Dutch cycling culture: too ordinary to be funny?

Utrecht1News that Utrecht will be starting point of the 2015 Tour de France seems highly appropriate for a city that is in the process of building the world’s largest multistorey bicycle park. But I was quickly reminded that the omnipresence of cycling in the Netherlands does not equate to the same fascination with cycling culture. As one Dutch colleague pointed out, « bicycles have no reason to be funny for us — they just are ». Otto Beaujon, secretary of De Oude Fiets, very kindly showed me around his collection of historic bicycles, memorabilia and documents: while there are examples of play, humour or even satire to be found, these have never been especially prominent in Dutch cycling culture outside the world of children’s bicycles incarnated by Piet Pelle.

Obvious in retrospect, this was one among several useful points to emerge from the 2014 International Society for Humor Studies conference, my first attempt to present the « Jeux cyclistes » project to an international academic audience. Many thanks to the colleagues who provided useful feedback and suggestions for material, with interesting perspectives from as far afield as Macedonia and Japan. If humour is most often associated with concepts like incongruity, surprise and anxiety, bicycles are most obviously humorous when they represent a new and disruptive social phenomenon.

"I think this degenerate animal is the HORSE ou ancestors talked about". Front cover of L'Auto-Vélo 15/05/1897, public doman via Gallica.

« I think this degenerate animal is the HORSE our ancestors talked about ». Front cover of L’Auto-Vélo 15/05/1897, public domain via Gallica.

From the 1890s onwards, jokes about dangerous « scorchers » and frightened horses give way to commentaries on evolving gender and class relations. This is visible in the series of Terrot posters featuring the iconic figure of « L’Impertinente », in novels like Maurice Leblanc’s Voici des ailes (1891) and H. G. Wells’ The Wheels of Chance: A Cycling Idyll (1897) — both dealing with the possiblities for romance opened up by cycling — and in the 1897 anthology Mr Punch Awheel, a collection of cartoons and short texts from Punch magazine that marks the canonisation the bicycle as an object of humour, at least for the magazine’s essentially middle- and upper-class reading public. Miss F. L. Erskine’s Lady Cycling: What to War and How to Ride (1897, republished 2014) offers serious though always witty advice to the growing number of increasingly independent female cyclists: fashion must prevail in town, but comfort in the country; to organise a bicycle gymkhana, « men are essential, and military men are best ». Her playful conclusion emphasises the pleasures of cycling over prevailing social anxieties: « in the vicinity of large manufacturing towns the rowdy element may at times annoy ladies riding alone, though I have, myself, always met with the kindness and courtesy — still, this may have been by exceptional good fortune, and I have no wish to boast of it. »

Zola

« Zola leaves Paris ». Front cover of L’Auto-Vélo 21/11/1897 , public domain via Gallica.

In France, too, the prominence of the bicycle can be seen in illustrations associating it with contemporary political and social debates: the cartoon at right represents the departure of Emile Zola (an enthusiastic cyclist and advocate of free schooling) from Paris at the height of the Dreyfus affair, with the caption « The storm is rumbling, the old order will soon disappear, only one thing can save us: Compulsory free Bicycles« .

Many turn-of-the-century texts show a keen awareness of the rapid growth of cycling culture, often using it to humorous ends. Mark Twain’s essay « Taming the bicycle » (c. 1893) and Australian poet A. B. Paterson’s « Mulga Bill’s bicycle » both make fun of figures attempting to master the bicycle by analogy with the horse, while Edmondo de Amicis’ Tentazione de la bicycleta (Tentation de la bicyclette, 1906) recounts the social pressure faced by the narrator to take up cycling, which he humorously refuses to do. On a different note, Alfred Jarry’s « La passion considérée comme une course de côte » (The Passion considered as an uphill bicycle race, published Good Friday 1903) retells the Passion of Christ in the excitable style of a contemporary cycle racing commentator.

 


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