Two Wheels Good
The Bicycle Window
St. Giles’ is a small parish church that sits on a patch of pleasantly shaded land in the village of Stoke Poges, Buckinghamshire, twenty-five miles west of London. There has been a house of worship on this site since Saxon times. The oldest part of the church building, its rough-hewn stone tower, dates from the period of the Norman Conquest.
The place is also holy ground for literati of a certain age and inclination. It was at St. Giles’, in 1742, that Thomas Gray conceived “Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard,” a meditation on death and bereavement that was once among the most celebrated poems in the English language, a fixture of syllabi until tastes swung to less orotund verse. Today, Gray himself is in the churchyard, in a grave marked by an altar-shaped tombstone that sits just outside a chapel window on the building’s east façade. St. Giles’ is a lovely place, tranquil and picturesque, an ideal spot for a rest—eternal or merely momentary. If you find yourself there on a mild evening, you will take in a setting little different from the one immortalized by Gray:
Now fades the glimmering landscape on the sight,
And all the air a solemn stillness holds,
Save where the beetle wheels his droning flight,
And drowsy tinklings lull the distant folds.
My visit to St. Giles’ came in the spring, on a day of warm breezes and pouring sunshine. The panorama—church, churchyard greenery, surrounding countryside—was unreasonably pretty, and as I strolled the long path that snakes through St. Giles’ grounds, the birds were singing so wildly that I punched up the Voice Memos app on my iPhone and made a recording. Looming about one hundred yards to the south of the church was the Manor House, a sixteenth-century estate once owned by Queen Elizabeth I, and later by Sir Thomas Penn, the son of William Penn, Pennsylvania’s founder. For an American who had spent little time in the leafy home counties but many hours reading nineteenth-century novels and watching costume-drama adaptations of those novels, the scenery was exotic but familiar. I half-expected to see Dame Maggie Smith bustling out of the church in period dress.
The person who materialized instead was St. Giles’ minister, Reverend Harry Latham. With a couple of adjustments to his wardrobe, Latham himself might have stepped from the pages of Jane Austen. He was the picture of the handsome country vicar. He was perhaps forty-five years old, but he had the unlined face and full hairline of a younger man. He wore wire-rimmed glasses and a pin-striped shirt with a clerical collar. There was a faint musical lilt when he spoke, and his manner was soothing. Latham has a second pulpit about a mile up the road at St. Giles’ sister church, St. Andrew’s, where the congregation is younger and the services more informal, with sermons augmented by guitars and drums and sing-alongs. It is easy to picture Latham in either role: intoning the Beatitudes beneath St. Giles’ medieval vaults or strumming an acoustic on the altar at St. Andrew’s, his feet tapping along in open-toed sandals.
I had phoned a few months earlier to arrange a meeting, and followed up with emails, including one on the evening before my arrival. But as I faced Latham that afternoon in the churchyard, it was apparent that he had no idea who I was or what I could be doing there. I watched him take me in, cap to sneakers, registering the facts of the case: I was a stranger, my accent was American, I was clearly seeking neither pastoral care nor communion with the ghost of Thomas Gray. He came to the obvious conclusion. “You’re looking for the bicycle window,” Latham said.
The bicycle is a definitively nineteenth-century thing. It was the product of hard science and machine age engineering, of mass production and global trade. It was a creation of Victorian commercial culture, blown up big and spread wide by billboards and newspaper advertisements and popular songs. The bicycle stood for modernity and for modernism. “Lady Progress” was the mascot of the first periodical devoted to cycling, Le vélocipède illustré, published in Paris beginning in 1869. Drawings that appeared above the magazine’s masthead depicted a female cyclist in a heroic pose, leaving dust in her wake as she streamed forward on two wheels, clutching a banner, with a headlamp lighting the way. The image winked at Delacroix’s Liberty Leading the People while linking the bicycle to the hallmarks of changing times: women’s liberation, new technology, speed, freedom. Decades later, Picasso, Duchamp, and other artists and writers still enshrined the bicycle as an emblem of the avant-garde.
Yet a crucial truth about the bicycle, as a historical and technological phenomenon, is that it arrived illogically late. It was an anachronism at birth. The first bike came into the world a decade and a half after the invention of the steam locomotive. By the time the bicycle achieved its ideal form, the automotive revolution was stirring. The groundbreaking Rover bicycle hit the market in 1885; that same year, Gottlieb Daimler introduced his proto-motorcycle, the Einspur, and Karl Benz built his first Motorwagen. The knowledge and materials required to create a bike have been around since the Middle Ages, but it took centuries for the forces of fate and fancy to align and give the world the thing itself.
Perhaps this is why the bicycle library is cluttered with apocrypha: fantasies and hoaxes and bogus origin stories, projected centuries and even millennia back into history. Victorians dreamed of bicycles in antiquity, envisioning Roman velocipede cavalries and gilded bicycles waiting to be excavated from pharaohs’ tombs in the Valley of the Kings. The idea was echoed in the advertising art that pictured bicycles alongside figures from classical mythology. The surrealist jokester Alfred Jarry may have had such visions in mind when he wrote his satirical retelling of the crucifixion story, “The Passion Considered as an Uphill Bicycle Race” (1903), in which Jesus punctures a tire with his crown of thorns and lugs his bicycle up the hill to Golgotha:
The bicycle frame in use today is of relatively recent invention. It appeared around 1890. Previous to that time the body of the machine was constructed of two tubes soldered together at right angles. It was generally called the right-angle or cross bicycle. Jesus, after his puncture, climbed the slope on foot, carrying on his shoulder the bike frame, or, if you will, the cross.
No one could mistake Jarry’s jape for fact. But myths have slipped into history books and popped up in respectable journalism. “Bicycles appear in the bas reliefs of ancient Babylon, Egypt, and Pompeii,” asserted The New York Times in 1974, breezily revising the birth date of the bicycle by thousands of years. Among scholars, the search for a lost ur-bicycle continues. It is as if the reality of the machine’s nineteenth-century origins remains at some basic level unbelievable, even to those most conversant with the history. Researchers grasp at scraps, identifying supposed bicycle progenitors: a fifteenth-century wood carving showing what may be a toy tricycle, a treadle-operated seventeenth-century “invalid carriage,” a variety of other human-powered machines propelled by the turning of cranks and the pumping of handles.
This antecedent spotting can be enjoyable, even when it is far-fetched. At least two works by Hieronymus Bosch have been noted for their depictions of putative proto-bikes, and it is fun to imagine that the bicycle began as a figment of that great freakish mind. One Bosch drawing, Witches (c. 1500), features a kind of primitive unicycle: a woman is pictured astride a large wooden wheel, to which her feet are attached by pedal-like straps. This device is shown rolling through a typically grotesque Boschian landscape; it appears to be headed for a crash with a nude figure whose rear end is being probed by a long-beaked bird.
Another Renaissance master was at the center of a notorious bicycle hoax. In September 1974, newspaper readers around the world were startled by the announcement that a sketch of a bicycle had been discovered in Leonardo da Vinci’s Codex Atlanticus, a previously unpublished compendium of the artist’s drawings and writings. The drawing was said to be the work of Leonardo’s student and servant Salai, based on a design by Leonardo himself. Scholars greeted the claim with skepticism. The sketch was suspiciously detailed and modern-looking, showing a bike with a crank, pedals, a rear-driven chain wheel, and a mudguard. A raft of evidence has since confirmed that the image is counterfeit, likely scribbled into the Codex between 1966 and 1969 by a person whose intent may have been humorous rather than fraudulent. An art historian at UCLA found that the page of the Codex where the bicycle now appears previously featured abstract geometric jottings, two circles intersected by arcs. These may have suggested the shape of a bicycle to the prank’s perpetrator, who completed the job with a few quick pen strokes.