According to a recent story in the news, Women cycling in the Lake District have been recently assaulted by motorists. A gang of youths apparently think that it is funny to drive past women cyclists and slap them hard on the bottom1, when in fact this is a very dangerous form of sexual assault which could easily result in serious injury or death. At least one woman almost lost control of her bicycle and wobbled as a result of this unprovoked unjustifiable attack.
The sad case is that cyclists are frequently the victims of assault and abuse through no fault of their own. I cycle 8 miles each way to work and back. In my time motorists have thrown eggs at me and tried to drive me off the road for no reason other than the fact that I am cycling. Fortunately this is comparatively rare, however people, especially pedestrians, love shouting out really obscure slogans at cyclists for no apparent reason. One of the most common?
Your wheels are going round!
This remark is second only to:
Oi! Pay road tax!
Which is rather a bizarre thing to shout. Road Tax in Britain was first introduced in 1920 but abolished in 1937. It is true that there is a Vehicle Excise Duty which owners of motorised cars pay, but road improvement and maintenance is paid for through general taxation, not exclusively through money raised by the Vehicle Excise Duty. So the truth is that cyclists pay as much for roads as motorists, and there is no reason why a cyclist cannot also own a vehicle for which they pay Vehicle Excise Duty for in any case.
As the current Prime Minister, David Cameron, is a known cyclist, shouting out suggestions for the introduction of new taxes to cyclists is probably not the best idea...
Riders on the Road and in the Sky
In fact it was cyclists who made Britain's modern road network possible. After the introduction of the canal and railway networks by the 1840s, Britain's roads were ignored and in a terrible state. Fortunately the Cyclist's Touring Club created the Roads Improvement Association in 1885 and held the first Roads Conference in 1886. This gave advice on road improvement and was the first national organisation dedicated to road improvement since the Romans. The first petrol car was not built in Britain until 1894.
It was a similar story in America; road improvement followed the invention of the bicycle and eventually cars turned up, driving along the cyclists' roads. In 1903 bicycle-shop owners Orville and Wilbur Wright of the Wright Bicycle Company used the experience they had gained in learning how to make and balance bicycles and applied it to aviation, including the use of bicycle parts in their design. Consequently, they became the first men to invent a powered-flight aircraft, flying at Kitty Hawke in December 1903.
This terrible assault has come only a week after women in Saudi Arabia have been allowed a limited right to cycle, highlighting the fact that the bicycle has been one of the world's most important influences of liberation and social reform.
Historically, unless you were rich enough to own a horse or involved in trade, your life was limited to where you could walk to. If you wanted to see more than your village and maybe a village or two nearby, your option was to join the army or navy if you were male. Travel outside the parish of your birth was strictly discouraged. Later in Britain railways were introduced, and the 1844 Railway Regulation and 1883 Cheap Trains 'Penny-A-Mile' Act ensured that the poor could now travel cheaply on 'Parliamentary' trains. However you were still limited in where you went to where a train tracks led. With the bicycle, suddenly the poor could go where they want when they want.
Instrument of Women's Liberation
Of course it was not just the poor who could, following the invention of the bicycle, enjoy freedom of movement. In Victorian times, women wore layers upon layers of clothes. These restricted their movement physically, and socially they were kept in the home and other respectable parts of society such as church. After all, a well-off woman's role was to stay at home and wear dresses and skirts.
So what changed to allow women the ability to wear whatever outfit, including lycra shorts, that they now so choose? Why, the bicycle was invented. Unlike horses, which can be ridden side-saddle2, it simply is not possible for a woman to ride a bicycle in a hoop skirt. Initially bicycles were ridden by men while women were able to maintain their dignity by wearing lighter corsets and riding tricycles, while sitting on special 'hygenic' saddles designed to prevent any possibility of contact between the bicycle seat and where a woman's genitalia would be, in case cycling somehow encouraged masturbation or turned heterosexual women into lesbians, as many doctors believed.
By the 1890s women were beginning to be able to openly ride bicycles. Culottes, trousers disguised as skirts, became popular, only to be replaced with genuine trousers and breaches. In 1894 Annie Kopchovsky became the first woman to ride a bicycle all around the world. By the Edwardian era, bicycles had given women worldwide freedom, mobility and independence. As restrictive corsets got in the way when riding a bicycle, they were disposed of. Women could start wearing a wide variety of clothes, and were able to assert themselves and prove that they were not fragile and helplessness.
The importance of cycling to universal women's liberation can be seen in the number of countries in which women are still not allowed to cycle. Following the 'Arab Spring' revolution, in April 2013 women in Saudi Arabia are now allowed a limited right to cycle, however there are some serious regulations and restrictions. Women are not allowed to cycle where they want to, only around parks and recreational areas, provided they are covered up and accompanied by a male relative.
Cyclists and Motorists
One common complaint by motorists is that cyclists always cycle through red lights and do not obey the laws of the road. There is an element of truth of this. In my experience, those who do cycle through red lights and disregard the Highway Code are youths too young to drive, and frankly I'm glad they're not old enough to drive cars. However to label all cyclists as lawbreakers would be similar to judging the behaviour of all pedestrians based on the actions of those leaving the pub after closing time, and concluding that everyone who has ever walked is obviously drunk, capable only of staggering a few paces at a time, unable to walk in a straight line without throwing up and wetting themselves. If motorists were always so perfect, then there wouldn't be a plethora of programmes with titles like Police Cars Closely Follow Motor Vehicles At Reasonably High Velocities broadcast constantly whenever I change channel.
At the moment I currently live in Eastleigh, a town halfway between Southampton and Winchester. Below are the stories of the 21st Century's most famous cyclist and motorist from the borough.
Chris Huhne: Famous Motorist
Eastleigh's MP Chris Huhne (2005-2013) was caught by speed camera breaking the speed limit in 2003. Rather than accept the three penalty points for his actions on his licence, he asked his wife, Vicky Pryce, to claim she was the driver and accept the points on his behalf. Following divorcing his wife, Pryce revealed the truth, and both Pryce and Chris Huhne were gaoled for 8 months for having perverted the course of justice.
Dani King: Famous Cyclist
Danielle King MBE is an Olympic Gold Medal winning cyclist and joint holder of the world record in the women's team pursuit, with Laura Trott and Joanna Roswell. In early 2013 she was awarded the MBE for her services to cycling. Following her gold success, a 2-mile cycle path named the Dani King Cycleway has opened in her home of Hamble-le-Rice, to allow children to be able to safely cycle to her former school. She has also been granted the freedom of Eastleigh.
The Friends of Hockley Viaduct have been campaigning for 30 years to safeguard the historic former 2,000-yard-long, 33-span railway bridge part of the Didcot, Newbury and Southampton Railway, built in the 1880s. Following her success, Dani successfully helped the campaign finally raise the £1 million needed to repair and preserve the bridge, opening it as a part of National Cycle Route 23 and the South Downs Way National Trail in February 2013.
Below is her golden postbox, which I cycled 26 miles last summer to see:
What do I do now?
This all goes to show that even today, women cyclists still are paving the way in helping their communities and be positive role models for society. Consequently they deserve recognition and our respect and admiration. They certainly should not be targeted for attack. Even worse, the attacks should not be considered humorous, harmless pranks. Women be proud you can ride bicycles - your suffragist ancestors fought as hard for the right to ride as they did for the vote3.
So the next time you travel on a road, fly in a plane or, if you are a woman, wear trousers, remember to think of the humble invention which made it all possible, the bicycle.