One of the most fascinating aspects of this research project on the history of cycling and cinema is the sheer variety of films I am encountering, ranging from feature films and documentaries through to public information, propaganda and road safety films.

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This film, Riding Abreast (Jones, 1940) is available to watch on the BFI’s online streaming site, and is an example of the richness of this material. Riding Abreast is a short silent film produced for the campaigning charity, the Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents (which was established during the first world war in response to the proliferation of road accidents during air-raid blackouts) to warn children to stay close to the edge of the road while cycling. ‘Riding abreast is selfish and unfair, as well as dangerous’, the inter-titles instruct the viewer. ‘Ride in single file whenever road or traffic conditions require it, and never more than two abreast’. It tells the story of three girls, Jill, Mary and Brenda, who head out on their bikes into the country-side at the beginning of the summer holidays. Like a polite gang of biker girls, the three of them insist on riding across the full width of the road, ignoring the angry or concerned responses of other cyclists and drivers.

Screen Shot 2016-01-25 at 11.09.57.pngInevitably, Mary (whose red cardigan foreshadows danger) is hit by a car and thrown into the ditch.

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Mary survives, but head and foot injuries mean she is laid up in bed for most of the summer, bored and frustrated while her friends go horse-riding and picnicking without her. It is a pedantic and condescending film that labours its central message. After Mary is run over and taken home by the driver who hit her, another driver shows her two friends a copy of the highway code, and later, when Mary is reading in her sickbed, her mother also gives her a copy of the highway code to peruse.

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However, despite the crudity of its central message, it is also a rather beautiful film. Shot on low-resolution kodachrome film stock  the film has the warm, fuzzy quality of home-movie footage. The fading colours and blurred images resemble a cinematic memory-image. The images we see in the film also capture a deeply nostalgic image of Britain as a safe, spacious, innocent and pastoral environment. In its visualisation of earnest, unassuming, middle-class Britishness it is the audio-visual equivalent of a Ladybird book, the first of which appeared in the same year.

Screen Shot 2016-01-25 at 10.53.13.pngScreen Shot 2016-01-25 at 11.41.15.pngScreen Shot 2016-01-25 at 10.57.48.png Given that the film was produced during the second world war, the nationalistic function of this depiction of Britain, and of children under threat, has a disturbing ambiguity. On the one hand this is a celebratory image of Britain as a country of small villages and simple pleasures, heath-land, hedgerows and almost traffic-free roads where children are free to roam and ramble by themselves. On the other hand, the film also offers a counter-image of Britain as a danger zone with death and injury waiting around the corner for anybody who is careless, selfish, and who ignores the clearly spelt-out rules. Whether or not this was an intentional subtext, it is difficult not to read the film in hindsight as an allegorical account of a nation at war. In addition, it is also a striking example of the persistence of the stereotype of the selfish and irresponsible cyclist. The figure of the reckless cyclist – the ‘cycling cad’ or ‘scorcher’ – emerged in the 19th century and endures through to the present, and it is a measure of how persuasive this stereotype is, that even young girls cycling on virtually empty country lanes can be cast in the role of the anti-social ‘scorcher’, implicitly threatening the stability of the nation.

Riding Abreast, is a comparatively unusual example of a film showing young women cycling together. In this respect, the warning it offers about responsible cycling is highly gendered, as is emphasised by the suggestive title. While on the one hand the film is an expression of paternalistic concern over the dangers faced by children cycling on the road, at the same time, the film is an expression of alarm at the ‘dangerous’ phenomenon of the independent female cyclist, selfishly and unfairly taking up space as she travels through the countryside. It is therefore tempting to read the film against the grain – and the absence of a soundtrack means that the film invites a broader range of interpretations – and to re-imagine it as an invitation to women to cycle confidently and disobediently, occupying public space, ‘taking the lane‘ (to cite the title of the American feminist cycling zine), rather than squeezing themselves into the gutter; to reappropriate it as a very rare celebration of women ‘riding abreast’.