In an earlier time, I doubt I would have run across a copy of Jim Fitzpatrick's wonderful book The Bicycle and the Bush: Man and Machine in Rural Australia. I doubt that a publisher would print a large number of copies of a book in so special a niche so I count myself thankful for today's digital age where the World Wide Web, Twitter and Amazon have made searching into clicking and this book into bytes. Those technologies have conspired to deliver Fitzpatrick's careful study to my eager eyes and this book is a treat.
Fitzpatrick spent years researching this book, which looks at the bicycle's use in Australia from about 1890 through 1920. While the book focuses mainly on rural Australia, Fitzpatrick puts the bicycle in its global context and I found myself learning much about bicycling in England and America as well. This is fundamentally a book about technology and how it shapes, alters and integrates into people's lives. Sheep shearers, gold miners, fence runners, clergy and others are all profiled, as are some of the famous racers of the day. Conflicts that we still see to this day, things like bike vs. horse use on the trails and debates of what constitutes proper riding position and attire are traced to their early roots.
I found myself highlighting nearly a hundred passages in this virtual book, subjecting my Twitter followers to a stream of "hey did you know?" updates from my Kindle at odd hours while I stayed up devouring this fascinating document. And the pictures that Fitzpatrick found in old magazines and journals are terrific. I've included some cameraphone shots taken from my Kindle screen below to give you a sense of the book. And my notes and highlights can be read here.
Fitzpatrick's book isn't perfect. At one point he breaks out of the time period of the bulk of the book to discuss a modern day human powered strawberry picker. I actually found this bit of the book fascinating, but it did seem out of place.
Grant Petersen, whose book I reviewed last week, would love chatting with Jim Fitzpatrick. Near the close of his book Fitzpatrick laments that many modern bikes have lost the versatility (thing like wide tyres and comfortable upright riding positions) that made the bicycle such a valuable tool in harsh conditions. I think Fitzpatrick would be encouraged by the current existence of companies like Rivendell and things like the rediscovery of the usefulness of frame bags by the current generation of bikepackers.
In The Bicycle and the Bush: Man and Machine in Rural Australia Jim Fitzpatrick has done more than write a great book. He's basically built a time machine to transport the reader back to an earlier age. And that is something nearly as wonderful as the bicycle itself.