Richard Ballantine was born into the family that owned Ballantine Books, a New York publishing house, and so it was probably inevitable that he would become an author.
In 1972, after writing a couple of long forgotten books on non-cycling subjects, he wrote Richard’s Bicycle Book. It was an instant and unexpected success, selling over a million copies over the next decade. It also established him as the essential hero of of the ‘alternative’ cycling movement.
To add a touch of spice to Richard Ballantine’s ‘alternative’ credentials, Richard’s Bicycle Book was dedicated to ‘Samuel Joseph Melville, hero’. Sam Melville was a participant in the Weather Underground and was imprisoned for the 1969 bombing of eight buildings in New York City in protest at US involvement in the Viet Nam war. He then went on to organise prisoners in Attica Prison culminating in the legendary Attica Prison Riot of 1971. Sam Melville was shot and killed when the riot was ruthlessly put down. Sam Melville was not your usual dedicatee for a cuddly book about a harmless pastime, particularly one published in 1972.
One of my more excitable friends was convinced, at different times, that Richard Ballantine was in the UK to dodge the Viet Nam draft (which was cool), was an anti-Viet-Nam-War-activist in voluntary exile (which was cooler) or was a friend of Sam Melville, a Weatherman and in Britain on the run from the FBI (which was as cool as being dipped in liquid Nitrogen). All of which is probably nonsense. I met Richard Ballantine a few times, but never found the right moment to ask him about the dedication. You don’t need a weatherman to know which way the wind blows.
With his (real or imagined) credentials well established, Richard Ballantine spent his time advocating cycling, exploring the outer limits of bicycle engineering (with Human Powered Vehicles and early mountain bikes) and, of course, repackaging his Bicycle Book to try to catch the zeitgeist of each subsequent generation.
The works he authored, co-authored or edited include:
Richard Ballantine died in 2013.
“Yeah, a lot’s changed since I invented alternative comedy…
Since I moved to London in 1971 I have always cycled. This was at a time when you were considered lower than a tramp, or a Conservative, if you rode a bike.
It meant I could get around for free and, when I left college, I was able to time to the second how late I wanted to be for the various part-time jobs that I had.
Now cycling is a huge consumer industry, but back then, apart from your bike and some clothes made out of wool, there was nothing to buy. For instance there was only one cycling book on the market, called 'Richard’s Bicycle Book'. This contained some practical stuff, relating to fixing punctures and tightening your brakes, but the largest section concerned the best way to kill dogs... Here is an extract:
“If the dog attacks, a water-pistol loaded with a water-ammonia solution will work. If you don’t have this and can’t, or won’t, climb a tree, get a stick or a large rock. Any small dog can simply be hoisted up by the legs and his brains dashed out. With a big dog you are fighting for your life. If you are weaponless, try to tangle him up in your bike and then strangle him. Or, if worst comes to worst, ram your entire arm down his throat. He will choke and die. Better your arm than your throat.”
... Later on the bicycle played an important part in the birth of alternative comedy. The original Comedy Store didn’t finish before 2am, which gave both the audience, and the performers, problems. Back then the tube stopped at 9:30 and there were only about two night buses. One that went somewhere like Walthamstow Dog Track and the other that terminated in an industrial estate… in Walthamstow. So you would either have to take a taxi or walk...
So quite a few of the performers cycled after the show. Tired and sweaty, I would collect my bike from where it was chained and cycle the three miles home to my council tower block in Fulham. I was young then, but I have to say that cycling home in the early morning, after you have had a couple of drinks, is the closest thing to flying.
These days I am at an age when I need to exercise to remain fit. And the way I do it is through cycling… Was that laughter? Oh you’re very hurtful aren’t you? You’re mocking me because of my fatness.
These days I am at an age when I need to exercise to remain fit. Alright? And the way I do it, remain in this incredible condition, is through cycling. You’ve probably heard of MAMILs, which is Middle Aged Men In Lycra. Well, I’m a PUFFIN, a Pathetic Fat F***** In Nappies. When I say ‘nappies’ what I am referring to is the huge wodges of foam that us fat cyclists are forced to wear between our legs to stop the razor-thin saddles we ride on causing terrible damage to our internal organs.
I do have a fairly fancy bike, but I don’t go in for all the high-end equipment. Bear in mind, though, that a Tour de France cyclist needs to consume 8,000 calories a day… and I do do that...”