Police Frogmen recover bikes from the Cam, 1988 Varsity Archives

Walking around Cambridge, I’m always struck by the unthinkable number of bikes (and the unthinkable ways in which they’re parked). Wanting to investigate Cambridge’s “love affair” with the bike further, I delved into the Varsity archives.

Student bike owners of Cambridge, past and present, are connected by the problem of theft. A 1964 Varsity article mournfully describes the nefarious ways of bike thieves who create “mutilated and paint washed cripples” that are “unrecognisable to their former owners.” The writer looks wistfully forward to the “invention of special radar-controlled locks opening to the sound of the master’s voice,” which will end bike thievery once and for all. Another proposed invention is the “Boadicea Bike”. The invention – consisting of a knife on each side of the front wheel – would be “invaluable for battle-axe girls making the long trek over the flatlands of Huntingdon Road.” The tongue-in-cheek tone does nothing to dispel the reference to the darker reality of women’s safety in Cambridge. The most impressive instance of bike theft in the archives is visual – a photograph of a police frogman dredging a stolen bike from the Cam. According to the caption, police were surprised by the sheer number of bikes dumped in the river, with as many as sixty-nine bikes recovered from the river in the weeks leading up to the photo.

“mutilated and paint washed cripples”

The 1964 column ends with the writer imagining an Oxford- Cambridge bike race as the next big university event. You get the sense the writer feels that only the other place can truly recognise Cambridge’s love of the bike. Some googling does reveal (for any particularly intrepid cyclists) the existence of the Varsity Way – a cycle path from Oxford to Cambridge, totalling 123.8 miles.

Cycling has also been responsible for some great Varsity headlines, with favourites including “Saddled” and “Testing Time for Cambridge Brakes.” The winning headline must be 1951’s “More Accidents Than Last Year” due to its absolute commitment to the facts and nothing else. Concerns over Cambridge cyclists’ lax attitude to safety seemed to reach a peak in 1953, which saw the hosting of an exhibition titled “Better Roadmanship”. Inspector Edwards is quoted (perhaps rather pointedly) by Varsity as saying: “We naturally hope many undergraduates will attend the exhibition.”


Mountain View

On your bike: Cam bike-tivist calls on colleges to act

Bikes also have the prestige of featuring on the front cover of the first Varsity paper available on our digital archive (Issue 524, 6th October 2000). Fittingly, the stakes were high: the story is described as the “bike racks scandal”. Controversy arose surrounding the introduction of new bike racks outside the Faculty of History. Faculty staff launched a campaign to get rid of the offending racks, with one don describing them as looking like “meat hooks”. Student responses were slightly more positive, with Simon Elliston Ball giving the following exclusive to Varsity: “I didn’t even notice the bike racks.”

Disputes, intrigue, and puns – the history of bikes in Cambridge really has it all.