“It would hardly be too much to say that in April of 1895 one was considered eccentric for riding a bicycle, whilst by the end of June eccentricity rested with those who did not ride.” Constance Everett-Green, 1898
The boom in cycling in the 1890s transformed the way tourist maps were produced. Mapmakers increasingly produced maps targeted at cyclists, which included road conditions and dangerous hills, which until then had been absent on maps that mainly catered for railway travellers. This information was retained on later maps branded ‘cycling and motoring’ maps, but even though motor cars became more prevalent in the early 20th century, the mapping conventions developed for cycling maps are still discernible on road maps today.
Most modern cyclists focus on uphill sections of a route, but it was accepted that Victorian riders would get off and walk up any steep inclines. Bikes of the period were usually single speed, ideal for cruising along flat roads. Even in races gears were not always used — Henri Desgrange, who set up the Tour de France in 1903, considered that riding a bike with gears was cheating, fit for only ‘women and old men’! However, indicating steepness downhill was seen as essential on any good cycling map, as cyclists needed to know when to expect ‘danger hills’ — hills too steep to descend safely with unreliable or non-existent brakes.
Cycling organisations themselves produced maps indicating the quality of a road for cycling, and these were often used to petition local authorities to improve the situation, as well as inform other cyclists.
Some mapmakers produced ‘road books’ to complement their maps, like this example from around 1899, produced by Gall & Inglis. These included profiles of hundreds of routes, and descriptions of the route and road surface. Cyclists riding between Lampeter and Aberystwyth would have faced ‘a very trying road… [with] a constant succession of dangerous hills’, and might have been tempted to ride to Llandovery instead, on ‘a splendid piece of road’. It also notes which route to a particular town is the most scenic, to serve the cyclist looking to take in some beautiful views along the way.
Road books like this one are still produced today for professional races. Competitors use them to prepare for rides, and fans often collect them as souvenirs of races they have seen. Noting road surface is still vital. The Paris-Roubaix race, held in northern France each spring, is famous for its cobblestones, or pavé, and the winner is ceremonially presented with a cobblestone as part of their prize.
The ‘safety’ bicycle
While bicycles had been available in various forms since the early 1800s, it was not until the 1880s and the introduction of the ‘safety’ bicycle (the familiar shape very similar to modern bikes today) that its role expanded beyond that of a rich gentleman’s plaything.
The safety bicycle, combined with the newly invented pneumatic tyre, was comfortable, easy to ride and maintain, and relatively inexpensive. It was also enthusiastically embraced by both men and women, though not without raised eyebrows over the morality of women cycling. One columnist in the women’s magazine Queen in 1896 suggested women who cycled were also disobedient, likely to smoke and read ‘risky novels’. Such criticisms notwithstanding, one estimate suggests that in 1896 a third of bike orders were for women’s models, and in 1880, Mrs W.D. Welford became the first woman to join the Bicycle Touring Club (later the CTC and now Cycling UK), just two years after its establishment.
“Where shall we go for our week’s freedom from the town’s oppression?”
“King of the Road”, writing in The Clarion magazine, June 1897
In a period of rapid industrialisation and urbanisation, cycling was celebrated as a way for town-dwellers to escape to the countryside, in a way that was both affordable and included the benefits of gentle exercise. Cycling opened up rural areas, allowing tourists to explore the landscape at their own pace and under their own steam, rather than being dependent on railway timetables or organised excursions.
In H.G. Wells’s 1896 comic novel The Wheels of Chance, a poorly paid draper’s assistant escapes Putney for the freedom of country lanes on his bike: ‘‘Here was quiet and greenery, and one mucked about as the desire took one… [S]omething wonderful, a little, low, red beast with a yellowish tail… went rushing across the road before him. It was the first weasel he had ever seen in his cockney life.’ (The Wheels of Chance, p.48).
Cycling outings were particularly popular among the growing middle class, who had the money and time, but the bicycle was also embraced by the socialist movement. Both the playwright George Bernard Shaw and docker’s union leader Ben Tillett cycled to the Trades Union Congress in Cardiff in September 1896, the former riding 40 miles from a friend’s home in Monmouthshire for the occasion.
Inevitably, many companies wanted to take advantage of the craze for cycling, producing advertising cycling maps like this pocket-sized map of North Wales, published in 1897 by Scotch whisky producers Pattisons. While the map conveniently folds into a cover less than 9 cm tall, making it perfect to slip in your pocket on a bike ride, we certainly do not recommend taking its advice and indulging in ‘Pattisons when cycling’!
- Cycling UK. n.d. Cycling UK history timeline [webpage]. Accessed 11/12/2019
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- Fitzpatrick, J. 2015. A glimpse at Australia’s cycling history. In Bonham, J. and Johnson M. (eds) Cycling Futures. Adelaide: University of Adelaide Press. 25-42. Accessed 12/12/2019
- Lamont, M. 2015. Cycle touring. In Bonham, J. and Johnson M. (eds) Cycling Futures. Adelaide: University of Adelaide Press.153-176. Accessed 12/12/2019
- Miller, G. 2017. Mapping the urban bike utopias of the 1890s. National Geographic [website]. Accessed 11/12/2019
- Nicholson, T. 2004. Cycling and motoring maps in Western Europe 1885-1960. The Cartographic Journal. 41 (3). 181-215. Accessed 11/12/2019
- Rubinstein, D. 1977. Cycling in the 1890s. Victorian Studies 21 (1). 47-71. Accessed 12/12/2019
- Tobin, G. 1974. The bicycle boom of the 1890s: the development of private transportation and the birth of the modern tourist. Journal of Popular Culture, 8 (Spring). 838-849.
Ellie King, Trainee Assistant Map Curator