December 2013

Tom Ambrose

Rolling through history on two wheels
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Tom Ambrose considers himself “a newcomer to cycling.” True, as a youngster in Ireland in the 1950s and 1960s, he owned and rode a number of bicycles. And now, as a grandfather, he pedals around the countryside near his home in rural Suffolk on a Dawes, which he calls “a sporting amateur’s bike.” But until recently, Ambrose had never written a word about cycling.

That changed with the publication of his well-designed, richly illustrated and informative new book, The History of Cycling in Fifty Bikes. It’s a volume that racers, hipsters on fixies, families with cargo bikes and occasional cyclists in their seemingly endless contemporary varieties will want to add to their collection.

In brisk, short chapters, Ambrose covers the technological advances of the bicycle, from the first foot-powered bikes like the so-called Hobby Horse through the development of gears and derailleurs, carbon fiber, bike lights and such advances as John B. Dunlop’s inflatable tire and James Starley’s wire spoke, innovations that were necessary to the later development of automobiles and aircraft. He relates captivating anecdotes from bike racing’s early days to the present, including cheating scandals from the earliest Tour de France competitions. And he introduces readers to the wide array of inventive, competitive and sometimes cantankerous personalities who have shaped and been shaped by bicycles.

But Ambrose’s chief interest, one that mostly murmurs quietly just beneath the surface of his narrative, is what he calls the “social aspects” of bicycling, its social history. The topic of the bicycle’s relationship to women’s emancipation, for example, is one that percolates through several chapters in the book.

“The bicycle became a viable means of transport at the time when—in the 19th century— you’ve got a developing women’s consciousness about equality and women’s rights,” Ambrose explains. “A woman never had anything of her own in terms of wealth, and she depended on men for everything, including transport. As women got ideas that they wanted more social liberty, this became irksome. So the coming of the bicycle gave them this great freedom. In a sense you could say that the lady’s bicycle is probably the emblem of female emancipation.”

Likewise, Ambrose observes the impact of the bicycle on the ebb and flow of working-class life. “The bicycle really did offer reasonably low-cost commuting. Of course that enables your workforce to come in from farther afield. You have all these factories of the Industrial Revolution sucking people into the cities, and the bicycle was very useful for that. Later, as prosperity spread, you have the interesting thing of people being borne into the city for work purposes then using the bicycle as a means of escape.”

Ambrose adds, with a sort of virtual wink, “And the bicycle was probably a good sexual vehicle as well. Cycling clubs sprang up and encouraged young men and women to go off bird watching in the countryside and things like that, but the real purpose, of course, was to get to know one another.”

“The invention of the bicycle was the greatest contribution to human health because it enlarged the gene pool,” the author says. “Young men from villages in France or Britain or the USA could then court girls from more distant villages. They would ride two or three miles instead of being confined to a breeding pattern within their own community.”

Ambrose’s text on the history of biking is accompanied by extensive photos and other depictions of bikes. These include photographs or period illustrations of each bicycle, as well as many of the inventors and bike racers.

There are also close-up views of technological innovations like the Lucas bike lamp, an early oil lamp that made nighttime cycling safer and more convenient. And there are completely unexpected images, such as one showing overloaded, camouflaged bicycles used by the North Vietnamese army to transport supplies without detection during the Vietnam war. “That was a major demonstration of using a Third World technology to defeat a First World power,” Ambrose says, returning to his interest in the bicycle’s impact on history.

Ambrose, who became a full-time writer after a career in filmmaking and advertising, thinks we are now witnessing “a third kind of revolution or effect of the bicycle as it has become an urban vehicle. Yes, it’s still a major sporting vehicle. But bicycling allows you to smartly maneuver in crowded and congested cities. So it’s the city dweller who has taken over the bicycle in many ways.”

To which this citified cyclist says: Ride on!

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