Books on Wheels

Wednesday, May 18, 2011 at 1:00 PM

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As millions of commuters clip in and pedal off for Bike to Work Week, we, on the Google Books Team cruised through our library in search of bike-inspired writing. To our delight, books on bikes abound. The 19th century in particular proved itself a fruitful time for writing about self-powered vehicles. Since 1817 when Baron Karl von Drais invented the first Laufmaschine or "dandy horse," innumerable authors have penned user guides and treatises on bikes, trikes and velocipedes. However, these works do more than just explain how to lube a chain or fix a flat — they reflect on overarching themes of modernity itself. Bike writers cover everything from feminism to globalization. Below are some of the many bike books we liked the most.

Fast Age

"Whether velocipedes will ever become a necessity of our civilization—the 'fast' adjunct to our 'fast' age—it is impossible to say, though appearances would warrant such a prediction," writes the anonymous gearhead "Velox" in Velocipedes, Bicycles, and Tricycles: How to Make Use of Them. In 1869, Velox certainly couldn’t imagine the ultimate dominance of planes, trains and automobiles. However, his bike guide affirmatively depicts the modern age as an era defined by transportation. "Man being his own horse" was only the beginning.

Around the World in Way More than 80 Days

In a century of expanding empires and increased global exchange, novelist and writers spilled a great deal of ink imagining fantastical trips around the world — Jules Verne's work is a quintessential example. One adventurer named Thomas Stevens actually took such a trip, but rather than luxuriating in a hot air balloon, he propelled himself on wheels. Starting off in San Francisco in April 1884, Stevens rode his large wheeled "penny-farthing" across the U.S. to New York City. From there he traveled with his bike by ship to London, then Paris. He cycled across Europe, did a big loop through the Balkans, rode a steamer down the Red Sea, then crossed the Indian Ocean to Karachi, Pakistan, where he pedaled through the Indian subcontinent. Traveling by boat from Yokohama, Japan, Stevens arrived back in San Francisco in December 1887. He lived to tell the tale and collect his memories in a Around the World on a Bicycle.

Biking in Bloomers

If you were a turn-of-the-century suffragette looking for a delightful way to attain mobile independence in a world increasingly populated by male automobile drivers, then biking was the thing for you! In her 1895 work A Wheel Within a Wheel, feminist writer and activist Frances Willard argued that a woman's ability to self-propel using pedal-power could also empower her to advance beyond the traditional restrictions of her gender. Willard writes: "Indeed, I found a whole philosophy of life in the wooing and the winning of my bicycle." Her work gives new meaning to the phrase, "it's like learning to ride a bike."

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Should all this talk of free-wheelin' get you in the mood to hit the road yourself, you can find out how to get from home to office (or San Francisco to Yokohama, as the case may be) via bike by using Google Maps biking directions. For more on all things bikes, you can also browse through select archives of the magazine Bicycling.


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