Three Unlikely Cycling Icons
Illustration © Ms Laura Quick. Courtesy of Thames & Hudson
Saddle up – we take you on a tour de force of the 20th-century icons who loved to zip around on two wheels .
January is an unusual time to talk about cycling – if the wind, rain and cold don’t put you off, the icy roads might. Yes, there are many pleasures and perks of a post-New-Year bike ride – the emptied streets, the chance to work off December’s indulgences and – crucially – the complete refresh of fitness app Strava’s “This Year” leaderboards. (For a very brief window in January, you actually stand a chance of getting one of those crown icons beside your name.) But if sitting inside with a good book is ever preferable to teetering around on two wheels in the elements, it’s now.
Handily, this week Brooks publishes its Compendium Of Cycling Culture, a thoughtful almanac of essays, interviews and photography that is as comforting for the brain as the British brand’s saddles are for the posterior.
Contained within this tome are the names you expect to see: Sir Paul Smith, Mr David Millar and Mr Fausto Coppi – all figures known for their prowess on the pedals, sartorial skills, or both. Contributors such as Savile Row-trained tailor Mr Timothy Everest, writer Mr Geoff Dyer and photographer Mr Martin Parr all, too, have known histories with bikes. But dig a little deeper and a few unlikely figures pop up. Here, then, are three such surprising cycling heroes mentioned in the book.
Mr Henry Ford
An irony for any cyclist who regularly battles with cars and drivers who “didn’t see you there” is that Mr Henry Ford – creator of the Model T and a man who has done more to further the cause of the motorised vehicle than most – was, we learn, also a keen advocate of the bicycle. Early cars were often constructed using designs and ideas borrowed from bikes; Mr Ford’s 999, a race car that eventually led the industrialist to found his namesake motor company, was built in collaboration with champion cyclist Mr Tom Cooper. A keen cyclist himself (as was Mr Karl Benz of Mercedes-Benz), Mr Ford insisted that the best way to get around Detroit, the epicentre of the car industry, was on a bike.
Mr TE Lawrence
Probably best known for galloping through the war-torn Arabian Desert on horseback – as depicted by Mr Peter O’Toole in 1962’s Lawrence Of Arabia – Mr Lawrence was also a cyclist. Prior to World War I and his involvement in the revolt against the Turks, he spent two summers riding around France visiting medieval castles. This would have been an incredible effort given that many of the country’s roads then were little more than dirt tracks (and his bike was laden down with books). According to his diaries, he even “conquered the Puy de Dôme”, the extinct volcano that has since become a key battleground in the Tour de France.
Mr Pablo Picasso
Riffing on Mr Marcel Duchamp’s “Bicycle Wheel” (1913) – a bike wheel fixed to a kitchen stool – Mr Picasso, too, turned cycling into an art form. At first glance, his “Bull’s Head” (1942) is just rusty handlebars welded to a knackered saddle. But as The Brooks Compendium Of Cycling Culture notes, it “says more than Picasso lets on: the sculpture’s very simplicity is a reminder of the deprivations of wartime Europe, its aged leather and rusty steel mourning garb for the lost era of carefree bicycle rides and the freedoms that two wheels embodied”. For an artist living in exile in then-occupied Paris – who half a decade earlier had captured the pain of his homeland in his tortured masterpiece “Guernica” – the joys of cycling presented escapism, as well as a celebration of his nationality.
And one group of people who don’t hate cyclists as much as you thought:
OK, they do hate cyclists, just not as much as they hate bus drivers, it turns out.
The Brooks Compendium Of Cycling Culture (Thames & Hudson) is available now