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What Will We Be Riding In 2112?

The bicycle is one of those rare inventions that seems to have arrived on the scene fully formed. Take a quick glance at a bicycle from a century ago and in size and shape it won’t seem all that much different from a modern bike – the old familiar diamond-shaped frame, wheels, handlebars, saddle, pneumatic tyres and pedal-powered, chain-driven means of propulsion.

How different that is from, say, the changes in automobiles, airplanes or telephones over the same period. A Tin Lizzie bears no resemblance whatever to a modern Ford, any more than a Curtiss Jenny calls to mind an Airbus 380. And as for telephones, well, one of the quirky joys of watching ‘old’ movies from the 1980s is seeing those clumsy bricks they were lugging around with such dated ‘jet set’ savoir faire.

But bicycles are another matter. With bicycles they pretty much got the nail on the head, first time around. To date, and in spite of a century of valiant trying, nobody has really been able to improve terribly much on the overall design and mechanical efficiency of the bicycle, 19th century though they be – or at least they haven’t to the extent that the betterments put a bicycle beyond immediate recognition.

Looking more closely of course, a host of evolutionary improvements over the past century have made riding a modern bicycle easier and more pleasurable than in the past – better frame materials, for one thing, more sophisticated derailleurs, to say nothing of Tullio Campagnolo’s brilliant invention of the quick release levers.

Perhaps it is my age, but I feel as though the pace of change is starting to accelerate. The bicycle on which I rode around Australia fifteen years ago was a twenty-one-speed Cannondale – two extra sprockets on the rear hub from the ‘ten-speed’ racers of my youth, and with a new-fangled cassette thingy instead of the old freewheel – but pretty much a standard tourer, not too dissimilar from those of earlier decades.

Fast forward to 2012 and bicycles have electronic shifting, as many as eleven sprockets on their cassettes, cables are internal, and shifting is performed with integrated brake-shifter levers. The old quill stem has gone the way of running boards and rumble seats on cars, as have square-tapered bottom brackets. Clipless pedals have usurped the old toeclips, and disc brakes are finding their way onto road bikes. Tourers now tour on 14-speed Rohloff hubs, with belt drives an increasingly common option. Thinking about all this brings two things to mind – one a renewed marvelling at the sheer genius of the bicycle’s original 19th century design that for all the wonders of 21st century technology we are still but tinkering at the edges; a bike still looks like a bike. The other thought is a a wondering what changes the next century of tinkering will bring. And a thought that perhaps it won’t be tinkering at all, but wholesale change. Who knows? As a former geologist – before I took up journalism many years ago – I am still intrigued by the process of evolution and so I put it to you:

I wonder what we’ll be riding in 2112?

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Banjo Paterson & Mulga Bill’s Bicycle

Light the candles, break out the tinnies. Today is Banjo Paterson’s birthday – born on this date in 1864, at ‘Narrambla’, near Orange, in rural New South Wales. For those of you who are not Australian, or haven’t had the pleasure of living down there, and don’t immediately recognise the name, Andrew Barton ‘Banjo’ Paterson is Australia’s national poet, the man who gave the world Waltzing Matilda, and a rich swag of iconic Australian ballads such as The Man from Snowy River and Clancy of the Overflow, and, for those of us of the cycling persuasion, Mulga Bill’s Bicycle.

That latter tells the tale of Mulga Bill, a proud and haughty outback stockman who, fancying his skill at being able to ride anything that moves, buys himself one of the new-fangled safety bicycles everybody is talking about, and, all dressed up in a natty new cycling suit, sets off down the sloping street, away from the shop and out of town, disdaining all help or advice – only to have the skittish bicycle break away from him like a rodeo colt, giving the unsuspecting wrangler a short, swift, terrifying downhill ride that ends with his being launched off a twenty-foot cliff and splashing (harmlessly) into in a deep pool in Dead Man’s Creek.

Mulga Bill’s Bicycle appeared in the Sydney Mail on 25 July, 1896, at the height of the great cycling craze that was sweeping Australia and much of the rest of the world. The ballad was an immediate hit and has never really been out of print ever since. It has appeared in anthologies, been put to music, illustrated by countless Australian artists – including the great Pro Hart – and caused there to be many a ‘Mulga Bill’s’ bicycle shop dotted around Australia.

It also casts a revealing light on the poet himself, his values and the colourful, fast-changing times in which he found himself living.

Banjo’s romanticised bush was very much a world of the horse, and he guarded it jealously. In real life, for example, camels and their Afghan handlers played a huge role in settling the outback, being the lifelines that supplied the lonely settlements on the waterless plains and hauled the year’s wool clip to market from the outlying stations, but you’d never know it by reading Banjo Paterson’s poetry.

Nor would you guess, by reading Banjo, that the rivers in southeastern Australia, the very heart of the mythical bush that Paterson made his own, had a boisterous Mississippi-style steamboat culture with its brawling river ports and colourful steamboat captains that rivalled anything in Mark Twain. Again, nary a word of it in Banjo’s poetry. It was all the horse.

But the bicycle was something even Banjo couldn’t ignore.

A Sunday ride in Melbourne in 1895

The bicycle transformed the bush – far more than the horse ever did, or could, for it was the vehicle of the common man. Everyone could afford a bicycle. With the invention of the ‘safety’ bicycle in the mid-1880s – the sort of bicycle we know today, as opposed to the pennyfarthing – anyone who needed to travel the vast empty distances in the outback suddenly had access to a cheap, reliable form of transport which could carry them a hundred miles or more in a day, and, unlike the horse, didn’t require grass or water and could be repaired by anyone with a bit of wire and ingenuity. Australians took to cycling like nobody else on earth – shearers, prospectors, miners, land agents, stockmen, bush preachers, commercial travellers, the very people Paterson loved and wrote about and who figured so prominently in his ballads and poetry, were all taking to the bicycle in droves.

Learning to ride in rural Victoria in 1896 - the year Mulga Bill's Bicycle appeared

“It is extraordinary what unlikely places one found those tyre tracks,” wrote the veteran Australian newspaper correspondent Charles Edward Woodrow Bean in his classic turn-of-the-century outback travelogue On The Wool Track. “They straggled across the very centre of Australia. We crossed them in paddocks as lonely and bare as the Sahara. Bicycles were ridden or driven or ploughed or dragged wherever men could go, and not infrequently where men could not go with safety. But the bicycle got through, if the man did.”

Bush prospector heading into the outback on his bicycle - c1896

A sure sign that the shearing season had begun, he wrote, was the number of bicycles heading into the bush. “The shearer set out on these trips exactly as if he was going from Sydney to Parramatta. He asked the way, lit his pipe, put his leg over his bicycle and shoved off…If he was city breed, as were many shearers, the chances were that he started in a black coat and bowler hat, exactly as if he were going to tea at his aunt’s.”

As the nation’s most popular and best-selling bush poet Banjo felt unable to ignore the bicycle, and so he chose to lampoon it instead:

“‘Twas Mulga Bill from Eaglehawk that caught the cycling craze

He turned away the good old horse that served him many days

He dressed himself in cycling clothes, resplendent to be seen

And hurried off to town and bought a shining new machine…”

Confident of his ability to master anything, the dude-y Mulga Bill sets off on a meteoric course down the main street and out of town, bouncing, veering and gathering pace until the out-of-control bicycle – a lovely metaphor for all the irreversible new-fangled changes – finally bounds off a twenty-foot ledge and dumps its badly shaken rider smack in the middle of Dead Man’s Creek. Of the bicycle, Paterson concludes:

“…It’s safe at rest in Dead Man’s creek, we’ll leave it lying still

A horse’s back is good enough, henceforth for Mulga Bill.”

So there you have it: game, set and match to the horse. And Banjo made it stick too, in his world anyway, never revisiting the cycling theme in his poetry but, like Mulga Bill, sticking to the good old horse thereafter.

For those who’d like to know more about Banjo Paterson here’s a link to an award-winning feature I wrote about him that appeared in the August 2004 issue of National Geographic. Perhaps not quite as intrepid as those early bushmen, I’ve cycled a fair bit through the bush myself – about 10,000 miles worth in a solo trek around the continent in 1996. Some of that story here. If you are considering cycling through the Australian outback yourself – a wonderful experience and a great thing to do – you might find this post here useful.

Or if you just want to read a rollicking good poem, here Mulga Bill’s Bicycle in its entirety:

‘Twas Mulga Bill, from Eaglehawk, that caught the cycling craze;

He turned away the good old horse that served him many days;

He dressed himself in cycling clothes, resplendent to be seen;

He hurried off to town and bought a shining new machine;

And as he wheeled it through the door, with air of lordly pride,

The grinning shop assistant said, “Excuse me, can you ride?”

“See here, young man,” said Mulga Bill, “from Walgett to the sea,

From Conroy’s Gap to Castlereagh, there’s none can ride like me.

I’m good all round at everything as everybody knows,

Although I’m not the one to talk – I hate a man that blows.

But riding is my special gift, my chiefest, sole delight;

Just ask a wild duck can it swim, a wildcat can it fight.

There’s nothing clothed in hair or hide, or built of flesh or steel,

There’s nothing walks or jumps, or runs, on axle, hoof, or wheel,

But what I’ll sit, while hide will hold and girths and straps are tight:

I’ll ride this here two-wheeled concern right straight away at sight.”

‘Twas Mulga Bill, from Eaglehawk, that sought his own abode,

That perched above Dead Man’s Creek, beside the mountain road.

He turned the cycle down the hill and mounted for the fray,

But ‘ere he’d gone a dozen yards it bolted clean away.

It left the track, and through the trees, just like a silver streak,

It whistled down the awful slope towards the Dead Man’s Creek.

It shaved a stump by half an inch, it dodged a big white-box:

The very wallaroos in fright went scrambling up the rocks,

The wombats hiding in their caves dug deeper underground,

As Mulga Bill, as white as chalk, sat tight to every bound.

It struck a stone and gave a spring that cleared a fallen tree,

It raced beside a precipice as close as close could be;

And then as Mulga Bill let out one last despairing shriek

It made a leap of twenty feet into the Dead Man’s Creek.

‘Twas Mulga Bill, from Eaglehawk, that slowly swam ashore:

He said, “I’ve had some narrer shaves and lively rides before;

I’ve rode a wild bull round a yard to win a five-pound bet,

But this was the most awful ride that I’ve encountered yet.

I’ll give that two-wheeled outlaw best; it’s shaken all my nerve

To feel it whistle through the air and plunge and buck and swerve.

It’s safe at rest in Dead Man’s Creek, we’ll leave it lying still;

A horse’s back is good enough henceforth for Mulga Bill.”

(For those hyper-critical sorts who notice the dateline on this post reads the 16th of February, and who happen to know that Banjo’s birthday is actually the 17th, bear with me please: while I may be writing my blog from Sussex, putting finger to keyboard here on the afternoon of the 16th, it is already the 17th Down Under and a happy excuse for me to post early since I have been given to understand from our local electricity provider that we will not be having any power all day tomorrow due to ‘essential works’ being carried out on the grid – so it was post today or miss the event completely.)

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