Victoria Pendelton Rides Vintage…

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Let me tell you what I think of bicycling. It has done more to emancipate women than anything else in the world. It gives a woman 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.

 

RideVintage Online Magazine celebrates the evolutionary years of cycling, photography and publishing. H.G. Wells’ comment, appearing in the New York Magazine on 2nd February, 1896, was welcome support for female cycling. Authors were the celebrities of the day, and their endorsement influenced public opinion. Even well into the 20th century, the majority of men were appalled at the idea of a woman riding a bicycle on her own; our society was very conservative and women were invariably chaperoned wherever they travelled. The passenger trailer came into vogue by 1899 as a more appropriate way for a woman to take part in the new fad of cycling, as demonstrated by Evgeny towing Victoria below.

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I was travelling in Nepal with a girlfriend in the 1990s. At a local restaurant a Nepali waiter sidled up to me one day and confided:

‘We have seen your girlfriend yesterday, and she was roaming.’

Because of the culture gap, it was too complicated to try to explain women’s suffrage. My partner epitomised what H.G. Wells called ‘free, untrammelled womanhood.’ For goodness sake, we each rode motorcycles up local mountains. (Up was no problem, down could be tricky). I simply replied that western women were allowed to roam. But it made me think more about east-west differences in cultural attitudes toward women. I read an article regarding the plight of Nepali women, and its title stuck in my mind ever since:

‘Why is the girl-child always given a broom, never a pen?’

Such attitudes may now seem unfamiliar to us in the west; some may think they belong only in Asian tradition. Even the word ‘untrammelled’ is obsolete. But not that long ago, this was normal in the west too. Women had no rights. They were not allowed to roam.

Then along came the bicycle…

When women first began to ride the bicycle many (old fogey) physicians said it would be very injuriousThe undue exercise was dilated upon and the peculiar liability to straining or to getting falls or bruises, and, in fact, every possible objection which old-fashioned ideas and obsolete theories could suggest was brought up. Probably not one of the objectors could ride a bicycle to save his life or had ever felt the exhilarating joy of a truly fresh breath of air taken into the lungs like a stream of electrical vitality.

…But the day of old fogies is happily passed. Women defied the dear old fellows with their last century notions, and with commendable pluck learned to ride, and ride well, swiftly, gracefully, athletically. The women of today now mount their wheels and go forth for a rapid spin in the open air, knowing that in this way they can best win strength and courage to meet their many household worries. Dame Fashion also has smiled approval, and has decreed that women of the highest standing in the world of society may go forth mistresses of the art of bicycling, free and untrammeled by conventional dress and musty tradition.  (Ida Trafford Bell, July 1894)

Today we take the bicycle for granted: it’s seldom seen as a tool of liberation. Yet the humble bicycle was the first machine to enable easy independent travel. With mass production, the bicycle went on to empower both women and the working classes.

The success of bicycle sales in late Victorian times resulted in another ‘industrial revolution’ paving the way for the automobile industry that followed it in the early 20th century. Both the printing process and photography enjoyed an evolutionary leap at the same time. The modern advertising industry, fuelled by the revenue from bicycle sales, came into being at this time too. Magazines flourished. With the price of a magazine now just one penny, new articles were actively encouraged, in particular from female authors to appeal to the female readership. So camera enthusiasts who made road trips on their bicycles and recorded their adventures now had a chance to publish their experiences. Victoria illustrates below how women were now firmly in the saddle.

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120 years after women first started riding the new-fangled ladies’  safety bicycles – and taking courses on cycle maintenance so they could repair punctures by the roadside – Victoria Pendleton inspired the world with her fabulous successes in the London Olympics. Victoria is the modern epitome of female emancipation. So it’s interesting to see her riding bicycles from the early years of the suffragette movement during the Sports Relief charity photoshoot.

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