Book Review: The Wheels of Chance: A Bicycle Idyll

I read an article my friend (as well as a fellow cyclist and blogger) Sarah posted, about the history of cycling.  It discussed that time after chain driven cycles were invented, but before automobiles were invented.  These were the first glory days of cyclists, when people of all social standings would use the freedom of two wheels to travel much farther than they ever could before. ( I consider now the beginning of the second glory days)

One such person was H G Wells, famous for books such as: Time Machine, War of the Worlds and The Invisible Man.  All classic science fiction.  (I’ve read all of these and more).  Little did I know though, he was so enamored with the feelings of joy and freedom from a bike that he wrote a novel that took place entirely on bikes!

The Wheels of Chance: A Bicycle Idyll was written in 1896.  I must admit that I did have to look up the word Idyll.

1.  a poem or prose composition, usually describing pastoral scenes orevents or any charmingly simple episode, appealing incident, or the like.

2. a simple descriptive or narrative piece in verse or prose.

3. material suitable for such a work.

4. an episode or scene of idyllic charm.

5. a brief or inconsequential romantic affair.

Looking back over the book I would have to say in this case the last definition is the most apropos.

The story follows our hero, Mr. Hoopdriver, an assistant draper (one who cuts fabric for tailors and dressmakers) who recently purchased his first bicycle.  Those of us who remember way back in the day, learning to ride and the falls that occurred, our new-found rider of a 2 wheeled steel horse was experiencing them as an adult. (Luckily, even in 1896, 23-year-old men are immune to pain)

Before he was quite ready though, his boss advises he is up for vacation.  He can either take it now or way till the fall.  Hoopdriver has had hopes of a cycling trek (a man after my own heart) across the south of London.  As any cyclist, even a new one like our hero knows, sunny summer is better that stormy fall for a bike tour, so against his better judgement, he takes off the next week. (Sort of a pass/fail cycling course)

What I liked about this stormy from a cycling aspect, is many things have NOT changed in the 120 years since this was written.  Hoopdriver had to deal with steep hills, lack of conditioning, dehydration, too much beer (OK I admit it I have been there as well when cycling along the Oregon coast near Rogue Ales, but thats another story…) flat tires, maintenance, route finding and where to sleep.

All this on a second hand, very heavy, fixed gear bike.  Hills were done on pure leg strength alone.  A much harder endeavor than those of us who do this today.  And all this done by a man with very little cycling skills.  Just looking behind him at traffic catching up would more often than not result in a crash.

Of course, for those like me, just reading about the ride would have kept us entertained.  However, Wells took it a step farther for everyone else.   What could a 23 year bike riding man want to find more, that a fair damsel in distress, who just happened to also be cycling with a dastardly man who was trying to take advantage of her innocence!  Hoopdriver could NOT allow this…  But to find out what he did, and if he was successful you must read yourself.

A subplot, involved the stepmother of the fair damsel trying to find her runaway girl.  Here, more than anywhere else, we find the biggest differences between the Victorian era and now.  Stepmum’s biggest concern was that our damsel was out in the real world, “On a bike, sleeping who knows where!  What man could possibly want her after this?”

I honestly laughed aloud at this and then emailed Sarah (who has cycled the length and breadth of the US, sometimes alone and (gasp) sometimes in the presence of a man!  The poor stepmum would had a case of the vapors and fainted dead away had she ever heard this!

This was a very well written and enjoyable tale.  Every now and then I had to look up a term or two, but overall it lost nothing over the years.  Given the age of the book, it is also free from Amazon for the Kindle.

The down side, I honestly was not as happy with the ending as I hoped I would be, but when I thought about it more, it did make sense, given the time and place.

I rated it 4 stars overall.  It’s the first cycling novel I’ve ever read, and I encourage anyone who loves a bike adventure to add this to your list to read.

Ride like the wind Hoopdriver!

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6 Responses to Book Review: The Wheels of Chance: A Bicycle Idyll

  1. sarburch says:

    Oh la la, thanks for the recommendation (and the numerous personal mentions)! I just downloaded the “The Wheels of Chance” on my Kindle. It’s next in my reading queue! 🙂

    Since I’ve ridden my bike and slept who-knows-where, I just hope to god that a man will want me someday! 🙂

  2. Thanks for the recommendation I thoroughly enjoyed it. Very evocative of the period too.

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