write things like this:
“Whereas car and bicycle production were neck and neck until about 1965, with 20 million of each being produced each year, since then bikes have broken from the pack. Since 2003 more than 100 million bikes are produced each year, more than twice the amount of cars. Moreover, bicycles never die. Whereas cars soon become obsolete, and crushed to make way for newer models, bikes are daily being restored by enthusiasts. Their punctures are fixed, their chains lubricated, their handlebars shone: reborn and returned to their former glory, and capable of keeping up with the best of them.”
Forget the nonsense stat and consider the second part, about bicycles never dying. Wherever you live, I am willing to bet that barely a day goes by when you don't walk past some broken and forgotten bicycle chained to a piece of street furniture, slowly decaying to dust. Or consider the images of Chinese bicycle graveyards that have been going viral recently: the size of football fields and with cranes needed to reach the top of the pile.
Were bicycles to be truly immortal, then by Tatarsky's maths alone approximately 1.5 billion bicycles would have been added to our streets in the last decade and a half. Joining the several billion Tatarsky's numbers suggest were produced throughout the last century. That's a lot of undead bicycles rolling the streets of our towns and cities, that is. Odd how they don't show up in the traffic stats, isn't it?
Yes, okay, the guy is deploying hyperbole to make a point, I get that. But it's a stupid point. Yes, there are cycling enthusiasts who restore old bicycles. But there are also motoring enthusiasts restoring old cars. Yes, there are countries in which old bikes are repaired out of necessity, it being too expensive to buy a new one. And do you know what happens to cars in countries where it is too expensive to buy a new one? They too get repaired. Their punctures fixed, their engine blocks lubricated, their steering wheels shone: reborn and returned to their former glory, and capable of keeping up with the best of them.
The myth of cycling exceptionalism, though, fears no facts. Few cycling myths do. Take Annie Kopchovsky:
“The figurehead of the Rational Clothing and of women’s cycling more generally was Annie ‘Londonderry’ Kopchovsky, who in 1896 became the first woman to cycle around the world.”
How many times does this have to be said before the message gets through: Kopchovsky travelled the world with her bicycle, not upon it.
Oddly, for all her alleged importance as a pioneering globe girdler, Kopchovsky's feat is left to a section dealing with knickers, while the globe-girdling exploits of Thomas Stevens, Frank Lenz, Thomas Allen and William Sachtleben – see David V Herlihy's The Lost Cyclist – sprawl across two chapters.
“Graeme Obree and Chris Boardman were both fantastic cyclists, but both were also driven to push their bikes to the limits of engineering. Obree in his own workshop, and Boardman with the expertise of Lotus cars, created futuristic bikes that allowed them to improve further on Moser’s mark. By the time they had finished their personal battle in September 1996, Boardman had improved the standard to an astonishing 35.03 miles (56.375 km). Their bikes looked almost nothing like that used by Merckx and their riding position, the superman invented by Obree, was also a world away from that of the Belgian.”
I know that this is an error repeated by many, many times, but it's also an error corrected by many, many times: Boardman didn’t use the Lotus in any of his Hour rides. Getting it right isn't hard.
That said, Tatarsky's knowledge of the Hour surpasses my own:
“It’s worth noting that towards the end of the nineteenth and the start of the twentieth century, greater speeds were set, but have never been included in the official records by the ICA or its successor the UCI. This is because they were achieved by professional cyclists. How times change!”
Sadly, the author provides absolutely zero evidence supporting this factoid. Is he perhaps thinking of Arthur Linton's mythical Hour? Or is he perhaps confused by the far more popular paced Hour record that was broken time and time again towards the end of the nineteenth and the start of the twentieth century?
None of this, it should be noted, is in any way unique to Tatarsky: most every single-author cycling miscellany I've read repeats simple errors that could easily be checked had the author but world enough and time. The problem is with the genre: these are quick-turnaround books knocked out by generalists. Generalists, generally, get things wrong. And Tatarsky is a professional generalist, his other books including: Stats, Records & Rock 'n' Roll – Fine-tuned Infographics to Rock Your World; Cool Philosophy - Filled with Facts for Kids of All Ages; Cool Science Tricks - 50 Fantastic Feats for Kids of All Ages; Flick to Kick - An Illustrated History of Subbuteo; Infographic Guide to Sport; Everything You Need to Know About Everything You Need to Know About - Your World, and Everything Around It, in a Nutshell; and Dan Dare, Pilot of the Future – The Biography.
As with books like Michael Hutchinson's recent Re:Cyclists miscellanies like this are meant as appetisers, things to whet your appetite, leaving you to go and read people who actually know something about things like the Hour, Annie Kopchovsky, or whatever if you want to find out more. And books like Tatarsky's do at least come served looking pretty, with bite-sized chunks of text surrounded by a variety of illustrations.
The Splendid Book of the Bicycle, then, is the sort of book that's perfect for the twelve-year-old boy in your life (he could be your son, your nephew, your brother or even your father or husband). And I do mean the twelve-year-old boy: Tatarsky somehow manages to take two hundred years of cycling history and reduce women's role in it to a couple of pages about knickers. But that's the sort of book this is: a real Boys Own adventure into the world of two wheels.