Victorian Bicyclists: Road and Etiquette Rules for Riders

The first real bicycle — a two-wheeled machine, operated by crank-action on a rotating axle — did not appear until the early 1860s with some people claiming the father of the bicycle was either Pierre Michaux, his son Ernest, or perhaps Pierre Lallement. Whoever is responsible for the invention may not be as important as the fact that cycling did not become a widely popular activity until the 1870s. That meant that people like Princesse de Lamballe, Eliza de Feuillide, Madame Récamier, Jane Austen, or Napoleon Bonaparte never found themselves on a Victorian bicycle.

Victorian Bicyclists

Bicycle of 1868-1869. Public domain.

When bicycles did become popular, they were touted as a way for Victorian bicyclists to achieve independence. In fact, cycling was noted to allow “every man … [to] become his own locomotive,”[1] which also meant that with each rider gaining independence, etiquette rules and regulations soon developed. Victorian bicyclists were greatly encouraged to follow these regulations and rules to protect riders and to making cycling enjoyable for everyone.

Victorian bicyclists fall 1898 fashions

Female bicycle fashions for fall 1898 for Victorian bicyclists. Author’s collection.

Some of these bicycle etiquette rules are listed below:

  1. Cyclists were warned to maintain control of their bicycle under all circumstances and “regulate their pace according to their skill in managing the wheel.”[2]
  2. Victorian bicyclists were to keep to the left-hand side of the road, even if no vehicle was in sight, and this rule was to be strictly adhered to when meeting any vehicle or any rider.
  3. Signals were to be given before overtaking any traveler on the road and the signal was to be provided “at a sufficient distance to allow … [travelers] time to look round.”[3]
  4. When turning a corner, Victorian bicyclists were to moderate their pace and signal unless they were sure no vehicle or foot passenger was nearby. Additionally, when making a right hand turn, cyclists were to take care and “leave sufficient room for any vehicle to pass on its own side, as some drivers are particularly fond of swinging round a corner at a fast pace.”[4]
  5. When passing another cyclist or a horse going in the same direction, Victorian bicyclists were to “pass on the right; but on meeting or passing a led horse, [the rider was to] take that side of the road on which the man … is leading the animal.”[5] Additionally, under no circumstances were riders to pass on the wrong side of a vehicle, because in the case of an accident the cyclist was liable for damages.
  6. When approaching a rider from the rear, if the rider’s hind tire was low or flat, a person was to courteously “call attention to the fact.”[6]
  7. If repairs were needed, a cyclist was not to stop on the path to help. Instead etiquette required them to remove to one side of the road and keep the pathway clear.
  8. Courtesy was also required when approaching and passing foot passengers. Shrill whistles or calls were to be avoided, as was needless shouting. Victorian bicyclists were also to warn foot passengers courteously and give the foot passenger a wide berth, particularly near crossings.
  9. Fancy or trick riding was not considered proper behavior on the road. Rather, such riding was “confined to the academy and riding schools.”[7]
  10. When passing horses, cyclists were not to pass swiftly as that might startle them, and when approaching a horse that demonstrated “swings of restiveness,” riders were encouraged to quietly dismount or “ride slowly by, speaking to the horse … [so as not to] frighten the animal.”[8] Additionally, after passing horses, cyclists were to provide a space of at least ten yards before moving in front of the horse.
  11. When riding at night, lamps were suggested as they helped “to signify to other passengers the whereabouts of the Bicyclist,”[9] and if riding in particularly busy areas at night, Victorian bicyclists were to avoid noiseless approaches by making their presence known with a warning bell.
  12. When riding in a group with other cyclists, the following rules applied: a) Proper distance between each rider was to be ensured “in order that those riding behind will not be upset in case of accidents to one in front”;[10] b) Attention was to be given equal to all women “handsome or otherwise”; c) The leader, on passing anyone, was to announce that other riders followed and provide sufficient notice so that those in the rear could slacken their speed before the leader eased up; d) When descending a hill, riders were to keep their bicycles under control and “not rush past those preceding them with [their] feet off the pedals.”[11]
    Victorian bicyclists riding single file

    Victorian bicyclists riding single file. Author’s collection.

  13. When a man and woman rode together, the man was to ride on the left side and the woman on the right. This allowed the man to “have his right arm ready to give assistance.”[12]
  14. When overtaking two or more riders, a cyclist was never to pass between them, and as for those being passed, they were to close ranks and move to the left. Additionally, if the road was particularly narrow, riders were to form a single line and ride single file, and after the riders moved from single file to double file, the right-hand man was to always to fall to the rear.

Riders were also reminded that “too much care cannot be exercised for the safety of pedestrians, as well as other cyclers.”[13] This meant that if for some reason a cyclist suffered the misfortune of an accident or ran down a pedestrian on the road, the Victorian bicyclist was not supposed to leave, but rather “stop to give what help you can.”[14] In fact, cyclists were admonished to “never pass by an accident without dismounting and inquiring … [ about] the trouble.”[15]

There were more rules for misfortunes or accidents. For instance, if a woman was involved, gentlemen were also not supposed to gain “her acquaintance without the usual form of introduction … [as it was] always proper to speak to a wheelwoman who may be in need of assistance.”[16]

  • [1] The Bicycle and How to Ride It, by a Practical Bicyclist, 1882, p. 8.
  • [2] Hanson, John Wesley, Etiquette and Bicycle, for 1896, 1896, p. 364.
  • [3] The Bicycle and How to Ride It, by a Practical Bicyclist, p. 86.
  • [4] Ibid., p. 87.
  • [5] Ibid., p. 86.
  • [6] Hanson, John Wesley, p. 365.
  • [7] Ibid. p. 366.
  • [8] The Bicycle and How to Ride It, by a Practical Bicyclist, p. 87.
  • [9] Hanson, John Wesley, p. 366.
  • [10] Ibid., p. 363.
  • [11] The Bicycle and How to Ride It, by a Practical Bicyclist, p. 88. 
  • [12] Hanson, John Wesley, p. 363.
  • [13] Ibid., p. 361.
  • [14] Ibid.
  • [15] Ibid.
  • [16] Ibid.

Oh hi there 👋
It’s nice to meet you.

Sign up to receive awesome content in your inbox, every month.

We don’t spam! Read our privacy policy for more info.

Leave a Comment