By Marguerite Merington
THE collocation of woman and the bicycle has not wholly outgrown controversy; but if the woman's taste be for the royal pleasure of glowing exercise in sunlit air, she will do well quietly but firmly to override argument with the best model of a wheel to which she may lay hand.
Never did an athletic pleasure from which the other half is not debarred come into popularity at a more fitting time than cycling has to-day, when a heavy burden of work is laid on all the sisterhood, whether to do good, earn bread, or squander leisure; no outdoor pastime can be more independently pursued, and few are as practicable as many days in a year. The one who fain would ride, and to whom a horse is a wistful dream, at least may hope to realize a wheel. Once purchased, it needs only to be stabled in a passageway, and fed on oil and air.
The first women cyclists of New York City seemed to rise in a heroic handful from the earth near Grant's tomb, on Riverside Drive. That was years ago. Today, on the broad western highway of the city a dotted line of riders, men and women, forms a fourth parallel to the dark band which the Palisades stretch across the sky, the Hudson's silver width, and the white thread of flying smoke from the trains beside the river. They ride from the first day of spring to the last privileged days of frosty winter. They ride from morning to high noon, and their lanterned wheels purr by with the gleam of a cat's eye through the dark. A moon sends hordes of their queer cobwebby shadows scurrying over the ground. In the revolving years, to the eyes of those whose windows overlook the wheelways, the woman cyclist has ceased to be a white blackbird. The clear-eyed, vivified faces that speed by give no clew to the circumstances of the riders, but inquiry shows that many callings and conditions love the wheel. The woman of affairs has learned that an hour, or even half an hour, may be stolen from the working day, with profit to both woman and affairs. Now and again a complaint arises of the narrowness of woman's sphere For such disorder of the soul the sufferer can do no better than to flatten her sphere to a circle, mount it, and take to the road. An hour of the wheel means sixty minutes of fresh air and wholesome exercise, and at least eight miles of change of scene; it may well be put down to the credit side of the day's reckoning with flesh and spirit.
Like all costumes, the regimentals of the wheel are affected by locality and racial prejudice. An American skirt found itself in a conspicuous minority in France, and resigned, accordingly, in favor of a pair of national culottes, - excellent things for the breakneck hills of Normandy ! - the culottes crossed to England, and were exchanged for a short corduroy skirt with high leggings. The corduroy skirt and leggings journeyed to Toronto, where the roads are flat and smooth as a billiard table, and the ministers as conservative as eloquent. To escape becoming an object of reproach, the short skirt of the mother country was lengthened to the standard of the colonies. Returning to New York, the Toronto compromise took several tucks in itself in order to conquer the V-shaped roads of Gotham.
In cosmopolitan New York the eye of the spectator has long become wonted to costumes of all kinds. Bloomer and tailor-made alike ride on unchallenged; tunicked and gaitered Rosalinds excite no more comment than everyday people in everyday clothes. Knickerbockers and the skirt composed of twin filibegs have their advocates; Pinero's youngest Amazon has set a pretty fashion for the girl cyclist, and many riders make their records in the conventional walking-dress with cone-shaped skirt worn over the silk trousers of an oda-lisk, or the satin breeks of an operatic page. No one costume may yet claim to represent the pastime, for experiment is still busy with the problem; but the results are in the direction of simplicity and first principles. So far the large majority of American women have declared in favor of the skirt in one form or another. Short rides on level roads can be accomplished with but slight modification of ordinary attire; and the sailor-hat, shirt-waist, serge-skirt uniform, is as much at home on the bicycle as it is anywhere else the world over. The armies of women clerks in Chicago and Washington who go by wheel to business, show that the exercise within bounds need not impair the spick-and-spandy neatness that marks the bread-winning American girl. On the excursion a special adaptation of dress is absolutely necessary; for skirts, while they have not hindered women from climbing to the topmost branches of the higher education, may prove fatal in down-hill coasting; and skirts, unless frankly shortened or discarded, must be fashioned so as to minimize the danger of entanglement with the flying wheel.
The pastime does not lend itself to personal display; and in criticism the costume must be referred, not to the standards of the domestic hearthrug, but to the exigencies of the wheel, the rider's positions to the mechanical demands of the motion. Accordingly, the cyclist is to be thought of only as mounted and in flight, belonging not to a picture, but to a moving panorama. If she ride well, the chances are she looks well; for she will have reconciled grace, comfort, and the temporary fitness of things.
Regarding bicycling purely as exercise, there is an advantage in the symmetry of development it brings about, and a danger in riding too fast and far. The occasional denunciation of the pastime as unwomanly is fortunately lost in the general approval that a new and wholesome recreation has been found, whose pursuit adds joy and vigor to the dowry of the race.
Having reached these conclusions, the onlooker is drawn by the irresistible force of the stream. She borrows, hires, or buys a wheel, and follows tentatively. Her point of view is forever after changed; long before practice has made her an expert she is an enthusiast, ever ready to proselyte, defend - or ride !
There is full opportunity in and about
New York City for the daily hour with the wheel. From Christmas to Christmas Central Park is a favorite haunt of the cyclist when the weather is kind; and indeed a fine frenzy once set rolling the eye of a poet, who told of a wintry flight among snow-laden pine-trees over sheets of frozen snow. It sounded like a Norse Saga; but the scene was Central Park, the steed a wheel, and the story true. Riverside Drive and the Boulevard offer fair roads and a breeze coming fresh from the sources of the Hudson, untainted as it sweeps by Albany; the historic ground of Washington Heights is practicable as well as picturesque, for the Father of his Country outlined a clear march for the city's gigantic stride; Washington Bridge is a fine objective point, where the rider will surely dismount to rest in the embrasure of the parapets, and admire the view up and down stream where the little Harlem wriggles along between its high green banks. For the longer ride, by crossing Madison Avenue Bridge a wheel-worthy road leads to Westchester and Mount Vernon. There is a ferry at Fort Lee, and a good road even in New Jersey, skirting the trap-rock battlements at whose base the Hudson lies like a broad moat. People who return from Tarrytown speak rather boastfully of the hills.
A "Scorcher" - Wrong Position.
Far-reaching dreams of summer may bear the traveller of the wheel through clean stretches in the Berkshires, on sunny lanes of Normandy, among Welsh mountains, or down Roman roads between English hedgerows; but all the workaday year there are highways radiating from the heart of the city to the borderland of the country, where one may breathe new inspiration for the world, - the world that we persist in having too much with us in the getting and spending efforts that lay waste the powers.
Good health to all, good pleasure, good speed, A favoring breeze - but not too high -
For the outbound spin! Who rides may read The open secret of earth and sky.
For life is quickened and pulses bound,
Morbid questionings sink and die, As the wheel slips over the gliddery ground,
And the young day wakes in a crimson sky.
Oh, the merry comradeship of the road, With trees that nod as we pass them by,
With hurrying bird and lurking toad, Or vagabond cloud in the noonday sky!
Oh, the wholesome smell of the good brown earth When showers have fallen for suns to dry!
Oh, the westward run to the mystic birth Of a silver moon in a golden sky!
Good health to all, good pleasure, good speed, A favoring breeze - but not too high -
For the homeward spin! Who rides may read The open secret of earth and sky.