Friday, October 19, 2012

Tricycle Dreams

I can’t stop dreaming about tricycles.

For the second time in the past two weeks, a tricycle has figured in one of my dreams. The latest one happened a few nights ago. In my dream I was walking along the road near my office going where-I-don’t-remember when a very old but very fit-looking woman, a svelte granny, you might say, appeared before me on an adult tricycle (the kind you see codgers slowly pedalling along the sidewalks of Florida), booking it across the road in front of me. She hopped over a curb and disappeared around a corner, turning so sharply that one wheel lifted right off the ground.

Welcome to my nightmare.
Photo Credit: Daniel Pearce
The other dream from last week was even weirder. Again in the dream I was out walking on the roads of Edmonton, when I suddenly noticed that everywhere I looked, I saw people riding recumbent tricycles. And only recumbent tricycles. There were no bicycles at all—just the recumbent 3-wheelers, and lots of them. These dream riders were creepily friendly, waving and nodding at me as they slunk by. (This is contrary to my actual experience with real recumbent tricyclists, most of whom are probably so used to taking abuse from bicyclists that they’ve given up even making eye contact with them).

So what do these dreams mean? Hell if I know. Are they evidence of some subconscious grudge I’ve held against my parents for them not buying me a Big Wheel when I was 6? Are they some kind of sign? Or an indication of some subconscious desire on my part? I know some guys fantasize about three-ways. Is it pathetic that I dream about three wheels?

It’s true that I probably think about tricycles more than the average semi-serious cyclist. But not so much the kind of modern tricycles that appeared in these recent dreams. Rather, I’ve kinda got a thing for adult tricycles from the golden age of tricycles (I’m serious, there is one), in the late nineteenth century. Models such as the Singer, the Humber, the Salvo Sociable, and the Coventry Rotary. 

The heyday of the trike was in the early 1880s, when the high-wheel bicycle or pennyfarthing was all the rage. Although the high wheel was fast, it was not easy to ride—getting on and off was tricky, there was no brake, the design was not amenable to Victorian women’s dress, and riders were prone to falling off mid-flight—and it was a considerable fall off a 48- or 50-inch mount. Therefore, for the most part, the ridership of the high-wheeler was confined to reasonably athletic men. 

Tricycles offered obvious advantages to riders not comfortable with the idea of riding a high-wheeler: namely, they were much more stable and, therefore, safer; they could accommodate women’s clothing; and they were well-suited to socializing, as opposed to racing. Plus, the tricycle was perfect for touring; while it could be a bugger to propel uphill, the tricycle could accommodate luggage as well as a second rider, in the case of tandem models. It allowed for civilized, if not necessarily fast, travel.

Coventry Rotary ca. 1885
Although the first generation of  tricycles from the early 1870s were considered clunky and slow, that all changed in the late 1870s when the English manufacturer James Starley of Coventry began making rapid advances in design that led to the creation of faster, more efficient tricycles, such as the Coventry Rotary. As David Herlihy says in his book Bicycle: The History, once these smoother, more efficient machines hit the market, they were, for a brief time until the safety bicycle emerged, legitimate rivals of the bicycle.

JP and ERP on their Humber.
As I’ve declared on this blog before, I’m a fan of the Pennells (Joseph and Elizabeth Robins), the husband-wife cycling duo from Philadelphia, who, in the middle of this tricycle heyday, between 1884-86, rode their tandem tricycle around southern England, across France, and between Florence and Rome in the mid-1880s and wrote charming illustrated books about their trips. These intrepid tricyclists pretty much invented the concept of leisure cycle travel and did much to validate the emerging genre of cycle-travel literature. All with their tandem tricycle.   

For a while now, Val has been half seriously encouraging me to re-create the Pennells’ cycling experience by building (or rather, getting someone to build for me) a replica 1880s tandem tricycle like the ones that the Pennells rode. Then my wife and I could follow in their very wheeltracks. I’ve mainly laughed off his suggestions.

Until now. I’m beginning to wonder if there might be more to this than I thought. Perhaps these recent tricycle dreams are trying to tell me something.  


  1. Hello Jasper - My wife and I just completed the ride that the Pennells did from Florence to Rome in October and November 1884. I'd love to do it again on an original or replica Humber Tandem tricycle. Let me know if you are interested as I will soon put 75 or so photos of our trip on my Flickr site.

  2. Hi Rick, That sounds terrific. Yes, I'd love to see those pics. Are you planning to write about the trip?


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