- Quest for Speed: A History of Early Bicycle Racing, 1868–1903
In his Quest For Speed: A History of Early Bicycle Racing, 1868–1903, Andrew Ritchie presents a comprehensive, 496-page examination of the global bicycle racing industry during the late nineteenth century. The work evolved out of Ritchie’s doctoral dissertation at Strathclyde University, Glasgow. His examination covers an area that British, French, and North American historians have largely neglected and, thus, is a major contribution to the literature. Ritchie demonstrates convincingly that bicycle racing stood as one of the top sport industries in North America during the late nineteenth century. He argues, similar to another work by Glenn Norcliffe on the bicycle in Canada, that bicycle racing contributed significantly to modernity on both sides of the Atlantic (Glenn A. Norcliffe, The Ride to Modernity: The Bicycle in Canada,1869–1900 [Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2001]).
Scholars of bicycle history know Ritchie as the author of King of the Road: An Illustrated History of Cycling (1975) and Major Taylor: The Extraordinary Career of a Champion Bicycle Racer (1988). In the former book, he examined the technological evolution of the bicycle; one of the first works on the subject to rely primarily on primary sources. In the latter work, Ritchie produced a tour de force, examining the career of Marshall “Major” Taylor, the African-American racer who fought debilitating racism to become one of the world’s top professional bicycle racers as well as a world and national champion in several events. The Johns Hopkins Press republished the work in 1996, and it has more recently been revised, enlarged, and republished again (2010).
In both of the previous publications, Ritchie examined areas of bicycle-related history that were under-researched. The present work is no exception: critical literature on bicycle racing during the “Bicycle Era” of the 1890s is scarce. While many sport historians, both scholarly and popular, know the narrative of “Major” Taylor, there is less understanding of the ways in which his professional contributions were significant to the sport industry. Scholars have written little about the large and thriving racing circuit when bicycle tracks dotted North America and much of the modernizing world. In Quest for Speed, Ritchie addresses this larger context.
Ritchie begins his tome by examining the early roots of bicycle racing from a primarily British perspective. As his title indicates, he starts in 1868. While he acknowledges that other scholars date bicycle racing to an earlier period, 1868 is the year he argues the velocipede, a bicycle antecedent, arrived in England (p. 29). Interestingly, he notes that the velocipede began first in France and the United States and later spread to Britain (p. 29). In the first half of the book, with chapters entitled “The Origins of Bicycle Racing,” “Expansion of Bicycle Racing in Britain,” “The Beginnings of Bicycle Racing in the United States,” and “Expansion of the High Wheel Sport,” Ritchie tracks the origins of competitive bicycle racing. Initially beginning as a major industry and sport in France, the sport lost its position of dominance after the Franco-Prussian War of 1870. England rose [End Page 361] to become the leader in the industrial production and racing during the 1870s. Ritchie follows several early entrepreneurial racers such as John Keen and Ion Keith-Falconer. He shows that many of the early racers were from the “proletarian”—mechanic—class as well as younger well-to-do males. He also emphasizes that bicycle-racing needs—rather than utilitarian needs—helped to spur bicycle racing technology and the development in the later 1870s of the high-wheeled bicycle.
The author continues his examination of various racers and entrepreneurs in subsequent chapters, entitled “Sport, Speed and Safety, 1885–93,” “The Foundations of Modern Road Racing,” “International Competition,” “Bicycle Racing and Modernity,” and “Non-Competitive Cycling in the 1890s.” In chapter six, Ritchie provides an especially interesting examination of the emergence of road racing. Until well into the twentieth century, track bicycle racing dominated...