Mark Twain Learns to Ride a Bicycle
Today learning to ride a bicycle is usually a rite of passage for children as they graduate from using stabilisers to riding a bike without the assistance of aids to keep them upright. In the early days of cycling many people who learned to ride did so in adult life. One such person was Mark Twain who in his late forties decided to learn to ride, an adventure he wrote down but did not have published.
Armed with a barrel of Pond’s Extract to apply to his expected bruises, and a 58 inch penny-farthing, Twain, ably assisted by an ‘Expert’ began to learn to ride in his back-yard. Dismounting, the Expert informed Twain, was “perhaps the hardest thing to learn.” A fact Twain disproved by ably demonstrating an extraordinary capacity to involuntarily dismount several times whilst trying to mount the machine, each fall being fortuitously broken by the Expert. Eventually Twain managed to stay on the bicycle only to run over a brick which sent him flying over the handlebars to land once more upon the Expert.
Undeterred by a brief stay in hospital the Expert returned a few days later accompanied by four assistants who helped Twain mount and supported him while the Expert pushed him along on the bike. Satisfied with his progress thus far the next step was to learn to mount the bicycle, an exercise that was accompanied by yet more falls. Perseverance and Pond’s Extract saw Twain master getting on the bike, and even pedal while staying upright. The voluntary dismount was next on the agenda. As Twain explained:
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.
After eight days of taking an hour-and-a-half lesson each day Twain had mastered the basics of cycling and ventured out on his own, choosing a quiet, wide, street for his first foray. For witness he had a boy who left his position on a gatepost to delight in passing comment on Twain’s uncertain progress:
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!”
Having finally wobbled his way along the street Twain found himself having to turn around, an action that left him dumped unceremoniously on the ground once again. Remounting he began the return trip only to discover a farmer’s wagon heading in his direction and occupying the centre of the road. Luckily the boy was there to shout advice to the farmer.
“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!”
At which point Twain ran into the horse and went down again. Early setbacks aside, within five days Twain had achieved sufficient progress to relegate the boy back to his gatepost where he could only watch Twain fall at long range.
The British satirical magazine Punch, ever lively to the society of its day, captured the difficulties of learning to ride in its brilliantly observed cartoons. The ‘Commencing Bicyclist’s’ sentiment below is one I share having recently purchased a single-speed bicycle. After failing spectacularly to get started on the fixed gear after many attempts I have taken advantage of the flip-flop hub and turned the rear wheel round so I can freewheel and more importantly stay on the bike.
 Mark Twain, “Taming the Bicycle,” in What is Man? and Other Essay, 336-348 (Auckland: Floating Press, 2010)
Mark Twain, “Taming the Bicycle”
Mark Twain (1835–1910)
From Mark Twain: Collected Tales, Sketches, Speeches, & Essays 1852–1890
Mark Twain (a.k.a. Samuel L. Clemens) was born 182 years ago today, and we celebrate it by presenting one of his glorious failures that he turned into one of his breezily humorous (if exaggerated) stories.
Throughout his life Clemens was fascinated with the latest inventions. He owned one of the first home telephones, and he invested (and nearly always lost) money on a variety of businesses peddling the new and the odd, including engraving machines, telegraph equipment, and Plasmon, an alleged protein powder (“One teaspoon is equivalent to an ordinary beefsteak”). His financial downfall and bankruptcy occurred when he sunk most of his fortune into the Paige Typesetter, a monstrous device that would have revolutionized the printing industry—if it had ever worked as well as it did when the inventor demonstrated a prototype to the hapless investor.
So when the Columbia Bicycle Factory opened up near his home in Hartford, Clemens leaped at the opportunity to try one. He bought his own bicycle and hired one of the factory’s employees to teach him how to ride it. It did not go well, and therein lies the tale, “Taming the Bicycle,” which was found among Mark Twain’s papers and published posthumously in 1917—and which we present here as our Story of the Week selection.
Read “Taming the Bicycle” by Mark Twain