The 19th-Century Hipster Who Pioneered Modern Sportswriting

More than a century before GoPro, Thomas Stevens’ around-the-world bike ride vaulted first-person “sports porn” into the mainstream.

Robert Isenberg | Longreads | April 2022 | 10 minutes (2,788 words)

“I am bowling along beneath overhanging peach and mulberry trees,” recalls Thomas Stevens, in the 19th chapter of Around the World on a Bicycle, “following a volunteer horseman to Mohammed Ali Khan’s garden. Before reaching the garden a gang of bare-legged laborers engaged in patching up a mud wall favor me with a fusillade of stones, one of which caresses my ankle, and makes me limp like a Greenwich pensioner when I dismount a minute or two afterward….”

Like many travel writers, Thomas Stevens wrote in the first person. He also wrote in the present tense, so everything he recounts feels immediate, as if his journey is unfolding in real time. Over the course of many hundreds of pages, the reader travels with Stevens, eats with Stevens, weathers rainstorms with Stevens. When Stevens outwits thieves in Persia, we’re right there with him. When he listens to “Hungarian Gypsy music” in Serbia, we hear it, too. When he narrowly evades a herd of stampeding mustangs in the American frontier, we also duck and cover. With every crank of his pedal, we ride alongside, absorbing the same sensations.

But there’s one thing missing from Around the World on a Bicycle, Stevens’ mammoth memoir from 1887: the author himself.

Nowhere, in his two volumes and 41 chapters, does Stevens bother to explain why he decided to ride a penny-farthing across three continents. He never once mentions his parents, his childhood, or a prior career. Even his titular bicycle, which carries him 13,500 miles over mountains and deserts, has no origin story; it simply appears out of the ether. The first chapter opens with a flowery description of his ride away from San Francisco and through the surrounding hills. You might expect some kind of flashback, but no; Stevens has hit the road, and he’ll continue hitting it for two years straight.

Understand, though: Stevens isn’t shy about his own opinion. He assesses the attractiveness of every woman he meets. He analyzes every meal and guesthouse in microscopic detail. He recounts whole histories and cultural traditions to the best of his ability, and then decides how they measure up to the standards of Western Civilization. Because he’s riding a bicycle, Stevens is particularly preoccupied with road conditions, and he casually judges entire regions by their traversability. Stevens has unwavering confidence in his own perspective, and he assumes that we do, too — even if we have no idea who he is.

From a literary perspective, Around the World on a Bicycle is missing vital context. Take a similar book, like Cheryl Strayed’s Wild, and you’ll find a memoir of loss and addiction that also happens to take place on the Pacific Crest Trail. The most respected travelogues are usually couched in introspection. Lands of Lost Borders, by Kate Harris, is also about a cyclist riding thousands of miles across Asia, but Harris chronicles much of her life story up to that point, in order to explain the importance of her journey. In contrast, Stevens unburdens himself of any past or motivation. There’s nothing to him. He could be any able-bodied Victorian male with a taste for adventure.

The most revealing passage isn’t in the story itself, but in the front matter:

To

Colonel Albert A. Pope,

of Boston, Massachusetts,

whose liberal spirit of enterprise, and generous confidence in the integrity and

ability of the author, made the tour

Around the World on a Bicycle

possible, by unstinted financial patronage, is this volume

respectfully dedicated

There you have it: A young man writes his first book, and he dedicates it to his bankroller. Granted, Col. Pope was a prominent bicycle manufacturer at the time. Stevens owned a bicycle — one he’d bought with his own money for an 1884 trip across the United States — but Pope gifted him a nickel-plated Columbia Express and contracted him to write about his two-wheeled travels for Outing, a magazine Pope owned. Stevens would later draw on those articles to form Around the World on a Bicycle. How all this came to pass, though, would be anybody’s guess, because the book never mentions these arrangements — nor Pope, nor anyone Stevens knows or cares about — again.

But Around the World on a Bicycle isn’t literature, nor does it have any ambitions to be. Stevens may be the first human to circle the globe on a bicycle, and he may have chronicled the minutiae of that saga, but Stevens’ book and Strayed’s Wild don’t stem from the same tradition. Wild is travel writing. Around the World on a Bicycle is something else entirely: It’s sports porn.

***

Let’s get one thing out of the way: I love sports porn.

While I’m sure there is “sports porn” intended for genuine sexual gratification, I of course mean something more colloquial: texts and images that excite consumers on a primal level. This more wholesome brand of sports porn celebrates athletic achievement in all its visual glory, perhaps motivating the consumer to attempt similar feats, but offers little narrative substance. Like actual pornography, sports porn doesn’t tell a story so much as serve up an exciting scenario: What if you biked down a mountainous Chilean barrio? What if you went fly fishing in the remotest rivers of Siberia? What if you — in this case — rode your high-wheeled bicycle all the way around the planet?

Specifically, I love outdoors porn — and bicycle porn in particular. As an avid rider who writes regularly about cycling, I could watch vloggers pedal over the Rockies all day. I devour whole issues of Adventure Cyclist, the official magazine of the Adventure Cycling Association, and every last field report. I attended the Banff Mountain Film Festival several years in a row, where I watched film after film of adrenaline junkies BASE jumping off cliffs or paddling kayaks over waterfalls.

Video is now the dominant medium for sports porn, which makes perfect sense: Moving pictures require little explanation and can (literally) zoom in on physical action. This is the kind of high-octane excitement that GoPro cameras were designed for. Today, it’s easy for weekend warriors to shoot at high frame-rates and incorporate slo-mo and speed-ramps into their videos; even amateur productions can look spectacular. More and more often, solo sportsmen can make masterpieces on their own: Gravel bikers journey into the Kyrgyzstani wilderness with their prosumer drones, and they return as YouTube influencers with thousands, or even millions, of followers. Any attempt at real plot would ruin the mojo.


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But before video, there were glossy magazines like Outside, Backpacker, and Dirt Rag, periodicals that are often described in the journalism industry as “aspirational.” I cite these titles lovingly: They are the few glossies I’ve ever actually subscribed to or read cover-to-cover. I have spent much of my own career writing aspirational articles, like how to ride a bike in Taiwan or where to grab brunch in Providence. But while magazines like Outside publish in-depth profiles about serious topics, their appeal for many is largely pictorial. Like National Geographic’s stunning landscape panoramas and aerial shots, sports porn photos of Himalayan ice-climbers and trail-running through Scotland will knock the wind out of you. The next thing you know, you’ve ordered $300 worth of gear from REI and hired a personal trainer.

Before moving pictures existed, though, Thomas Stevens was stirring imaginations with his words, and sports porn is the genre he helped create. In 1886, the high-wheel bicycle (known by many as an Ordinary or a penny-farthing, a reference to the large and small British coins its wheels resembled) was roughly equivalent to the iPhone in 2022: a relatively new technology that had completely transformed modern society. Europeans and Americans were still grasping the possibilities of this magical new machine, and Stevens seized the moment; he vowed to ride across the United States, England, Europe, the Middle East, and Asia, completing his journey in Yokohama, Japan. The route was arbitrary, as all round-the-world tours are, but Stevens is still the first known cyclist to satisfy the public with this claim. Stevens pedaled through countries he knew his readers would never visit, and he vividly described the people he met. In the same spirit as any pornographic text, readers were invited to switch out the actual narrator for their own globe-trotting fantasy. Nobody cared who Thomas Stevens was. What they wanted to know was how he did it and what it was like when he got there.

***

To be fair, I didn’t “read” Around the World on a Bicycle so much as listen to it. Vintage copies on eBay can cost hundreds of dollars, and I struggled to find an unabridged reprint. An inexpensive ebook version was easy to find, but I was reluctant to read 1,000 pages of purple prose on a backlit screen. Instead, I found a recording produced by LibriVox — a free archive of public domain writings that functions like a Project Gutenberg of audiobooks — and I dedicated several weeks to Stevens’ book, which is read in tandem by several volunteer narrators.

Stevens was only the latest in a series of authors whose works about long-distance bike touring I’ve read, many of them historical. I had devoured a book by Fred A. Birchmore, also called Around the World on a Bicycle, about the author’s journey in the mid-1930s. I had read Barbara Savage’s Far From Nowhere, about a round-the-world bike tour with her husband in the late 1970s. Most interestingly, I read Around the World on Two Wheels, by Peter Zheutlin, a biography of Annie Londonderry and her infamous wager in the 1890s. All these authors followed similar routes, and they all paid homage to Stevens.

Day after day, I played Stevens’ book on my car stereo. On the bike trail, earbud affixed, I gorged on chapters. The book echoed in my kitchen as I cooked or washed dishes, much to my family’s chagrin. Travelogues are a double whammy for the reader, because the geographic journey mirrors the progression of sentences. The bike wheel turns slowly uphill; the paper page turns in the reader’s fingers; the MP3’s time-stamp ticks along, second by second.

As that journey continued, I found myself torn. On the one hand, I liked Stevens and could only imagine what a pleasure it was to know him. He’s eloquent, dashing, and good-humored. The way he describes himself, Stevens seems gracious to friends and brass-knuckled to antagonists. He is genuinely curious about everything he sees, from folk dances in Eastern Europe to dining etiquette in Kurdistan. Stevens takes pains to learn local languages, to make friends wherever he goes. He compliments and admires much of what he sees: His awestruck description of the Taj Mahal is tear-jerkingly sincere. 

In the same spirit as any pornographic text, readers were invited to switch out the actual narrator for their own globe-trotting fantasy. Nobody cared who Thomas Stevens was. What they wanted to know was how he did it and what it was like when he got there.

Like all great travelers, the man takes everything in stride; when Stevens is arrested in Afghanistan and escorted back to Persia, he expresses little more than disappointment. “As the golden dome of Imam Riza’s sanctuary glimmers upon my retreating figure yet a fourth time as I reach the summit of the hill whence we first beheld it,” he writes, “I breathe a silent hope that I may never set eyes on it again.” If there’s anything a cross-country cyclist loathes, it’s backtracking.

Yet Stevens was a product of his era: He places absolute faith in his Anglo-Saxon virtues, and he finds novel ways to trivialize every other ethnicity. He has no problem describing people as “savages” and comparing their behaviors to children or even animals. In one passage, Stevens is forcibly escorted by a dark-skinned soldier in the Pashtun hills, and his description of the man amounts to straight-up minstrelsy. He also carries a revolver, which was common at the time, but he brags about using random wildlife for target practice. From a modern viewpoint, Stevens’ boorish attitudes remain unsettling to the very last page.

Sports porn still struggles with this archetype — the brave white male seeking glory in exotic lands. In fairness, I have seen the genre diversify in recent years, largely thanks to social media,  but the go-to lead character is still a scruffy blonde guy with a California cadence. Outdoorsy Americans tend to have conspicuous freedom and safety nets that make their lifestyles possible. Nowhere is this privilege more evident than in their rationales, often spoken in voiceover: “I didn’t want to spend my life stuck in an office,” or, “I needed to push myself to try something new” — the usual declarations of young men with a granola streak and nothing more pressing to worry about.

I can’t criticize them too much, because I am part of that tribe — an obsessive cross-country cyclist who spends much of his free time reading about far-flung expeditions by bike. As a scruffy white guy, I could step into any of those YouTube fantasias and no one would notice. Almost 90 years after Stevens’ death, I remain his target readership. And although the penny-farthing was soon replaced with the “safety bicycle,” Stevens and I use roughly the same vehicle for roughly the same purpose: to explore, to challenge ourselves, to connect with the world.

***

In Rhode Island’s entire Ocean State Libraries system, I couldn’t find a single edition of Around the World on a Bicycle, in print or digital versions. Instead, I tracked down a copy at the Providence Athenaeum, a library so historic that it used to loan books to Edgar Allan Poe.

But this wasn’t just any copy: The Athenaeum has an original printing of Stevens’ book, released in two volumes in 1887 and 1888. What’s more, handwritten notations in each book verify that the volumes were acquired in July and September of their respective publication years. These copies, now tattered from centuries of use, their spines chipped and cracked, were hot off the presses when they joined the Athenaeum’s collection.

An old, worn hardcover book on a table, with two rubber bands holding it closed

Photo by Robert Isenberg

One of the librarians carefully set up the books on a table, to make sure I didn’t strain the covers. She had never heard of Thomas Stevens, and when she saw a picture of the author in the opening pages, she guessed he was riding a unicycle. She sat at the desk behind me while I read, a gesture I appreciated: Seeing the book firsthand was a euphoric moment, and I was grateful for someone to witness it.

What I hadn’t realized was that Stevens’ book was illustrated; between them, the volumes contained 180 black-and-white plates. The etchings are artful and detailed; I could frame any one of them and proudly hang it in my home. As a drawn character, Stevens appears again and again, riding his bicycle or standing beside it; he finds himself in wildly mixed company; fashions change all around him, from top hats to fezes to turbans to jingasa. It’s hard to tell how much the artist embellished, of course. Stevens carried a camera, and he mentions snapping pictures, but he also rode alone, and there was no Google Images search to verify his accounts.

As critical as I am of Victorian culture, I couldn’t help but fall under Stevens’ spell. I had already devoured the audiobook, yet found that I still had plenty of room for dessert. Sports porn is most effective when it’s audacious: People aren’t supposed to have fun in such dangerous ways, yet here they are, free-climbing up sheer sandstone. Stevens didn’t reveal much about himself, but he loved being the center of attention. The front wheel of his penny-farthing was 50 inches tall, and Stevens coasted into villages where bicycles had never been seen. In his telling, Stevens constantly explains what the bicycle is, and he entertains crowds by demonstrating its use. More than once, strangers offer to buy the bike from him. Stevens craved the attention, and readers were eager to pay it.

For a 21st-century reader like me, the real value of Around the World on a Bicycle is accidental: It freezes time. Stevens was a sportsman and tourist; he saw the world at street level. He may not have been a reliable anthropologist, but the author painstakingly described what these lands looked and felt like to an ordinary Western visitor. Stevens exhibits a mindfulness that modern people still labor to attain. Given enough time, pornography transforms into documentary. To Stevens, writing a book about a global cycling tour was a business op with a built-in publicity stunt. Today, his account sheds light on a bygone world.

And the inspiration remains — timeless and pure, unsullied by subtext or character development. More than a century later, Stevens still urges readers onward, to propel ourselves forward, to see how far we can go.

 

***

Robert Isenberg is a writer and multimedia producer based in Rhode Island. His books include The Archipelago: A Balkan Passage and The Green Season: A Writer’s First Year in Costa Rica. He was recently named a 2022 Scriptwriting Fellow by the Rhode Island Council on the Arts and won Best Documentary Director at the Block Island Film Festival. Feel free to visit him at robertisenberg.net.

Editor: Peter Rubin

Copy Editor: Cheri Lucas Rowlands