Poetry on Wheels

It's very hard to find a classic sonnet
About a bike or someone riding on it.
From high-wheeled days up to these modern times,
Eleven decades now, yet so few rhymes.

A century of riding tandem tired,
Yet very few bicyclists were inspired
To share the magic found on spinning wheels,
To try to say in poems how it feels.

This situation leaves me quite annoyed;
We need someone to fill this aching void -
To take his pen in hand to right the wrong,
To write some rhymes, to sing a cycling song.

I'm taking on the challenge single handed,
Though no one's even asked, much less demanded.

Ghublmpf, dcstrulb, kahplutz... OOPS!

I do sometimes forget how hard it is to speak,
When I have stuffed my tongue quite firmly in my cheek.

Hopefully that clarifies how serious this piece is, and now we can appropriately address the burning issue raised by that introductory poem. If you're not at all familiar with my writing, you may think that the critical topic here is: 'How could any poet be so inept as to allow those extra trailing syllables on those first and last lines while writing in iambic pentameter?' However, those of you who know that I received most of my college education at a relatively remote, low-cost institution in the Deep South which began life as an 'Agricultural and Mechanical College' are more likely to be surprised that I even realize that the term iambic pentameter relates to poetic structure rather than to some kind of obscure architectural terminology for ancient Etruscan bridge supports. So... wrong on that count.

Of course, those of you who are familiar with some of my other poems are much more likely to be amazed that I could somehow restrain myself to only 14 lines in this one. I have to confess that I am often a trifle self-indulgent about allowing my flippant rhyming snippets to somehow expand into (ponderous but frivolous) epic poetic sagas sort of like what might result from an incompatible partnership between Ogden Nash and Samuel Coleridge. So, wrong again but I ramble...

The real primary topic for this piece is actually pretty straightforward: the unexplained and fairly unexpected dearth of upbeat, interesting, amusing poetry relating to cycling over this last century. Take a moment and try to think of any poem or even a song lyric you've heard that has anything to do with cranks and chains and spinning spokes...

Ha! I bet you came up with that scene of Katharine Ross riding on Paul Newman's handlebars in the movie Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, with B. J. Thomas singing Hal David's lyrics to Raindrops Keep Fallin' On My Head which of course have nothing remotely to do with cycling, in spite of the visual image. I suspect most folks can't think of much of anything that actually has any real connection to a bicycle except some variation of this old standard:

Daisy, Daisy, give me your answer, do.
I'm half crazy; I want to make love to you.
It's getting so hot and heavy,
Let's go and rent a Chevy;
This kind of fun just can't be done
On a bicycle built for two.

TRIVIA POP QUIZ: Name the original song, author and date.

Three... two... one... BRR-RR-RRP!.

If you responded with: 'Bicycle Built for Two', 'Anonymous' and 'a long time ago', you got one out of three. The real answers are: 'Daisy Bell', Harry Dacre and 1892. Harry purportedly wrote the lyrics after complaining to a friend about having to pay duty for importing his British-made bike into the US, and his friend remarked that he should be glad it wasn't a... uh, tandem, I think he said, maybe... because they might have charged him 'double duty'. But again it seems I've drifted off the primary theme here...

Are there any other cycling-related poems? Well, sure, and if one were to embark upon exhaustive, time-consuming serious research, he might unearth a few of them. For most of us, sitting down at the computer, clicking on Google and typing in some variation on "bicycle poetry" is likely to be more frustrating than satisfying, as we try to wade through broken links, offers to sell big boring books not even remotely related to cycling, a lot of strangely introspective, self-absorbed drivel that doesn't even rhyme, and even some haiku. Haiku? Haiku??? I mean, come on, now. Maybe it somehow works in Japanese, but quite unlike origami, it definitely doesn't seem to have happily survived the cultural transition. But then again maybe that's just me...

From the classical era, for starters, there's just simply not much out there in the way of cycle-related poetry which, in my admittedly fairly narrow definition of the term, means stuff that's light and bright and cheerful and/or funny, and which also has occasional pairs of words somewhere near the ends of lines or phrases that have moderately similar sounding ending syllables. I did bumble across a poem in Ambrose Bierce's Devil's Dictionary, about The Gay Nineties. [PLEASE NOTE: That's 1890 to 1899, folks, not the much more recent era featuring the network of Different Spokes cycling groups, numerous priests in the news, and of course Bill Clinton, who helped us all to understand that it takes more than mere heterosexuality and a half-hearted commitment to ambivalent morality to guarantee even a mediocre presidency.] This poem has a bit of fun with the social upheaval initiated by brazen young women who were just beginning to ride bicycles, right out there on city streets, in public [GASP!]. Some folks were very concerned about the tragically catastrophic moral degradation which would inevitably result. The poem is credited to (the perhaps fictitious) poet John William Yope, and I simply don't know if the poor dear noble (martyred?) Charlotte was in fact a real person either. I believe this poem (or a piece from which it was parodied) may have been published in the New York Sunday World in September 1896. I made a couple of piddly changes to the one posted here. [The Devil made me do it!]

CHARLOTTE SMITH'S ANTI-BICYCLE CRUSADE

The wheels go round without a sound
The maidens hold high revel;
In sinful mood, insanely gay,
True spinsters spin adown the way
In duty to the devil...

They laugh, they sing, and ting-a-ling!
Their bells go all the morning;
Their lanterns bright bestar the night,
Pedestrians awarning.

With outstretched hands Miss Charlotte stands,
Good-Lording and Oh-Mying;
Her rheumatism quite forgot,
Her fat with anger frying,
She blocks the path that leads to wrath,
Jack Satan's power defying.

The wheels go round without a sound;
Lights flash in reds and blues and greens.
What's this that's found upon the ground?
Poor Charlotte Smith in smithereens!

Perhaps this is a good time to mention that it's almost never appropriate for a reader to be overly analytical, critical or sensitive about this kind of flippantly trivial poetry. In the case of the phrase "true spinsters" above, for example, no marginally mature yet unwillfully unwed woman should in any way attempt to project any kind of contemporary etymological connection between her pedaling cadence and her marital status. In other words, when you read the ditties on this website, please don't get your knickers in a knot whether or not they're chamois lined.

I found one other (perhaps somewhat more legitimate) classical (aka old) poem I liked no changes at all to it. Its slightly archaic, very definitely dated language and style may in fact be a big part of its charm.

GOING DOWNHILL ON A BICYCLE
[A Boy's Song]

With lifted feet, hands still,
I am poised, and down the hill
Dart, with heedful mind;
The air goes by in a wind.

Swifter and yet more swift,
Till the heart with a mighty lift,
Makes the lungs laugh, the throat cry:
'O bird, see; see, bird, I fly.

'Is this, is this your joy?
O bird, then I, though a boy,
For a golden moment share
Your feathery life in air!'

Say, heart, is there aught like this
In a world that is full of bliss?
'Tis more than skating, bound
Steel-shod to the level ground.

Speed slackens now, I float
Awhile in my airy boat;
Till, when the wheels scarce crawl,
My feet to the treadles fall.

Alas, that the longest hill
Must end in a vale; but still,
Who climbs with toil, wheresoe'er,
Shall find wings waiting there.

- Henry Charles Beeching

'Well, okay...', you may ask, 'What about more modern poetry?' IMNSHO short for in my not so humble opinion of course most of the contemporary cycling related poetry I found tends to be so poorly structured, off meter, badly rhymed or awkwardly phrased that it just doesn't work, or to be more explicit, it really sucks. Here's one of the better ones I found, rewritten with some fairly drastic changes that I felt it seriously needed. In this edition, one long line in each stanza has an embedded 'sub-rhyme' although some are a little bit sneaky. I also added a more interesting ending. In spite of the title, interestingly, on the website where I found it, the poem was not credited to its original author. Something tickled in my brain a half-remembered old ethnic stereotype joke? about a famous blond actress who wanted to publish her autobiography anonymously...

THE NIGHT OF CLAIRE

A ride in the dark through a large local park
Is a pleasure or so it was said.
I mounted my tadpole and clicked on its lights,
And into the canyon I sped.

As smooth as a turbine my steely steed ran;
I came to the first leafy glade.
Completely at ease as I breezed through the trees,
I smiled and I felt unafraid.

An ominous clicking then came to my ear,
While racing along through the night.
The volume and frequency built to a peak,
And something was clearly not right.

My crankset? My pedals? Perhaps the rear wheel?
My spokes maybe not stress relieved?
I ran through the list; now what could I have missed?
No problems I knew or conceived.

And then I remembered some tales about squirrels
That roam through this canyon at night,
As hungry as bears and much faster than hares;
My ride was becoming a flight.

My mirror showed something that gleamed in the dark;
I carefully turned to look back,
And saw running there in the LED's glare
Huge rodents a ravaging pack!

I knew as I raced all the dangers I faced;
Those teeth-gnashing squirrels were unreal.
Like gray-furred piranhas, they scampered like rats
And nipped at my spinning rear wheel!

I feared when the dawn came they'd find a few bones
No more of me left on the trail,
If I couldn't hold to top speed as I rolled
I had to deliver the mail.

One grade was so steep that my terror ran deep;
I felt their obscene squirrelly breath!
I pedaled and sweated and grabbed a new gear;
I cringed, fearing imminent death.

But then I remembered my trusty trunk bag;
I might live to write my memoirs.
I reached for my trail mix, some chips that were stale,
And three dried-up energy bars.

I opened the zipper and tossed out my stuff
Whatever came into my hand:
A mallet, some pliers, a vise and four tires,
As well as a wheel truing stand.

I really regretted the loss of that stand,
But needed to get to the food.
I tossed all the snacks on their bristling backs,
Delaying the whole Hell-spawned brood.

At last as I crested the top of the hill,
I heard 'em all squabbling for nuts.
I'll never again take a ride through that glen
No ifs, ands, perhapses or buts.

Although this adventure sounds strange, it occurred
Exactly as I have told you.
I hope you believe that I'd never deceive;
I swear that it's perfectly true.

Some friends are derisive; they're brutally harsh.
They scoff and they don't understand,
Or think what I've said's an excuse... like Ol' Fred,
Who loaned me that wheel truing stand.

There's one other poem I found which I think was originally published in the American Youth Hostel Greater Boston Council's Spokesman newsletter and reprinted in Bicycling magazine circa 1976. With 15 syllables per line, I had to love this one. But once again, even though it really was pretty clean, plus I really do realize that it's in somewhat questionable form to publicly edit a poem created by another poet, I still couldn't resist the compulsion to give it a bit more personality (and reality?) by adding the most common gender identification for tandem captains and stokers, as well as perking it up just a tad and fixing a few of its off-kilter rhythms.

SHOVELING COAL

There are those who think the tandem is the instrument sublime
For a cyclotouring couple or a pair concerned with time.
It has verve and rolls quite swiftly as it swerves along the track,
But it's not a magic carpet for the gal who sits in back...
...JUST SHOVELING COAL!

Now consider its advantage: it has twice the motive force
Yet with no more wind resistance as it travels on its course.
While its weight is nearly double, there are four strong legs combined,
Though more effort's often asked for from the gal who sits behind...

...JUST SHOVELING COAL!

It is like a locomotive, where the captain's engineer,
Who is always barking orders at the fireman in the rear.
That's the way they ran the railroads; with a bike it's not so sweet
For the busy, bustling body on the secondary seat...

...JUST SHOVELING COAL!

But the guy up front is master; it is he who shifts the gears.
He decides when brakes are needed, and on top of this he steers.
He may go the wrong direction and wind up in Timbuktu,
Staunchly snubbing all assistance from his faithful number two...

...JUST SHOVELING COAL!

With airliners pilots fly 'em, but copilots work the flaps.
Tandem stokers only pedal till they finally collapse.
They don't get to set the cadence; they don't need to think or feel.
They just sit there getting pounded by the bumps beneath the wheel...

...JUST SHOVELING COAL!

Stokers' forward views are dismal, but to peek around's a sin;
So they can't see where they're going - only places that they've been.
They might want to lean to starboard when to port they make a turn,
But such freedoms are forbidden to the ladies in the stern...

...JUST SHOVELING COAL!

There may be some retribution on some future day below,
When the tandem captains all will reap exactly what they sow,
As they writhe in pain and anguish, and some mercy they request,
But Hell's stokers keep on doing what they've always done the best...

...JUST SHOVELING COAL!
- Tony Pranses


Well, I guess, as they say in the cartoons, "That's All, Folks!" My search went downhill very quickly after this. One serendipitous find that some aspiring cycling poets might enjoy is:

So... I suppose that the lack of cycling poetry was at least a small part of my enthusiasm for making my own meager contributions to the field. And this seemed like about as good a way to publish them as any. This section of the website will have mostly poems, but also other silly cycle stuff, including prose and pix. I've set a casual goal for myself to add one or two little ditties a month until I've accumulated a small anthology relevant to biking and triking, both off-road and on. Some of the stuff here may seem vaguely autobiographical, but most of it is either purely fictional or inspired by other cyclists I have known. If you're interested in getting some of these poems in a different format, please let me know and I'll take a shot at it.

Happy reading; happy times; happy riding; happy rhymes.

POW Index

Last updated Nov 8 2004