Two wheels better: a tandem ride beside a lake, 1896 (Photo by DeAgostini/Getty Images)

June 25, 2020   5 mins

The coronavirus lockdown has certainly been beneficial for one thing: the bicycle. British cycling was already at an all-time high when the pandemic hit in March. By May, there was a boom in demand for bikes. By June, a tenfold increase in bike use was expected as we move out of lockdown. In Ireland, the government requested that anyone who could travel by bike, should do so, not just for their own health but to relieve pressure on other forms of transport. You can, it was noted, always “socially distance” by bike.

The bicycle is not only a clean, healthy, enjoyable, and efficient mode of transport: it has also played a key role in the emancipation of women. One of the founders of the American feminist movement, Susan B. Anthony, said in 1896 that the bicycle “has done more to emancipate women than anything else in the world. It gives women a feeling of freedom and self-reliance. I stand and rejoice every time I see a woman ride by on a wheel — the picture of free, untrammelled womanhood.”

The bicycle, as we now know the basic design, came into availability in the 1880s — the earlier bikes, like the penny-farthing, were uncomfortable and impractical. Up to the 1890s, according to Ray Strachey in her renowned history of the women’s movement, The Cause, it was not generally accepted for respectable woman to move about freely. It was the advent of the bicycle that liberated these late-Victorian girls, and virtually ushered in H.G. Wells’ “New Woman” for the turn of the century, (and the Suffrage campaign which subsequently arose.)

But “the women who first began to ride upon this queer machine were thought to be incredibly adventurous, and most people also thought them shocking,” wrote Strachey. Only men’s bikes were available at the beginning, she recalled, and the early female pioneers were hooted at in the street, since they were often wearing “Bloomers”. These were the loose-fitting knee-length garments, like oversize knickers, invented by Amelia Bloomer, as an alternative to the crinoline and the bustle.

But whatever they wore, these bright young women thought the bicycle a stupendously good thing. Not only did they discover “the exquisite pleasure of rapid motion”, but the possession of a bicycle meant “they were no longer prisoners in their own houses”. They could “spin off” wherever they liked, assert their independence, gratified by the knowledge that they only “relied upon their own muscle”.

Still, bicycles were quite expensive at first, and such intrepid women bikers were usually from more affluent backgrounds. You don’t see archive photos or illustrations of women from mines or mill-towns riding bicycles until much later. My Edwardian uncle, born in 1908, recounted how the bike became cheaper after the end of the First World War: by 1920, you could buy a bike for just over a quid — he paid a guinea (£1 and a shilling) for his, in the mid-1920s, although admittedly that still represented a week’s wages for some working men.

The bike also started to play a role in changing courtship habits. Before bicycles were avaialable, matches and marriages were often made within the radius of a community, or however far a couple could walk. This restricted the gene pool, and shared kinship was frequently quite high in village schools The bicycle enabled a healthy young man to cycle 50 or 60 miles to meet a more distant sweetheart (although girls rode bicycles, males were still expecting to do the courting.)

By mid-20th century, the motor-car had reduced the status of the bicycle. It had been much-used, of course, during the Second World War, but subsequently relegated, somewhat, to the proletarian of the transportation world. In movies, poor Italians rode bicycles, while young Americans had fabulous cars with tail fins, à la James Dean.

But the bike has always had its fans, and it has always been invoked when petrol scarcity occurred. And that’s just what happened during the French students’ rebellion in May 1968. Due to nationwide strikes, there was a severe shortage of petrol all over the country, and public transport, as well as much car travel, ground to a halt. I was a reporter on the London Evening Standard at the time, and the Editor, Charles Wintour (father of the now more famous Dame Anna) took it into his head to despatch me to Paris, from London, on a bicycle. So off I went.

I look back now on the extreme informality with which all this was arranged. Health and safety wasn’t mentioned. There were, of course, no mobile phones — I had to find public phone boxes en route to transmit my reports. I didn’t possess anything as fancy as a cycle helmet. Neither did I actually own a bike: I just hired one from a Clerkenwell bike shop. Some French money was provided by the Beaverbrook accounts department, I bought myself a couple of maps and I set off for the Dover Road.

I crossed to Calais, and rode towards Paris, via Montreuil, Amiens and Beauvais. It was a glorious May and the countryside was exhilarating. There were adventures: I encountered a couple who had sheltered a British airman during the Second World War, struck up a helpful conversation with a woman in Beauvais and was pursued through a dark copse by a Frenchman in a fast car, probably with a little light rape in mind — how did he get the petrol to drive? — but I somehow gave him the slip. Paris was in full revolutionary mode when I arrived, in the traditional manner of the French exuberantly taking to the streets. My most vivid memory was that the students were burning down the stock exchange — La Bourse — declaring the end of capitalism. I was 24 and thought it all terrifically exciting.

Then I joined Wintour and some other Brits at the Crillon Hotel for drinks and dear Robin Day made a gentlemanly pass. Then I was ordered to ride all the way back again. Which I did.

That bike was a modest little number, but it behaved robustly, across cobblestones and rough roads, sometimes traversing motorways briefly. I don’t remember any punctures, or problems with the chain.

Looking back, however, I’m alarmed at how under-equipped I was, and how casually I embarked on the assignment. (I’m even more alarmed to remember that I sometimes halted for lunch at some cosy bistrot and drank a good half-bottle of wine with the repast, without thinking twice about the consequences.)

I’m glad that a younger generation today has much better facilities for cycling — cycle lanes and paths, adapted clothing and shoes, Google maps, and a more serious approach to the whole endeavour. It’s upsetting to read of the deaths of cyclists, who can be vulnerable in heavy traffic — people should be able to cycle in safety. Every city should try to look more like Amsterdam and Copenhagen for cyclists, and post-Covid, I believe many more will do so. The cleaner air of the traffic-free (or traffic-lessened) roads has also been a source of great bicycling encouragement.

And I can see the bike going from strength to strenth: a boom in electric bikes, which are getting cheaper all the time, and are terrific for older people. There’s something else I notice that seems rather enticing for the, ahem, senior citizen (“soixante-huitards” — 1968ers, as the French call our generation) and that is the adult tricycle. They look amazingly jolly, and that road to Dover, and maybe even Calais, seems really quite inviting on a trike.

During the period of lockdown, the feeling of being “imprisoned in one’s own home” — like those frustrated Victorian ladies — has sometimes been a little overwhelming. The bicycle is just the thing to set the people free.

Mary Kenny is an Irish author, broadcaster, playwright and journalist.