A History of the Bicycle: Harry Mount reviews Paul Smethurst’s The Bicycle: Towards a Global History

From The Spectator

Bicycling is more than a means of transport: it’s a religion — that I peddle, says Harry Mount

Harry Mount is exhilarated by cycling — but finds Paul Smethurst’s history of the bicycle disappointingly stodgy
The romance of cycling is suggested in this advertisement for Columbia Bicycles, with its quotation from ‘Lochinvar’

The romance of cycling is suggested in this advertisement for Columbia Bicycles, with its quotation from ‘Lochinvar’

The Bicycle: Towards a Global HistoryPaul Smethurst

Palgrave Macmillan, pp.194, £19.99, ISBN: 9781137499509

Bicycles — in Britain, anyway — are the Marmite means of transport. I am among the bicycle-lovers, almost religious and certainly addicted in my need to have a daily bike ride. But I can see why people — and drivers in particular — hate some of us: for our smugness, our need to keep on moving through red lights and along pavements. It isn’t like this in Holland, where bicycling is so embedded in daily life that most drivers are bicyclists and vice versa; where mutual understanding leads to mutual respect.

Why do bicycles have this effect? Of intense affection among some, hatred among others; of mass use in some countries, limited use in others? Paul Smethurst could have answered the question. And his book does have some juicy little statistics in it. But I’m afraid it’s so mired in stodgy academese that it’s a deep disappointment.

It touches on some good points, not least class and bicycling. As former third- world countries advance, they cast aside their bikes, considered a sign of poverty. They particularly cast aside old-fashioned sit-up-and-beg bikes, now extremely fashionable among the British bicycling middle classes.

In time, though, China and India are bound to embrace the bike once again. There’s a natural life cycle — if you’ll forgive the pun — to the bicycle. Poor countries exchange them for cars when they get richer. When the roads clog up, they return to the bike, the magical object that sails serenely past traffic jams. Already, Chinese cities are starting to introduce pollution-reducing mass transit systems with integrated bike-share schemes.

Read the whole thing here.

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