Wednesday, July 8, 2009

Riding around the world...on a highwheeler!

  • If you haven't noticed by now, I'm a sucker for high wheelers (and no, it isn't the Bunnies). That's why when I heard about Around the World on a Bicycle, by Thomas Stevens and first published in 1887, I couldn't resist.

    Really, around the world?


    Around the World on a Bicycle was republished by Stackpole Books in 2001 with an introduction by Thomas Pauly, and everything about it is daunting:

  • Going around the world

  • Riding a high wheeler

  • Through undeveloped land over the roughest of trails

  • Amongst people who had never seen a bicycle

  • With essentially no supplies other than a slicker

  • Eating whatever came his way

  • Sleeping outdoors, in mangers, wherever

  • Writing over 1000 pages

  • No Control Stops

  • No Perpetuem!

How to begin describing such a journey? Let's have Stevens speak for himself after a brief setup.

Stevens writes of his Hungarian companion, Igali, whom he fell in with for a spell. Igali had his own bicycle, and was considered the ultimate sporting cyclist of all Hungary at the time. Stevens adjusts to Igali's slower pace by riding ahead and waiting in a comfortable spot for him. There is a little tension around tempo, but it resolves as they ride along and encounter adventures together and learn to appreciate one another more deeply.

My companion is what in England or America would be considered a "character"; he dresses in the thinnest of racing costumes, through which the broiling sun readily penetrates, wears racing-shoes, and a small jockey-cap with an enormous poke, beneath which glints a pair of "specs"; he has rat-trap pedals to his wheel, and winds a long blue girdle several times around his waist, consumes raw eggs, wine, milk, a certain Hungarian mineral water, and otherwise excites the awe and admiration of his sport-admiring countrymen.
On the Slavonian national dance:

Livelier and faster twang the tamboricas, and more and more animated becomes the scene as the dancing, shuffling ring envdeavors to keep pace with it. As the fun progresses into the fast and furious stages the youths' hats have a knack of getting into a jaunty position on the side of their heads, and the wearers' faces assume a reckless, flushed appearance, like men half-intoxicated, while the maidens' bright eyes and beaming faces betoken unutterable happiness; finally the music and the shuffling of feet terminate with a rapid flourish, everybody kisses everybody--save, of course, mere luckless onlookers like Igali and myself--and the Slovian national dance is ended.
On the popularity of the wheel:

Many readers will doubtless be as surprised as I was to learn that at Belgrade, the capital of the little Kingdom of Servia, independent only since the Treaty of Berlin, a bicycle club was organized in January, 1885, and that now, in June of the same year, they have a promising club of thirty members, twelve of whom are riders owning their own wheels.

In addition to cultural misunderstandings, mechanical breakdowns, sickness, attacks, headers, and severe weather, Stevens had to walk much of his journey as he had just one gear. Despite this, it took him 104 days to travel from San Fransisco to Boston, the first cross country cyclist. Eight months later in May of 1885 he left for England returning back to San Fransisco in January of 1887 via France, Germany, Austria, Hungary, Serbia, Slovinia, Bulgaria, Turkey, Azarbaijan, Georgia, Iran, Afghanistan, Pakistan, India, Singapore, China and Japan. Some 13, 500 miles "wheeled" he says.

Stevens can be compelling at times, but also repetitive. I'm probably one fifth of the way through its 1000+ pages, and I start and stop because there is no real drama apart from his various escapades. He's thorough, and I'm learning a great deal, but it ain't a great read.

I can't seem to find attribution for the line drawings, but as you can see they are fabulous.

His feat is remarkable in so many ways, but the detail that gave me heart as I contemplate the Paris Brest Paris in 2011 is that he decided to ride cross country just two years before he embarked. At the point of that decision he hadn't yet ridden a bicycle!

And, the one he rode, a Columbia Bicycle by Pope Bicycle Factory, cost him $110. Consider that a tea set then was $4.75, a sewing machine $13.50, and set of parlor furniture was $17.50 according to the Introduction. Even a 425-pound buggy cost only $44.50, so my custom bicycle isn't looking too bad in comparison.

All together, I'm enjoying my long distance journey with Around the World on a Bicycle, but like his journey: it isn't for the faint of heart.

Keep it high,