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September 25, 2017

A century ago, bikes, cars and instructors changed the way we get around

Friday, May 12, 2017

When Mark Twain got on two wheels

Mark Twain
Mark Twain
Mark Twain
By Matías Carnevale
For the Herald

One hundred years ago, an autobiographical piece by Mark Twain (actually, Samuel Langhorne Clemens) was published. It was an account of his experiences riding a bike for the first time in the 1880s. The title: Taming the bicycle.

That year, 1917, was also the year in which Rose Wilder Lane wrote the laudatory biography Henry Ford’s Own Story: How A Farmer Boy Rose To The Power That Goes With Many Millions, Yet Never Lost Touch With Humanity.

Both the bicycle and the car have drastically changed the way we get around, and they have competed with each other for the domination of streets and avenues ever since.

Twain’s brief story, as expected, couldn’t go by without humour. The bicycle Twain describes is a feral contraption with a life of its own. The type he was attempting to ride was called ordinary — “ornery” for short — and high-wheeled or, as it was known in the UK, penny-farthing, although the writer calls it a “thing,” “machine” and “nickel-clad horse.” His vehicle “was not a full-grown bicycle, but only a colt 50-inch and skittish, like any other colt.” Foreseeing trouble, Twain bought A BARREL of Pond’s Extract, a general cure-all, and took lessons for eight days, of an hour and a half each.

His narration of the process includes several falls, bruises and violent bumps, as in a slapstick comedy of olden days which evokes images of moustached men in bowler hats pedalling downhill trying to avoid dogs, cats, women, priests Twain’s story, with an “expert” and his four assistants, a farmer on a wagon loaded with cabbages, a boy, and dogs, is a comical reflection (and empirical evidence) of the proverb “practice makes perfect.”

At one point, Twain makes a preposterous comparison between learning to ride these two-wheeled monsters and studying German. He writes, “the right and only way to learn German is by the bicycling method take a grip on one villainy of it at a time, and learn it.” (Everyone who has attempted to learn German could profit from his suggestion.)

Dedicating lines

With Taming the bicycle, Twain joins the club of consummate writers who have dedicated some lines to the bike, as Ernest Hemingway and H.G. Wells, for example, have done.

The first commented that “It is by riding a bicycle that you learn the contours of a country best, since you have to sweat up the hills and coast down them. Thus you remember them as they actually are, while in a motor car only a high hill impresses you, and you have no such accurate remembrance of country you have driven through as you gain by riding a bicycle,” and so contrasted two utterly different mobility modes available to mankind. The latter optimistically declared that “When I see an adult on a bicycle, I do not despair for the future of the human race,” and hoped that bicycles would be abundant in his utopian society.

According to Heathcote Williams’s poem Autogeddon, published in 1991, Henry Ford said “I’m going to democratise the automobile / And when I’m through everyone will be able to afford one / And about everyone will have one.” His dream of car democracy became a dystopian lunacy of 7,000 deaths per year on our roads and streets.

Shame on you, Mr. Ford. Maybe we weren’t made for living in humongous, disproportionate urban environments ruled by cars. Look at the Chinese with their screens broadcasting the sun amidst a smoggy skyline. Who’d want a future like that?

Considering this, one can’t help but side with Twain’s advice: “Get a bicycle. You will not regret it, if you live.”

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