An Opera for an English Olympic Hero

Lal White was forgotten by many, even residents of his small English factory town, but the whimsical Cycle Song hopes to change that

Tenor Darren Abraham plays Albert White, the previously unsung steelworker and bicycling champ. (Kieran Dodds)
Smithsonian Magazine | Subscribe

(Continued from page 1)

“Originally, I wanted to tell the story of Lance Armstrong,” recalls Beale. “A man who came back from cancer to win the Tour de France six times seemed to exemplify the Olympic spirit. Then Sue told me about the cycling icon right on our doorstep.”

Cycle Song is an epic yarn about a town, an invention and a man’s determination. “Lal White didn’t have a practice facility or any resources behind him, and he competed against athletes who did,” says Tessa Gordziejko, creative director of imove, the arts organization that helped produce the project. “He was a genuine working-class hero.”

Genuine, but forgotten. Before the opera was commissioned, few current denizens of Scunthorpe knew White’s name or his legacy. “Now, almost a century after his most famous race, the town has sort of rediscovered and reclaimed him,” says Beale.

A man is riding through morning
A man is riding through morning
on a bicycle
Catches the light in its wheels
And throws the light round and round.

It’s no accident that in a recent poll of the British public, the bicycle was voted the greatest technical advance of the past two centuries. An alternative mode of transport to the horse, bikes were conceived as time-saving machines that would not require feeding or slurry the streets with scat or die easily.

Early horseless carriages were as fantastical as they were impractical. Among the most wondrous were the Trivector—a coach that three drivers propelled along the road by rhythmically pulling levers—and the Velocimano, a sort of tricycle that moved forward when its leathery wings flapped.

An eccentric German baron named Karl Christian Ludwig von Drais de Sauerbrun invented the two-wheeler in 1818. His “draisine” was a tricked-out hobbyhorse with wooden wheels and no pedals: the rider had to push off the ground with his feet, Fred Flintstone-style.

The first pedal-driven model may or may not have been assembled by Scottish blacksmith Kirkpatrick Macmillan during the mid-19th century. What’s indisputable is that in 1867, two-wheelers —called velocipedes—started appearing commercially under the name Michaux in France. Not to be outdone by their Gallic counterparts, British engineers made improvements. Still, bikes were widely dismissed as novelty items for the wealthy. In his book Bicycle: The History, David Herlihy tells of a Londoner who, encircled by a hostile mob, heaved his velocipede on top of a passing carriage he had frantically hailed, and leaped inside to escape.

To enable greater speeds, British designers made the front wheel bigger, resulting in the extreme of the high-wheeler, known variously as the ordinary or boneshaker or penny-farthing.

You straddled the vehicle at your peril. Because the pedals were attached to a 50-inch front wheel, you had to perch atop the wheel hub in order to simultaneously pedal and steer. And since your feet couldn’t reach the ground to serve as brakes, stopping was problematic. Riding the ordinary proved fatal for some cyclists, who plunged from their seats headfirst.

About Franz Lidz

A longtime Senior Writer at Sports Illustrated and the author of several memoirs, Franz Lidz has written for the New York Times since 1983, on travel, TV, film and theater. He is a frequent contributor to Smithsonian.

Read more from this author

Comment on this Story

comments powered by Disqus