Bartleby By Bike

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This is the ninth in a series, “History En Vélo,” about cycling and thinking historically, shared with Active History.

Hang the anachronism: I liked the alliteration. The sentiment remains, however. I would prefer not to superimpose Herman Melville’s scrivener’s rejection of the world he inhabits while inhabiting that world as metaphor for the bicycle’s place in twenty-first-century petrocultured environments.

I would prefer not to consider the relationship between bicycles and history. I would prefer not to mention that the first roads were paved for bicycles and not automobiles. I would prefer not to posit the transformative qualities the bicycle imposed on the late-nineteenth-century cityscape. I would prefer not to talk about bloomers or the oft-quoted position, held by both Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton, that women were riding to suffrage on a bicycle.

I would prefer not to shift toward environmental history tropes and evoke the ways in which topography and weather and seasons and the experience of physical work mediate my relationship with my surroundings. I would prefer not to describe the burning of lungs as I lean into steeper inclines, or how this attunes rider to landscape.

I would prefer not to touch on the materials of the bicycle’s construction—tubing made of steel, aluminum, carbon fibre, bamboo—or its manufacture. I would prefer not to assert the simplicity of its original design, its efficiency for capturing human power, or its ability to propel its rider at the optimal maximum speed across shared and populous spaces.

Umberto Boccioni, Dynamism of a Cyclist (Dinamismo di un ciclista) – Peggy Guggenheim Collection, Public Domain.

I would prefer not to reflect on Henri Bergson’s contention that material objects exist in a state of perpetual flux, or the ways in which futurist artists fused bicycle and human body to capture that notion on canvas. I would prefer not to think about the shapes—the cones and curves—present in Umberto Boccioni’s Dinamismo di un Ciclista—or the impossible gear Natalia Goncharova’s Cyclist is turning, or why the finger in the top left is pointing back in the direction from which the cyclist has come. I would prefer not to countenance the significance of the shared date of Goncharova’s and Boccioni’s creations (1913), or ask how Italian and Russian futurisms influenced the Mexican avant-garde, but the bicycle doesn’t appear in the works of the Stridentist artists, even though José Guadalupe Posada (who died in 1913) didn’t hesitate to put his calaveras on bikes in 1900. 

José Guadalupe Posada – Dover Publications. Scanned by Jack Child. Public Domain.

And I definitely would prefer not to extend this refusal to contemplate the rather charming moral lesson from Posada’s art, as outlined by Juan Villoro, that “if we are all so sympathetic inside and destined to end up at the same party, we had better get used to one another.”1

I also would prefer not to report on in-class visual activities that involve spotting and interpreting bicycles in urban, rural, and wilderness landscapes from the 1890s to the present. I would prefer not to assert that the bicycle is good to think (historically) with in classroom settings. I would prefer not to propose that the bicycle is one of those transcendental and quietly ubiquitous phenomena, and I would prefer not to suggest that having students read into the variety of those contexts can generate some incredibly stimulating classroom discoveries.

Fausto Coppi (credit unknown).

I would prefer not to confess my aesthetic admiration for Fausto Coppi on a bicycle (or off it, for that matter), or the cultural significance of racing in many parts of industrial Europe, especially Belgium and Italy, where a young man’s ability to ride a bicycle fast was historically the quickest way out of the drudgery of factory or farm work and into the pantheon of national heroes. 

I would prefer not to touch upon the rise of Colombian professional cycling since the 1980s as a similar means of escape from poverty as it had represented to Europeans a generation or so before—or how the altitudes in the Andes produced some of the world’s very best grimpeurs. It is worth mentioning here, too, that I would prefer not to comment on the racism faced by many of these small and dark Colombian bodies in a traditionally (and still) very white sport. In this vein, I would prefer not to mention the long, arduous, and underpaid growth of the professional women’s racing scene, or that it, too, has yet to reckon with race in a concerted manner.

I would prefer not to treat the bicycle’s suburban relegation to child’s toy after WWII  in the Global North (or West), in contrast with its concomitant rise in parts of the developing world as a significant means of socio-economic mobility. I would prefer not to comment on the fleet of bicycles produced to facilitate bringing Rwandan coffee beans to market, or on the bicycle’s importance as a means of carrying goods and people long distances between villages and cities more efficiently than foot or wagon on paths and roads not passable for cars and trucks.

Speaking of the bicycle’s role as liberating technology, I would prefer not to encourage you, Reader, to recall your own childhood relationship with the bicycle and how those two wheels might have represented their own kind of liberation from the confines of home, how more than pedestrianism and differently from automobility the bicycle revolutionized the scale of childhood psychogeographies. (I would prefer not to admit to wishing I had a Kuwahara BMX bike after coming out of the cinema after E.T.

And while some readers of this post will be drawn to cycling for a bit of fitness or commuting exercise and fresh air, I would prefer not to ruin that appeal by proposing an examination of Beijing’s air quality index over the past few decades (or Mumbai’s), and correlating the decline of the bicycle (an expression of poverty) with the rise of petrocultures (a sign of affluence). (I would prefer not to find a more artful way of pointing out that Coppi’s last words, dying of malaria in 1960, were “more air.”)

If the relationship between air and affluence gives you, Reader, pause to consider the opposite scenario in the developed world—how a bicycle reflects a more privileged, leisurely, healthful, or proximate commute to work—I would prefer not to explore that, either. I would prefer not to juxtapose such contradictions around the social politics of visibility and invisibility and the myriad ways that might be interpreted from the saddle.

Natalia Goncharova, Cyclist, Public Domain.

I would prefer not to give much thought to how my resistance to engage with the bicycle in an intellectual/professional setting like this might have to do with a reluctance to overlap work and one of my primary, private forms of escape from it. Which is not to say that I don’t think about teaching or writing or reading while I ride, or that there isn’t something to considering the differences between the enclosed settings of the university spaces I inhabit and the open skies and rural roads, but it does speak to the ways in which I ride to clear my mind, that cycling’s true power is less for health, heart, or lungs but for its capacity to salvage the soul. I would prefer not to query that or overthink it.

While on the subject, though, I would prefer not to tell you about how recreational cycling gave me a new perspective for appreciating Southern Ontario’s landscape, which I had heretofore under-appreciated. 

I would also prefer not to talk about my local Café Domestique, a cycling-inspired and -friendly café in town that serves excellent and unpretentious coffee. I would prefer not to confess the number of pre- and post-ride coffees I have enjoyed in conversation with its young staff, or the heartfelt warmth derived from regular (pre-COVID) hugs with its owner. And not to cycle things back again to Fausto Coppi (il Campionissimo!), I would prefer not to explain the deep and lasting relationship between coffee and bikes.

I would prefer not to write about why I gave up driving less because of my opposition to carbon imperialisms and more for the emotional wellbeing not driving afforded me, and how I navigate the city on a cargo bike, ideal for groceries, errands, and stopping to say hello to friends I see roadside.

I would prefer not to upset or insult anyone by throwing my hands up in disgust at proponents of electric cars or how St. Elon remains the patron saint of an unimaginative  and disastrous eco-modernist status quo. (I would prefer not to explain the relationship between the expansion of a climate crisis and the hyper-concentration of wealth, or how “we” aren’t all in this together, or how the climate crisis is an opportunity, just only for a select few who are well positioned, violins in hand, to exploit it.) 

I would prefer not to get over-exercised by the fact that bicycles provide a vital plank in a much more comprehensive overhaul of public transportation systems and a completely revolutionized understanding of city mobilities and accessibilities that complements foot and bicycle traffic with moving differently-abled people quickly, quietly, cleanly, and equitably. I would prefer not to revisit my earlier refusal to compare the growing cycling networks in richer cities with parts of the developing world where the bicycle is in decline.

I would prefer not to have to make the case that a child on a bicycle on safe streets is worth a million new Teslas on the road when it comes to visualizing a greener and more just future.

1. Juan Villoro, “José Guadalupe Posada: One Hundred Years of a Better Life,” Posada: A Century of Skeletons (Mexico City: Fundación BBVA Bancomer, 2013), 9-28. Quotation is from page 27.
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Michael Egan

Michael Egan is an associate professor and University Teaching Fellow in the History Department at McMaster University. His current teaching and (SSHRC-funded) research revolves around the history of the future and the construction of “modern arks” as a means of insulating against future catastrophes.

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