Blooming marvellous

31st January 2003 at 00:00
It is difficult to imagine now what the freedom bestowed by cycling meant to ordinary men and women in late Victorian and Edwardian times. It's certainly no coincidence that cycling became associated with other sorts of radicalism - for example, the safety bicycle soon became a symbol of feminine freedom. Clothing played its part here, and many women cyclists both took advantage of, and helped promote, the less restrictive garments which became known as rational dress, and included the "bloomers" popularised by, and named for, Amelia Bloomer.

In its own way, therefore, cycling became a part of the general movement towards women's emancipation. In 1896 US women's activist Susan B Anthony wrote: "Let me tell you what I think of bicycling. I think it has done more to emancipate women than anything else in the world. I stand and rejoice every time I see a woman ride by on a wheel. It gives woman a feeling of freedom and self-reliance."

Men didn't always agree, of course. One writer suggested that the "unfettered liberty" of cycling would "intoxicate women to immoral acts".

Another said that cycling "ruined the feminine organs of matrimonial necessity". Yet another danger, it seems, was "bicycle eye" caused by having to look upwards with the head lowered.

Particular resentment was directed at women who raced. In 1895 the Badminton Book on Cycling quoted "medical authorities" as saying that hard training, "cannot fail to be injurious, not only to any woman, but to the race at large".

As well as being yet more evidence of the way that male doctors saw women at that time, these views represent a general late-Victorian fear that women were losing their femininity. By striking out alone on bicycles they were upsetting the natural order which said that women were to be defended and protected by men.

Unsurprisingly, such comments merely galvanised the independently-minded woman into action. In 1896 Margaret Valentine Le Long rode alone from Chicago to San Francisco, carrying a change of underwear and a revolver - which she had to use only to disperse herds of cattle that got in her way.

She was one of a small but determined band of women racers and record breakers on both sides of the Atlantic. In England, Alice Andrews did long distance rides from 1895 to about 1910, by which time she was in her early 40s and had borne eight children. Her peak year was 1904 when she rode from London to Coventry in 5 hours 54 minutes and soon afterwards did London to Brighton and back (104 miles) in just under seven hours. The tradition of women record breakers continued unbroken, through a golden age in the 1950s when Eileen Sheridan of Coventry simultaneously held all 21 available women's road records including Lands End to John O'Groats, 871 miles, in 2 days, 11 hours and 7 minutes (the current women's record, set in 2002 by Lynne Taylor of Staffordshire, is 2 days 4 hours 45 minutes). Mrs Sheridan, now 80 and replete with proud memories, was on her bike up to a year ago, stopping only to protect a hip joint rendered dicky by an old cycling injury. She says that even in the 1940s and 1950s there were men who found it difficult to see her as a proper athlete.

"I was waiting to be called to speak at a dinner, as national champion," she recalls, "And the man next to me, who didn't know who I was, said 'I can't stand these lady champions. I like my ladies to be feminine'. When I got back to my place, he'd left."

The history of the women's movement goes in parallel (but not necessarily in harmony) with the growth of socialism. For instance, in 1894 a group of Birmingham socialists, readers of the left wing Clarion newspaper, founded the Clarion Cycling Club.

At its peak just before the First World War there were Clarion Club branches across the country with a combined membership of 30,000.

Clarionettes and Clarion Scouts would cycle the countryside, stopping to have meetings and distribute pamphlets. Today, the movement has lost that early political impetus, but there are still some clubs.

Similarly conscious of its roots is the Vegetarian Cycling and Athletic Club, started in 1897. At that time athletic training of any sort always seemed to involve the eating of lots of steaks, and the VC and AC was started partly to prove to meat eaters that vegetarianism was no bar to athletic endeavour.

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