A tale from a Victorian bike shop, written in 1897. It shows that some things never change.

Tyre kicking ain’t nothing new

Welcome to a guest author. I can’t tell you his name because he didn’t leave one and there’s now no way of finding it. He was writing in June 1897, in The Rambler. This was one of a number of weekly magazines devoted to cycling. 1897 was peak year of the Victorian Bicycling Boom. The article was headlined ‘Novices in Cycle Shops’ and sub-titled ‘Some Queer Questions asked by them.’ His prose has dated but perhaps not his view that, via some "delicate sarcasm", some bike shop customers might be more troublesome than others.


Many and wondrous in their innocence are the questions wherewith it is the custom of would-be purchasers to worry the long-suffering salesman at the bicycle depot.

Whilst recently awaiting an interview with a prominent cycle agent, I was accosted by a middle-aged customer of nervous manner who was evidently preparing himself for a plunge into the vortex of the fashionable sport and, who, out of his nervousness, seized upon me as one likely to enlighten him as to the mysterious qualities that made so great a difference in the price of the cycles displayed in the showroom.

"Er, excuse me!" he commenced, diffidently pointing out a lady’s bicycle standing near at hand, which had evidently caught his eye by its radiant coat of chocolate enamel and the splendour of its gilt lining.

"Er, excuse me, but I should like to know if that bicycle is for sale!"

With my customary praiseworthy desire to impart information, I replied that I concluded that the bicycle was for sale, since the establishment in which it was exhibited purported to be neither a fried fish shop nor a drug store, and would therefore hardly exhibit bicycles with any deeper design than the selling of them.

Unheeding of the delicate sarcasm of my reply to his inquiry, the nervous individual at once reeled off in a breath a series of questions, that from his method of delivery he would seem to have got off my heart.

"Is it a good bicycle?"

"Is it a strong bicycle?"

"Is it fitted with a strong brake?"

I generally answered, "Yes," with a vague but rapidly growing idea that the lot of a cycle salesman, like that of Mr. W. S. Gilbert’s policeman, is not a "happy one."

The manager of the cycle depot [came] to the spot…"Yes, sir, what can we do for you?"

"I want to [buy] a bicycle!" reiterated the nervous individual.

"For yourself, sir?"


"What sort of bicycle?"

"A coloured one," answered the neurotic gentleman…"That seems a nice one!"

"That is a lady’s bicycle," protested the manager. "We do not stock gentleman’s machines in colours…"

"But isn’t a she bicycle easier to get on and off?" persisted the nervous individual.

The manager rubbed his chin. He had never contemplated in that light the difference in sex in machines.

"Popular prejudice," he commenced sententiously, "runs in favour of a top-bar to a gentleman’s machine."

"Here is our, Model A," said the manager, "an excellent machine, fitted with hollow rims, pneumatic tyres, oil bath, gear case, and adjustable lamp bracket; fifteen pounds, nett."

"Fifteen pounds!," exclaimed the nervous individual, with an accent of horror. "Goodness gracious! for fifteen pounds I could buy four bicycles!"

"Good afternoon, and thank you!" replied the manager, with dreary anticipation, and the nervous individual backed out of the door.

"Many of them?" said the manager with a tired smile, in response to my enquiry. "Anyone would think this was a private lunatic asylum. Roughly speaking, I answer, on an average, about fourteen thousand idiotic questions per diem. Every inquiring novice puts me through a viva voce examination on every detail of a machine, as though I were placed here to lecture on cycle construction to hydrocephalic idiots.

"A young lady came in yesterday," continued the manager, warming to the subject. "She wanted to buy a bicycle…and came in here to get a little technical instruction…

"She sat on every lady’s machine in the show room, criticised our decorations, then informed me that her papa had just ordered her machine from a rival establishment, but that she had thought she would come in to see if ours were enamelled in more artistic colours!"

The manager paused and sighed at the painful recollection, and I withdrew, feeling that such sorrows were sacred.


Can you tell I’m writing a history book about the 1890s cycling boom?

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