- Cycling and the British: A Modern History by Neil Carter
For about a decade, I've had a pet project jotted down in the back of my notebook that I thought of as "Britons on Bikes." Finally, I can "park" this project, as Neil Carter has ensured it is no longer needed. It is peculiar, and perhaps telling, that British historians published extensive analyses of cycling in Italy (John Foot, Pedalare! Pedalare!, 2012) and France (Hugh Dauncey, French Cycling, 2012) before a full-length academic study on the peculiarities and specificities of Britain's relationship with the bicycle. However, in Cycling and the British, Neil Carter has addressed this gap with a first-class study that will take a long time to better.
As a clear and detailed guide, it is an invaluable corrective to a multiplicity of lazy assumptions and popular myths often recirculated in generalist accounts. Carter draws extensively from material in the National Cycling Archive at the University of Warwick and uses both original and commentary sources to the full. Occasionally, perhaps, it reads a little as if sections exist to report the collated and appropriately coded findings from a large-scale data search. This is not a fault of the author but an inevitable product of the meticulous research on display here. Neither is it a drawback, since it allows the reader to access a vast amount of material, both primary and secondary.
Carter's overall picture is explicitly framed by what he describes as four underpinning and overlapping ideas. First, that riding a bicycle is a political act, whether one wants it to be or not. Political backgrounds and the relationship with the state therefore matter in the shaping of cycling actions. Second, he argues convincingly that "the history of cycling has been bound up with the changing values of the middle classes—political, social cultural and economic" (p. 4). Third, he locates the history of cycling within unfolding narratives of modernity. However controversial the concept, he notes, cycling was and is part of the narrative of a series of significant changes in urbanization, communications technologies, and international relations—including the formation of modern nation-states—as well as the emergence of aesthetics and consumption and consumerism during the same period. The final theme that recurs throughout the study is the inseparability of cycling from social identities and social relations.
The book is loosely chronological and within this general schema, divided into distinct thematic chapters, such as "Cycling and the people"; [End Page 282] "Women, modernity and cycling"; and "Cycling politics and environmentalism." This allows the author to illustrate and elaborate on the four core ideas. Space precludes over-analysis of the materials presented: the book thus provides a jumping-off point for what could be a range of future studies teasing out the further understandings and implications of these basic themes.
Though cycle sport is obviously a central concern, it does not dominate the narrative and is very well contextualized. For the non-British reader, and probably for the majority of readers except those with a very niche interest, chapter five's exploration of the internecine warfare in cycle racing will appear arcane. However, it has much to say about the prejudices of English exceptionalism and—not for the last time—the inability of those in positions of responsibility in cycling to either comprehend or react appropriately to wider developments unfolding around them.
There are inevitable gaps. In the author's focus on society and culture, he relegates the role of the cycling industry to riding pillion. Carter acknowledges the broader economic forces and fortunes at work behind specific actions and initiatives, but he discusses the organization of the British cycling industry only cursorily. Greater focus on this might have allowed for connections to a broader international dimension. Though the focus is on cycling and the British, Carter draws the boundaries of Britishness, even if only implicitly, to exclude consideration of empire and commonwealth, whereas economic interests include acknowledgment of Britain as part of an international trading web. Similarly, the dramatic changes in...