I’m continuing to read Thomas Stevens autobiographical account of his circumnavigation of the globe by bicycle, between 1884 and 1886, the first person to have done so. As I read he is just south of Paris, France, having crossed North America from his starting point in San Francisco, via New York for his sea crossing to Liverpool, UK.
His style of writing tickles me for two reasons – its vintage charm, and it’s ability to capture the essence of the joys of cycling. Given that he completed his trip on a penny-farthing, on largely unmade roads, with practically no equipment (socks, spare shirt, raincoat and revolver), relying on guest houses and the kindness of strangers for bed and board you could call it the ultimate in credit card touring. One thing the tale continues to install in me is that today we have it all wrong – too much emphasis on the best equipment when anything will do! In about 5,000 miles so far, he’s not suffered a flat tyre (they aren’t pneumatic), or a broken spoke, or any other kind of mechanical failure, despite constantly going over the handlebars because of the road quality. Now that what I call Rough Stuff riding!
Anyway, here’s a passage that he just tickled me:
Ahead of you stretches a gradual downward slope, perhaps two kilometres long. Knowing full well that from top to bottom there exists not a loose stone or a dangerous spot, you give the ever-ready steel-horse the rein; faster and faster whirl the glistening wheels until objects by the road-side become indistinct phantoms as they glide instantaneously by, and to strike a hole or obstruction is to be transformed into a human sky-rocket, and, later on, into a new arrival in another world. A wild yell of warning at a blue-bloused peasant in the road ahead, shrill screams of dismay from several females at a cluster of cottages, greet the ear as you sweep past like a whirlwind, and the next moment reach the bottom at a rate of speed that would make the engineer of the Flying Dutchman green with envy. Sometimes, for the sake of variety, when gliding noiselessly along on the ordinary level, I wheel unobserved close up behind an unsuspecting peasant walking on ahead, without calling out, and when he becomes conscious of my presence and looks around and sees the strange vehicle in such close proximity it is well worth the price of a new hat to see the lively manner in which he hops out of the way, and the next moment becomes fairly rooted to the ground with astonishment; for bicycles and bicycle riders are less familiar objects to the French peasant, outside of the neighborhood of a few large cities, than one would naturally suppose.
From “Around the World on a Bicycle” by Thomas Stevens, 1887