Simanaitis Says

On cars, old, new and future; science & technology; vintage airplanes, computer flight simulation of them; Sherlockiana; our English language; travel; and other stuff


SHERLOCK HOLMES CLAIMED he could identify the direction of Victorian bicycle travel merely by examining its tire er… for him, tyre tracks. What’s more, as recently as December 2014, this matter has been discussed in no less than The New York Times.

This line of thought started with my reading two items, “Bicycling in the Time of Sherlock Holmes” and “Which Way Did The Bicycle Travel?” in The New Annotated Sherlock Holmes: The Complete Short Stories (2 Vol. Set), edited by Leslie S. Klinger, with additional research by Patricia J. Chui, W.W. Norton, 2005. These particular bits of Sherlockian scholarship accompany Dr. John H. Watson’s chronicles of “The Adventure of the Solitary Cyclist” and “The Adventure of the Priory School,” respectively.

Today, let’s discuss Holmes, bicycling and the Victorian woman. Tomorrow, we’ll get specific about his claimed deduction of cycle directionality.

From the beginning of “The Adventure of the Solitary Cyclist,” Holmes displays deductive skills; Watson displays an appreciation for a fine-looking woman. To wit:

“… Holmes begged the beautiful intruder to take a seat and to inform us what it was that was troubling her. ‘At least it cannot be your health,‘ said he, as his keen eyes darted over her; ‘so ardent a bicyclist must be full of energy.’ ”

Watson continues, with rare deduction on his part: “She glanced down in surprise at her own feet, and I observed the slight roughening of the side of the sole caused by the friction of the edge of the pedal.”


Said the woman cyclist: “He always kept so far from me that I could not clearly see his face.” An anonymous artist’s illustration, Portland Oregonian, July 23, 1911. This and other images from The New Annotated Sherlock Holmes, Vol. II.

A footnote amplifies: “Proper Victorian women were expected to ride bicycles while wearing ankle-length skirts, petticoats, a jacket and a hat.”

On the other hand, notes Sherlockian scholar Richard Warner, “There were some so-called liberated women who chose to dress for comfort instead of propriety and wore those instruments of the Devil, the bifurcated attire. These could be bloomers, knickerbockers, or even, Heaven forbid, the convertible dress.” This last garment had buttons down the front that could be refastened around the legs.

The footnote concludes that the lady in question must have been conservatively attired: “If she had been wearing bifurcated costume, he [Watson] as a ladies‘ man would have made some comment. After all, her limbs would have been revealed.”

Quickly, sir, where are those Victorian table leg cozies?

Beginning in the 1860s, cycling grew to be popular in Europe, with city-to-city races lasting a day or more. The first Tour de France, lasting 21 days, was in 1903.


Illustration by Charles Raymond Macaulay, Return of Sherlock Holmes, McClure Phillips, 1905.

These devices were safety bicycles, with front and rear wheels of equal diameter, introduced in 1885. The earlier penny-farthing, introduced in 1870 with a tall front wheel and a small one aft, got its name from the English penny being its largest coin and the farthing its smallest. Penny-farthings were notorious for going topsy-turvy, thus the “safety” nomenclature for the later and more stable device.


Above, a pair of penny-farthing riders. “James Irvine II and Harry Baechtel rode from San Fernando to Irvine Ranch, 1886. Picture taken in Santa Ana.” Below, a safety cyclist flies past a hidden Holmes and Watson. Image by Sidney Paget from the Strand magazine, 1904.


As promised, tomorrow we’ll examine Holmes’ claim of deducing bicycle directionality. In fact, Watson’s literary agent, Arthur Conan Doyle, gets into the discussion, as does the topic of differential calculus. ds

© Dennis Simanaitis,, 2016

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