30 April 2009

Stunt riding, 1869-style


Stunt riding is nothing new. Edinburgh BMXer Danny Macaskill has propelled himself to fame with a much-downloaded YouTube video of him doing unbelievable things on trees, street furniture and even the top of iron railings.

But 140 years ago, the earliest cyclists were pushing the envelope. Presumably the one with the details of their hospital appointment inside.

For example, in the Penny Illustrated Paper of 1 May 1869 under the snappy heading VELOCIPEDE ENTERTAINMENT, there's an account of some mid-Victorian Danny Macaskills wowing the crowds at Liverpool Gymnasium with what was called "fancy riding, in which the riders performed a variety of manoeuvres upon their machines". (It's on page 2 of that link, not the one first displayed.)

Bikes were much heavier, so we can't expect aerial loops or bus-driver handlebar-twizzling. Today, people try to text on the move; but in that letter-writing era, things were more scholarly. "Mr. Franghiardi, while his machine was proceeding at full speed, took a piece of paper and a pencil, and wrote for about a minute, guiding the vehicle unerringly during the time", we are informed.

"Another gentleman stood upon the saddle, holding the handle, and retained that position until the machine came to a standstill"; also "several others raised both feet upon the frame which projects on each side of the front wheel", proving that those footstand things on BMX front wheels have a long pedigree.

As at any modern BMX event, such as the one we cycled past in Peckham on Sunday, there were plenty of tumbles, all of them shrugged off: "During this rapid circulation of bicycles in all directions, two or three general collisions occurred, which brought about a dozen riders and their machines pellmell upon the floor; one was accidently hurled among the spectators, but in no case was any personal injury done, or any sustained by the machines, some of which were very valuable".

As we say in English, plus ├ža change... All this comes from the British Library's excellent British Newspapers site, which has just gone online to the general public. It offers text-search access to thousands of papers from the 19th century, covering the early days of velocipedes to the high point of the Victorian bike boom.

Most access is paid for, but there's also loads of free content (such as that trick-cycling item). If you can come to the British Library, access to the entire site is free (including the otherwise paid-for content). If you do come to the British Library, come by bike, but please don't try to write while doing so.

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