Taming the Bicycle

Taming the Bicycle

This text was written by Mark Twain who learned to ride highwheel
bicycles in the early 1880’s.
I thought the matter over, and concluded I could do it. So I went down
and bought a barrel of Pond’s Extract and a bicycle. The Expert came home
with me to instruct me. We chose the back yard, for the sake of privacy,
and went to work.

Mine was not a full-grown bicycle, but only a colt – a fifty-inch, with
the pedals shortened up to forty-eight – and skittish, like any other
colt. The Expert explained the thing’s points briefly, then he got on its
back and rode around a little, to show me how easy it was to do. He said
that the dismounting was perhaps the hardest thing to learn, and so we
would leave that to the last. But he was in error there. He found, to his
surprise and joy, that all that he needed to do was to get me on to the
machine and stand out of the way; I could get off, myself. Although I was
wholly inexperienced, I dismounted in the best time on record. He was on
that side, shoving up the machine; we all came down with a crash, he at
the bottom, I next, and the machine on top.

We examined the machine, but it was not in the least injured. This was
hardly believable. Yet the Expert assured me that it was true; in fact,
the examination proved it. I was partly to realize, then, how admirably
these things are constructed. We applied some Pond’s Extract, and
resumed. The Expert got on the other side to shove up this time, but I
dismounted on that side; so the result was as before.

The machine was not hurt. We oiled ourselves again, and resumed. This
time the Expert took up a sheltered position behind, but somehow or other
we landed on him again.

He was full of admiration; said it was abnormal. She was all right, not a
scratch on her, not a timber started anywhere. I said it was wonderful,
while we were greasing up, but he said that when I came to know these
steel spider-webs I would realize that nothing but dynamite could cripple
them. Then he limped out to position, and we resumed once more. This time
the Expert took up the position of short-stop, and got a man to shove up
behind. We got up a handsome speed, and presently traversed a brick, and
I went out over the top of the tiller and landed, head down, on the
instructor’s back, and saw the machine fluttering in the air between me
and the sun. It was well it came down on us, for that broke the fall, and
it was not injured.

Five days later I got out and was carried down to the hospital, and found
the Expert doing pretty fairly. In a few more days I was quite sound. I
attribute this to my prudence in always dismounting on something soft.
Some recommend a feather bed, but I think an Expert is better.

The Expert got out at last, brought four assistants with him. It was a
good idea. These four held the graceful cobweb upright while I climbed
into the saddle; then they formed in column and marched on either side of
me while the Expert pushed behind; all hands assisted at the dismount.

The bicycle had what is called the “wabbles,” and had them very badly. In
order to keep my position, a good many things were required of me, and in
every instance the thing required was against nature. That is to say,
that whatever the needed thing might be, my nature, habit, and breeding
moved me to attempt it in one way, while some immutable and unsuspected
law of physics required that it be done in just the other way. I
perceived by this how radically and grotesquely wrong had been the life-
long education of my body and members. They were steeped in ignorance;
they knew nothing – nothing which it could profit them to know. For
instance, if I found myself falling to the right, I put the tiller hard
down the other way, by a quite natural impulse, and so violated a law,
and kept on going down. The law required the opposite thing – the big
wheel must be turned in the direction in which you are falling. It is
hard to believe this, when you are told it. And not merely hard to
believe it, but impossible; it is opposed to all your notions. And it is
just as hard to do it, after you do come to believe it. Believing it, and
knowing by the most convincing proof that it is true, does not help it:
you can’t any more do it than you could before; you can neither force nor
persuade yourself to do it at first. The intellect has to come to the
front, now. It has to teach the limbs to discard their old education and
adopt the new.

The steps of one’s progress are distinctly marked. At the end of each
lesson he knows he has acquired something, and he also knows what that
something is, and likewise that it will stay with him. It is not like
studying German, where you mull along, in a groping, uncertain way, for
thirty years; and at last, just as you think you’ve got it, they spring
the subjunctive on you, and there you are. No – and I see now, plainly
enough, that the great pity about the German language is, that you can’t
fall off it and hurt yourself. There is nothing like that feature to make
you attend strictly to business. But I also see, by what I have learned
of bicycling, that the right and only sure way to learn German is by the
bicycling method. That is to say, take a grip on one villainy of it at a
time, leaving that one half learned.

When you have reached the point in bicycling where you can balance the
machine tolerably fairly and propel it and steer it, then comes your next
task – how to mount it. You do it in this way: you hop along behind it
on your right foot, resting the other on the mounting-peg, and grasping
the tiller with your hands. At the word, you rise on the peg, stiffen
your left leg, hang your other one around in the air in a general in
indefinite way, lean your stomach against the rear of the saddle, and
then fall off, maybe on one side, maybe on the other; but you fall off.
You get up and do it again; and once more; and then several times.

By this time you have learned to keep your balance; and also to steer
without wrenching the tiller out by the roots (I say tiller because it is
a tiller; “handle-bar” is a lamely descriptive phrase). So you steer
along, straight ahead, a little while, then you rise forward, with a
steady strain, bringing your right leg, and then your body, into the
saddle, catch your breath, fetch a violent hitch this way and then that,
and down you go again.

But you have ceased to mind the going down by this time; you are getting
to light on one foot or the other with considerable certainty. Six more
attempts and six more falls make you perfect. You land in the saddle
comfortably, next time, and stay there – that is, if you can be content
to let your legs dangle, and leave the pedals alone a while; but if you
grab at once for the pedals, you are gone again. You soon learn to wait a
little and perfect your balance before reaching for the pedals; then the
mounting-art is acquired, is complete, and a little practice will make it
simple and easy to you, though spectators ought to keep off a rod or two
to one side, along at first, if you have nothing against them.

And now you come to the voluntary dismount; you learned the other kind
first of all. It is quite easy to tell one how to do the voluntary
dismount; the words are few, the requirement simple, and apparently
undifficult; let your left pedal go down till your left leg is nearly
straight, turn your wheel to the left, and get off as you would from a
horse. It certainly does sound exceedingly easy; but it isn’t. I don’t
know why it isn’t but it isn’t. Try as you may, you don’t get down as you
would from a horse, you get down as you would from a house afire. You
make a spectacle of yourself every time.

During the eight days I took a daily lesson an hour and a half. At the
end of this twelve working-hours’ apprenticeship I was graduated – in
the rough. I was pronounced competent to paddle my own bicycle without
outside help. It seems incredible, this celerity of acquirement. It takes
considerably longer than that to learn horseback-riding in the rough.

Now it is true that I could have learned without a teacher, but it would
have been risky for me, because of my natural clumsiness. The self-taught
man seldom knows anything accurately, and he does not know a tenth as
much as he could have known if he had worked under teachers; and,
besides, he brags, and is the means of fooling other thoughtless people
into going and doing as he himself has done. There are those who imagine
that the unlucky accidents of life – life’s “experiences” – are in some
way useful to us. I wish I could find out how. I never knew one of them
to happen twice. They always change off and swap around and catch you on
your inexperienced side. If personal experience can be worth anything as
an education, it wouldn’t seem likely that you could trip Methuselah; and
yet if that old person could come back here it is more that likely that
one of the first things he would do would be to take hold of one of these
electric wires and tie himself all up in a knot. Now the surer thing and
the wiser thing would be for him to ask somebody whether it was a good
thing to take hold of. But that would not suit him; he would be one of
the self-taught kind that go by experience; he would want to examine for
himself. And he would find, for his instruction, that the coiled
patriarch shuns the electric wire; and it would be useful to him, too,
and would leave his education in quite a complete and rounded-out
condition, till he should come again, some day, and go to bouncing a
dynamite-can around to find out what was in it.

But we wander from the point. However, get a teacher; it saves much time
and Pond’s Extract.

Before taking final leave of me, my instructor inquired concerning my
physical strength, and I was able to inform him that I hadn’t any. He
said that that was a defect which would make up-hill wheeling pretty
difficult for me at first; but he also said the bicycle would soon remove
it. The contrast between his muscles and mine was quite marked. He wanted
to test mine, so I offered my biceps – which was my best. It almost made
him smile. He said, “It is pulpy, and soft, and yielding, and rounded; it
evades pressure, and glides from under the fingers; in the dark a body
might think it was an oyster in a rag.” Perhaps this made me look
grieved, for he added, briskly: “Oh, that’s all right, you needn’t worry
about that; in a little while you can’t tell it from a petrified kidney.
Just go right along with your practice; you’re all right.”

Then he left me, and I started out alone to seek adventures. You don’t
really have to seek them – that is nothing but a phrase – they come to

I chose a reposeful Sabbath-day sort of a back street which was about
thirty yards wide between the curbstones. I knew it was not wide enough;
still, I thought that by keeping strict watch and wasting no space
unnecessarily I could crowd through.

Of course I had trouble mounting the machine, entirely on my own
responsibility, with no encouraging moral support from the outside, no
sympathetic instructor to say, “Good! now you’re doing well – good again
– don’t hurry – there, now, you’re all right – brace up, go ahead.” In
place of this I had some other support. This was a boy, who was perched
on a gate-post munching a hunk of maple sugar.

He was full of interest and comment. The first time I failed and went
down he said that if he was me he would dress up in pillows, that’s what
he would do. The next time I went down he advised me to go and learn to
ride a tricycle first. The third time I collapsed he said he didn’t
believe I could stay on a horse-car. But the next time I succeeded, and
got clumsily under way in a weaving, tottering, uncertain fashion, and
occupying pretty much all of the street. My slow and lumbering gait
filled the boy to the chin with scorn, and he sung out, “My, but don’t he
rip along!” Then he got down from his post and loafed along the sidewalk,
still observing and occasionally commenting. Presently he dropped into my
wake and followed along behind. A little girl passed by, balancing a
wash-board on her head, and giggled, and seemed about to make a remark,
but the boy said, rebukingly, “Let him alone, he’s going to a funeral.”

I have been familiar with that street for years, and had always supposed
it was a dead level; but it was not, as the bicycle now informed me, to
my surprise. The bicycle, in the hands of a novice, is as alert and acute
as a spirit-level in the detecting the delicate and vanishing shades of
difference in these matters. It notices a rise where your untrained eye
would not observe that one existed; it notices any decline which water
will run down. I was toiling up a slight rise, but was not aware of it.
It made me tug and pant and perspire; and still, labor as I might, the
machine came almost to a standstill every little while. At such times the
boy would say: “That’s it! take a rest – there ain’t no hurry. They
can’t hold the funeral without you.”

Stones were a bother to me. Even the smallest ones gave me a panic when I
went over them. I could hit any kind of a stone, no matter how small, if
I tried to miss it; and of course at first I couldn’t help trying to do
that. It is but natural. It is part of the ass that is put in us all, for
some inscrutable reason.

It was at the end of my course, at last, and it was necessary for me to
round to. This is not a pleasant thing, when you undertake it for the
first time on your own responsibility, and neither is it likely to
succeed. Your confidence oozes away, you fill steadily up with nameless
apprehensions, every fiber of you is tense with a watchful strain, you
start a cautious and gradual curve, but your squirmy nerves are all full
of electric anxieties, so the curve is quickly demoralized into a jerky
and perilous zigzag; then suddenly the nickel-clad horse takes the bit in
its mouth and goes slanting for the curbstone, defying all prayers and
all your powers to change its mind – your heart stands still, your
breath hangs fire, your legs forget to work, straight on you go, and
there are but a couple of feet between you and the curb now. And now is
the desperate moment, the last chance to save yourself; of course all
your instructions fly out of your head, and you whirl your wheel away
from the curb instead of toward it, and so you go sprawling on that
granite-bound inhospitable shore. That was my luck; that was my
experience. I dragged myself out from under the indestructible bicycle
and sat down on the curb to examine.

I started on the return trip. It was now that I saw a farmer’s wagon
poking along down toward me, loaded with cabbages. If I needed anything
to perfect the precariousness of my steering, it was just that. The
farmer was occupying the middle of the road with his wagon, leaving
barely fourteen or fifteen yards of space on either side. I couldn’t
shout at him – a beginner can’t shout; if he opens his mouth he is gone;
he must keep all his attention on his business. But in this grisly
emergency, the boy came to the rescue, and for once I had to be grateful
to him. He kept a sharp lookout on the swiftly varying impulses and
inspirations of my bicycle, and shouted to the man accordingly:

“To the left! Turn to the left, or this jackass 'll run over you!” The
man started to do it. “No, to the right, to the right! Hold on! That
won’t do! – to the left! – to the right! – to the left – right! left
– ri – Stay where you are, or you’re a goner!”

And just then I caught the off horse in the starboard and went down in a
pile. I said, “Hang it! Couldn’t you see I was coming?”

"Yes, I see you was coming, but I couldn’t tell which way you was coming.
Nobody could – now, could they? You couldn’t yourself – now, could you?
So what could I do?

There was something in that, and so I had the magnanimity to say so. I
said I was no doubt as much to blame as he was.

Within the next five days I achieved so much progress that the boy
couldn’t keep up with me. He had to go back to his gate-post, and content
himself with watching me fall at long range.

There was a row of low stepping-stones across one end of the street, a
measured yard apart. Even after I got so I could steer pretty fairly I
was so afraid of those stones that I always hit them. They gave me the
worst falls I ever got in that street, except those which I got from
dogs. I have seen it stated that no expert is quick enough to run over a
dog; that a dog is always able to skip out of his way. I think that that
may be true: but I think that the reason he couldn’t run over the dog was
because he was trying to. I did not try to run over any dog. But I ran
over every dog that came along. I think it makes a great deal of
difference. If you try to run over the dog he knows how to calculate, but
if you are trying to miss him he does not know how to calculate, and is
liable to jump the wrong way every time. It was always so in my
experience. Even when I could not hit a wagon I could hit a dog that came
to see me practice. They all liked to see me practice, and they all came,
for there was very little going on in our neighborhood to entertain a
dog. It took time to learn to miss a dog, but I achieved even that.

I can steer as well as I want to, now, and I will catch that boy one of
these days and run over him if he doesn’t reform.

Get a bicycle. You will not regret it, if you live.

Mark Twain (1884)

What a great read! Thanks, Sam.

This should be required reading for every unicyclist.

I’ve found out what Pond’s Extract is, clearly they had similar chafing problems although a barrel seems excessive…

Thanks for that.

Re: Taming the Bicycle

On 12/01/2008 12:34, Mark Twain wrote:
At least the people on rec.sport.unicycling enjoyed it, but I wonder
what possible reason there can have been for cross-posting to
alt.ozdebate, alt.prophecies.nostradamus, misc.writing, alt.sf.creative,
alt.book and rec.bicycles.rides.

I doubt the OP will be reading follow-ups, anyway.

Danny Colyer <http://www.redpedals.co.uk>
Reply address is valid, but that on my website is checked more often
“The plural of anecdote is not data” - Frank Kotsonis

mike, you should put this in UniMag

I was thinking the exact same thing. What a delightful read.

Thanks for posting it, “Mark Twain”. :slight_smile:

That was brilliant. Time to dig out my old Mark Twain novels! Oh when i discovered there was more to mark Twain than Huck Finn :slight_smile:

I needed a copy of this for a friend today. Thought I’d give it a bump.

I need a tl;dr version of this.

Wonderful story!

Thank you Mark. :roll_eyes: