Self Defence for Bicyclists (1901)

  • Originally published on the site on Friday, 25th June 2010

Longtime Bartitsu aficionados are well aware of Marcus Tindal’s eccentric and amusing article Self Protection on a Cycle, which was published in Pearson’s Magazine in 1901. There has been speculation as to whether Tindal was inspired by, or parodying E.W. Barton-Wright’s articles on self defence with a walking stick, which had also appeared in Pearson’s at about the same time.

Tindal may also have been inspired by the following letter from a Mr. H. Graves to the editor of the London Bicycle Club Gazette (vol. 23, 1900):

Self-defence For Bicyclists.

The other day I was informed by a lady of my acquaintance that, bicycling about sunset along the towing path from Hampton Court to Kingston, she and a friend were much annoyed by a couple of particularly ill-conditioned cads also riding bicycles. They followed the ladies from Hampton Court, and, finding the towing path otherwise empty of traffic, they hung on to their back wheels, and pursued them with a running fire of vulgarities. At last my friends, with their unwelcome escort, overtook another party of bicyclists, whereupon the two cads discreetly put down their heads and scorched off. I told the lady that her proper course in the circumstances was to sit up suddenly with all her power of back-pedalling and braking, whereupon her persecutor would have bumped her back wheel, and almost inevitably come a bad cropper.

To anyone acquainted with bicycle racing it is, of course, axiomatic that the result of a bump is to send the bumper to swift destruction, the person bumped escaping uninjured. My friend, however, was incredulous, and feared lest, like Samson, she should be overwhelmed in the destruction of her enemies. Such a result could only happen if the difference in the velocity of the two bicycles concerned was so great that the violence of the impact sufficed actually to smash the leading machine; for example, if a scorcher ran into a practically stationary bicyclist, the results, though worse for the former, would hardly leave the latter unscathed. But when, as in the case under notice, the speed of the two parties is nearly the same, the effect of the collision is nothing more than mere thrill in the machine of the person bumped, who, of course, immediately resumes pedalling, while the bumper, after two or three wild swerves, usually comes to the ground.

Apart from an elementary fact like this, which I should have imagined was better known, there are many points in bicycling strategy worthy of attention and practice, such, for instance, as how to get past a menacing tramp. The right method is sufficiently simple, though it requires not a little nerve. It consists in riding point blank at the aggressor, and at the last moment throwing the whole weight of the body to the right or left, as the case may be, thus making a rapid tack. Not one man in a hundred will stand up to a bicycle approaching at speed; the instinct to shrink back, especially in a person unprepared for such a manoeuvre, is irresistible, and according as he steps to the right or left, so the bicyclists swerves swiftly in the opposite direction. Another point worthy of consideration is the utilisation of the momentum of the bicycle in disabling an opponent. Most of us have at some time or other ventured a passing stroke at the head of a cap-throwing boy, and been surprised how overpowering to him is the result of a forward blow, and how ludicrously inadequate the effect of a back-hander. To bring into subjection this blind force should be difficult. Of course, the reaction from a hard blow dealt at a sturdy tramp might be disastrous to the bicyclist; but, by swerving and so throwing the balance of the machine well to the side of the person to be demolished, the recoil from the shock might be made to run concurrently with the natural recovery from the inclined position in which the blow was delivered.

Another useful way of dealing with an assailant is to ride at his side, and, throwing your arms round his neck, to leap on to him, leaving the bicycle to take its chance. The odds are that you, with your momentum, will overbear him and fall on him heavily, while the bicycle, relieved of your weight, has a reasonable chance of emerging unharmed. This is a far more desperate plan than the last-mentioned, and one to be employed only upon very narrow roads, but it ought to give a very great advantage to the bicyclist. Adopting either of these plans, you are far safer than if you followed your natural instinct of slipping past on the far side of the road, thus running the gauntlet of your adversary, who, undisturbed, can choose the psychological moment for putting his stick into your spokes. By closing with him you take the initiative, and the choice of moment rests with you; at close quarters, too, his stick is less likely to be effective, to say nothing of the specific advantages which have already been described. There seems, at all events, ample scope for our mathematicians to work out the dynamics of the moving bicyclist.

The editor replied:

Ladies will, no doubt, be very grateful for the hint. It is all so simple. But would it not be rather embarrassing if the odds did not work out properly, and the lady was left hanging round the tramp’s neck, while her bicycle careered on alone?

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