Bikes vs the world: Cyclists’ battle for legitimacy is nothing new

With his gleaming new bicycle and the very latest in cycling apparel, Dr G.A. Thorne decided to take a long ride in the country. On a narrow road near Bairnsdale, Victoria, he waited for an oncoming vehicle to pass. The driver pointed aggressively at his beloved new ride: “The Government should not allow those things on the road”, she raged.

A further volley of obscenities followed hard on the first. “Well, you should learn how to drive,” the good doctor retorted, trying to remain calm. Not to be outdone, she asked him if he was travelling with a circus, a jibe at his outlandish clothing. At the conclusion of hostilities, the pair went their separate ways.

Just another example of the argy bargy between cyclists and car drivers, I hear you yawn. But is it? What if I told you that this colourful exchange took place in 1889? Yes, 130 years ago. And the shouty woman wasn’t operating a motor car, but rather a horse-drawn buggy.

This is road rage, 19th Century style.

Dr Thorne’s troubles did not end there. Later in his trip, a party of horsemen overtook him on a particularly steep track. They scoffed at the cyclist’s slow progress. “The cycling fad would never last”, they said. Dr Thorne was fed up. At the top of the climb, he put everything he had into the pedals. He ripped past the horsemen at full speed, scattering the terrified animals and their riders into the bush. Thorne shook his fist; they would rue the day they mocked him and his beautiful bicycle.

Australia’s highways and byways have long been battlegrounds. City bicyclists – called ‘scorchers’ for their outrageous speeding – had been scuttling pedestrians since the 1880s. But the clash between horse riders and bike riders proved especially vexatious.

As one newspaper explained, to a nervous horse a bike rider was “some sort of terrifying devil without wings”. Hospitals found themselves treating more people having fallen from their terrified steeds after an altercation with a ‘scorching’ bicycle. Something needed to be done.

Around the country, local councils proposed new laws to regulate this fad they called cycling. Bike riders in many parts of Victoria were already forbidden from riding at high speed. In Yea, a local councillor proposed that every cyclist must stop and dismount whenever they encountered a horse that looked nervous. The plan was met with derision. This ‘anti-cycling legislation’ was a barrier to progress, wrote one protestor. Did the councillor also wish to pass a law requiring trains and trams to pull up because a horse rider objected to the disturbance?

The shadow cast by the debate was long. Today’s laws that require cyclists to dismount at certain road crossings have their origins in this early tussle with the horse.

Bicycles were the future and soon replaced horses as the most popular form of transport; second only to walking, of course. But the next transition was the game-changer. Mass car ownership in the 1950s took the contest too a far bloodier level. Outbursts of intemperate language between horse riders and cyclists were replaced by the sound of metal hitting flesh. Within a decade, bike riders were pushed from the roads almost entirely.

The resurgence in cycling in recent decades has rekindled the angry search for legitimacy on our roads that first started over a century ago. The fist-shaking and hot tempers have also come with an alarming spike in the number of cycling deaths and injuries. Disturbingly, a recent Australian survey revealed that half of motorists did not see cyclists as fully human.

In the battle for space on our roads, it seems that one’s choice of transport involves the surrender of one’s basic humanity.

If history is any guide, the age of entitlement and righteous indignation will not be over any time soon. Just how the flying car drivers and hoverboard riders of the future will express their outrage at those using apparently outmoded forms of transport remains to be seen. We can but live in hope that the next outbreak on our roads will be an epidemic of civility and kindness.

About the author

Dr Daniel Oakman is a historian at the Australian National University’s College of Arts and Social Sciences. He has an interest in the ways the bicycle revolutionised the perception of the Australian landscape and changed understandings of human power and endurance. He is the author of the 2018 book Oppy: The Life of Sir Hubert Opperman.

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