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  • Writer's pictureCarolyn Steele Agosta

Bicycles - the Gateway Drug

Updated: Sep 19, 2020

In the late 1880’s, the ‘safety bicycle’ was developed. Unlike the original velocipedes which had the huge front wheel and a ridiculously little rear wheel, safety bicycles were designed with wheels the same size and the seat much closer to the ground. They were considered safe enough for a child to ride – or even a woman. And when women began riding bicycles, all hell broke lose.

First, it meant freedom. A woman on a bicycle could get away from home easily and she could go fast. She could break loose from her chaperone, and maybe even her brothers. A woman on a bicycle needed shorter, simpler skirts, which meant people might be able to glimpse her ankles! Oh, the horror! There were so many things a girl wasn’t encouraged to do. Tennis? Something worse?

By 1900, a girl might dream of riding a bicycle, but quite often, this was denied to her. In my story, Them Caswell Cousins, Nellie Caswell gets a chance at her dream. And it opens doors she never expected. Here’s an excerpt: (oh, and by the way, Gerry is her four-year-old brother)…


On Friday, she was bustin’ to break loose all day. She kept trying to make excuses to leave the tent. “Don’t you need a bucket of water?” she asked Mama.

“Yes. Take Gerry with you.” Augh!

“Want me to go get some blackberries?”

“Yes. Take Gerry with you.” Criminentlies!

“I need to go to the privy.”

“Okay. Take Gerry to go, too.” Oh, mercy Maud, she was going to lose her cotton-pickin’ mind!

Finally, she just slipped away, like a cat in the night. Disregarding any of Mama’s preachings or Hazel’s nagging, she went out onto the passways and found Gil over near Bachelor’s Corner, where all the single young men hung out. He immediately came over when he saw her, and they went off to the field between the campground and woods.

He brought his bicycle. “I’m going to teach you how to ride,” he said, smiling. “I teach all my girlfriends how to ride.”

Nellie thrilled at his words. Yes! Let Mama have a cow. She didn’t care. Her face flamed at the boldness, when he set her on the crossbar of his bike, and his arms went around to her to reach for the handlebar. She gripped the center of the handlebar and balanced herself carefully – and off they went, across the field on the narrow path to the creek, jouncing over rocks and picking up speed. She squealed a little as they rode downhill. He chuckled and tightened his arms. His legs kept bouncing against hers as he pedaled, so she held herself in more tightly, and learned to anticipate bumps and turns. The movements of the bicycle began to feel more familiar, more natural.

Once they got to the bottom, they walked the bike back up, talking and laughing. He explained about balancing the bike by keeping it moving forward all the time, and how to use the handbrake. “Of course, you need to watch out for your skirt,” he said. “Can’t let it get twisted up in the spokes. You have to hitch it up a bit.” He glanced at her ankles. “Tuck it in around the crossbar.” He smiled again.

When they got to the top of the slope, he suggested she try a solo ride. She positioned herself on the bicycle as he gave detailed instructions. “You’ll be fine,” he murmured, as he finished. “Here – this is for good luck.” Suddenly he leaned in close and kissed her cheek.

Nellie gasped. She took a good grip on the handlebar, settled her feet on the pedals, and took off. Oh, it was like flying! She pedaled madly, weaving a little at first and then she got the knack of it. The bike soared down the path, moving like the wind, and she felt a surge of freedom she’d never experienced before. Now, this was something! This was adventure! She could go anywhere on a bicycle – across the state, across the country! She came to the creek and instead of stopping, she rode right through it, splashing and jolting over the stones at the creek bottom, then up the other side. Here she had to lean harder into the bike, standing slightly on the pedals the way she’d seen others do, up the path toward the woods. From far behind, she could hear Gil shouting for her to return. Ha! In a pig’s ear!


If you enjoyed that and would like to read more, please buy my book, Two Weeks Every Summer – Stories from Camp Meeting. Go here for more information, or directly to at

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