Alongside the expansion of London’s public transport network, and the increased popularity of cars, cycling also held an important place in British interwar culture. Although modern ‘safety’ bikes with pneumatic tyres were first mass-produced in the 1880s, the interwar period saw an ever-greater adoption of bikes not only as a means of transport, but also as a vehicle for recreation and sport. Between 1924 and 1937, over 2 million bicycles were manufactured in Britain.
According to social historian Michael John Law, in the interwar period the ‘bicycle was used for short journeys that would today be made by car, for pleasure trips out of the suburbs into the countryside, for cycling club outings and also for quite long distance commuting.’ Although cycling may have been challenging in central London due to the large number of motorised vehicles on the narrow roads, those living in the city’s outskirts could comfortable cycle around their neighbourhoods. Bikes were primarily associated with the working classes, as they were relatively cheap to purchase and, unlike cars and motor bikes, did not demand an ongoing supply of fuel.
Beyond the use of bicycles for day-to-day commuting and navigation of the urban environment, many thousands of people joined cycle clubs during the interwar period – an estimated 100,000 people were members of such clubs by the mid-1930s. These clubs were very popular in London as well as the countryside. As early as 1921, a London rally attracted more than a thousand participants.
Bikes also quickly became popular in organised sporting events. One pioneering cyclist, Mabel Hodgson, organised a number of extremely popular rallies in London, as well as a 106-mile race from London to the Sussex coast. In south London, the still operational Herne Hill Velodrome opened in 1891. There exist various ‘Topical Budget’ and British Pathé films from the 1920s which show races at Herne Hill, including one which involved a competition of already old-fashioned Victorian penny farthings.
As well as providing a human interest piece of the cinema newsreel, these films’ intertitles also boast about the modern cameras which enabled the capture of high-speed pursuits on film: ‘you’ve never seen a picture like this – taken with “Topicals” special camera which makes the thrills, thrillier”’
One noteworthy feature of these cycle competitions is that they were open to men as well as women. One Topical Budget film from 1929 shows an all-female race at Herne Hill. The riders clearly go around the track at great speed and one is shown tightening the bolts on her bike; however, the riders’ femininity is underlined by a shot of two competitors powdering their noses and applying lipstick before the start of the race. The threat of women engaging in a leisure pursuit which potentially does not align with gender expectations is diffused by the immediate visual assertion that these women still wear make-up and fashionable outfits. The high-speed cycling on display in this video also required the riders to wear shorts, providing a further visual pleasure to the (male) spectator.
In addition to the increased number of women participating in amateur cycling clubs, the interwar period also saw the emergence of the first professional female cyclists. Sport historian Neil Carter has identified Marguerite Wilson as a pioneer in this respect: Wilson obtained full-time sponsorship in 1939 and in the same year set a record cycling from Land’s End in Cornwall to John O’Groats in Scotland. Typist Billie Dovey, who in 1938 broke the record of most miles cycled in a year (29,603.4) also received professional sponsorship.
Cycling, then, was popular in interwar Britain and London and people participated in it in a variety of ways: as a means of commuting; as a leisure activity; and as a professional sport. Nonetheless, in popular fiction and film of the period cycling is often passed over in favour of more glamorous means of transport such as cars, trains and planes. As a primarily working-class pastime, interwar cycling was not given the same exposure as other recreations, which has exacerbated the possibility for this piece of history to remain overlooked today.
 Neil Carter, ‘Marguerite Wilson and other ‘hardriding…feminine space eaters’: cycling and modern femininity in interwar Britain’, Sport in History, vol 40, no. 4 (2020), 482-504 (486)
 Michael John Law, ‘The car indispensable: the hidden influence of the car in inter-war suburban
London’, Journal of Historical Geography, vol. 38 (2012), 424-433 (426)
 Carter, ‘Marguerite Wilson’, 486
 Neil Carter, Cycling and the British: A Modern History (London: Bloomsbury Academic, 2020), p. 156
 Carter, ‘Marguerite Wilson’, 482-495
 Ibid., 487