The Wheels of Chance
by John Forrester
H. G. Wells remains the only major author who has written a cycling novel, and bicycles appear in his other works also. In his first novel, The Time Machine of 1895, the time-traveling machine is oddly like a bicycle, with a saddle that the rider straddles and controls like handlebars. In A Story Of The Times To Come, a period when aeroplanes fly between major cities, he describes gangs of farm laborers commuting out to the fields on large multiple-rider machines. In The War Of The Worlds of 1898 the protagonist pays little attention to the initial news because he had been spending his time learning to ride, but his cycling skill plays no part in the rest of the story. When The Food Of The Gods is written in 1904 cyclists appear but play no significant part and in the final scenes, supposedly some years in the future, motor cars are the vehicles of choice. That's the end of the great years. So short a part of time they share / That are so rapid, light and spare.
The Wheels Of Chance (1896) is the cycling novel, Wells's third written but second published. Wells had had a critical success with The Time Machine and had then written The Island Of Dr. Moreau, but there were difficulties in getting that published. Wells needed money in a hurry, so he wrote about what he knew, the draper's assistant that he once had been and his new hobby of cycling.
The story is a pretty thin one. Hoopdriver, a callow linen-draper's shop assistant, takes up cycling on as good a machine as he can afford, one with an old-fashioned cross-frame and solid tires. He plans to spend his vacation cycling the south of England. Early on he meets a young woman cyclist who is planning a rendezvous with a more sophisticated cyclist. The young woman has left home to experience freedom while the man, a married man who is an acquaintance of both the young woman and her novel-writing stepmother, aims to seduce her. Hoopdriver sets out to protect her while three more of the stepmother's friends try to find them all. Naturally, it is a confused chase. In the end Hoopdriver returns alone to work, but in the course of baffling the would-be seducer he now has possession of that worthy's new and far better bicycle.
However thin the story, the cycling is perfect. In many places I can still recognize those roads that Wells describes around Midhurst. The description of Hoopdriver's bumps, bruises and abrasions from learning to ride are familiar to us all. Another bruise is particularly familiar to those who, as Hoopdriver did, learned on a fixed-gear machine. "One large bruise on the shin is even more characteristic of the 'prentice cyclist, for upon every one of them waits the jest of the unexpected treadle. You try at least to walk your machine in an easy manner, and whack! -- you are rubbing your shin."
Hoopdriver meets the same characters whom we meet on the roads today. One is a middle-aged man, very red and angry in the face. "There's no hurry, sir, none whatever. I came out for exercise, gentle exercise, and to notice the scenery and to botanise. And no sooner do I get on that accursed machine than off I go hammer and tongs; I never look to right or left, never notice a flower, never see a view--get hot, juicy, red--like a grilled chop. Here I am, sir. Come from Guildford in something under the hour. Why, sir?"
Wells describes the utility of riding one-handed or no-hands, a skill that Hoopdriver hasn't yet developed. "Until one can ride with one hand, and search for, secure and use a pocket-handkerchief with the other, cycling is necessarily a constant series of descents....Until the cyclist can steer with one hand, his face is given over to Beelzebub. Contemplative flies stroll over it and trifle absently with its most sensitive surfaces.... And again, sometimes the beginner rides for a space with one eye closed by perspiration, giving him a waggish air foreign to his mood and ill calculated to overawe the impertinent."
Having met the young woman on the road and been left by her, Hoopdriver later passes the would-be seducer who is patching a tire beside the road. As Hoopdriver disappears into the distance the would-be seducer mutters, "Greasy proletarian. Got a suit of brown, the very picture of this. One would think his sole aim in life had been to caricature me.... Look at his insteps on the treadles! Why does Heaven make such men?" Wells knows how to pedal properly, but Hoopdriver hasn't yet learned.
Hoopdriver thoroughly tires himself that first day and falls readily asleep. But: "After your first day of cycling one dream is inevitable. A memory of motion lingers in the muscles of your legs, and round and round they seem to go. You ride through Dreamland on wonderful dream bicycles that change and grow."
Having rescued the young woman from her would-be seducer, Hoopdriver and the young woman are chased by those who are still intent on rescuing her from the far more dangerous man. There's her stepmother and her stepmother's best friend on a Marlborough Club tandem, two more of the stepmother's literary circle on a high-geared sporting tandem, and a clergyman riding a tricycle. There's a race over rolling countryside, with the gap between them closing and widening according to the relative abilities on climbs and descents. Then they reach a long gentle descent, where, as Wells states what to us is now commonplace knowledge, "downhill nothing can beat a highly-geared tandem bicycle" and they are caught and then passed as the inexperienced tandem riders frantically try to stop. But they spin around, climb the hill again, to reach the hotel at the summit and await their rescuers with dignity.
The Wheels Of Chance has several themes other than cycling; Wells satirizes the British class structure, the pretensions of those in literary circles, the naive idealism of those who haven't worked for a living. He also describes cycling as an engine that was changing society. Had Wells been a little older in 1895, and in not so much of a hurry, he would have written a better novel. With all its faults, that's the only cycling novel from the great days when noted authors knew cycling.
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