Wednesday, July 8, 2015

Jive Enplane

Influential American impressionist painter Childe Hassam, early in his career, did these bicycling illustrations that appeared in a Scribner’s article by Philip Hubert, Jr., “The Bicycle: The Wheel of To-Day” (Vol. 17, No. 6, June, 1895). The author, “Having always had this mild mania for flying,” was impressed when told, “If you want to come as near flying as we are likely to get... learn to ride a pneumatic bicycle.” Hubert gave a detailed account of cycling issues of the time, such as swapping sweaty woolen clothing and washing in streams, nothing you’d dare risk these days, probably get arrested or infected, wear wick-y fabrics to avoid.

Halfway through, this year’s handful of emerging books likewise involve history, usually fantastic fables or stately dances seen though rose colored spectacles. Uncovering bicycling culture seems child’s play when you focus on yesterday.

As explained by David McCullough, The Wright Brothers (Thorndike Press, 2015, 320 pp.), most people forget that these autodidactic bicycle mechanics from Dayton, Ohio were the ones who produced the first airplane to actually move from point to point of no less height, which means flying not gliding. The path from locomotive to automotive had to go directly through bicycles because they afforded safer opportunities to test all sorts of technologies: bearings, cabling, chain drive, framework, gearing, paving, spoked wheels, tires. A small $1000 seed from selling safety bikes started up The Wright's entire aerospace enterprise. Appreciate the fact they are known collectively as a family, including sister Katherine, without whom they may never have succeeded, rather than individual inventors, seldom the case; employee Charlie Taylor (an important surname in cycling circles) built flyer’s engine. Reviewers suggest a stodgy admiration for one dimensional workaholics with no love lives or scandals to speak of, but Mccullough is practically a neighbor nestled into bicycle infested Martha’s Vineyard, so merits a mention, plus his book hit #1 on the New York Times bestseller list.

Robert McCullough, Old Wheelways, (The MIT Press, 2015, 384 pp.) gives Nineteenth Century wheelmen the props they deserve. He describes efforts by cyclists to build “asphalt ribbons” and wheelways out of aqueduct corridors, canal towpaths, and trolley rights-of-way, fights with park planners, including Olmsted, who opposed separate paths, and marathon tours of the Northeast recounted at the time in such defunct magazines as Bicycling World and The Wheelman Illustrated.

Over a century ago, before anyone ever imagined indoor spinning parlors with patrons jumping pedal jive to pounding jazz, uptown in New York there was Michaux Club (also shown in Scribner’s article cited). So exclusive, you had to be like Rockefeller among The Four Hundred to gain admittance. Women awheel would perform gymkhana and synchronized dancing to some Virginia reel. Carlton Reid, Roads Were Not Built for Cars (Island Press, 2015, 340 pp.), further notes that at least 64 carmakers began by manufacturing bicycles.

Tim Moore, Gironimo! Riding the Very Terrible 1914 Tour of Italy (Pegasus Books, 2015, 368 pp.) tells how only eight intrepid cyclists finished history’s most difficult bike race. Consider it a Giro d’Italia follow-up to his 2002 book, French Revolutions: Cycling the Tour de France (St. Martin’s Press, 2002, 277 pp.), where he recounts riding for himself the route of 2000 Tour.

Max Leonard, Lanterne Rouge: The Last Man in the Tour de France, (New York : Pegasus Books, 2015, 264 pp.) Commentators give this moniker, from the red lantern on a train’s caboose, to the last rider to finish individual stages or whole of Le Tour. Leonard explains this doesn’t belittle but confers a badge of honor considering that over 2,500 miles in 3 weeks there’s seldom much difference in time between first and last, measured in mere hours. Even front runners and past champions might post a DNF after later crashing out or enduring endos.

Hollie McNish & Inja: Why I Ride: Because a Bike Pedal Lasts Longer Than a Gas Tank (Green Writers Press, 2015, 96 pp.): Slim compilation by London poetess collaborating with rap rhymer for the Cambridge Cycle of Songs art project was the basis for ReSound’s a capella song, Why We Ride. “This is why I ride; I like to fly... freewheeling... Life is much more fun, riding on my bike: Park or school or home, anywhere I like! I ride for one slice of freedom; walking seems so slow. Wheels fly in motion, and I’m ready to go!”

Marginally related to riding glorious French countryside, Nina Solomon, The Love Book (Kaylie Jones Books, 2015, 320 pp.), has 4 divorcees on a singles' bike tour of Normandy discovering a book that takes them on an journey to unexpected romance. Reflects a personal history of 30 years without finding a soulmate suddenly reversed by enplaning and riding elsewhere.

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