Quest for Speed
A History of Early Bicycle Racing 1868-1903
New Books in American StudiesNew Books in European StudiesNew Books in HistoryNew Books in Peoples & PlacesNew Books in Politics & SocietyNew Books in SportsNew Books Network January 30, 2012 Bruce Berglund
As several guests on this podcast have told us, sports have been fundamentally connected with the major developments of modern history: urbanization, class conflict, imperialism, political repression, globalization. The history of bicycle racing brings in another key ingredient of the modern age: technology. The sport began only with the invention of a machine, and its history, from the mid-1800s to today, has been linked to the constant adaptation of that machine.
Andrew Ritchie documents the first decades of this history in his book Quest for Speed: A History of Early Bicycle Racing 1868-1903 (Cycle Publishing, 2011). As he explains in our interview, an important part of the story is the evolution of the bicycle, from early wood-and-steel models that rattled their riders, through the high-wheel bikes that we typically associate with 19th-century cycling, to the more familiar bicycles of the 1890s, with chain-driven rear wheels and pneumatic tires. An important point Andrew makes is that technological development and changes in competition were always linked. Riders, mechanics, designers, and manufacturers worked in concert, always seeking a better and, above all, faster bicycle.
Andrew does discuss the people of early cycling as well as the machines. We talk about two figures who gained international stardom as champion cyclists, Arthur Zimmerman and Major Taylor, the African-American rider whom Andrew profiled in a previous book. We also discuss what sets cyclists apart. In the 1800s riders had emotional attachments to their bicycles, they tended to hang out in bike shops, and they stood out on the roads in their strange clothes. In short, they were not much different from today’s cyclists–with the exception of those nifty handlebar moustaches.