Having seen many of his previous documentaries, such as “The Civil War,” “Baseball,” “Lewis & Clark,” “The National Parks” and “Jazz,” it seems that many of the same themes he examined in those works would be available with the bicycle.
For starters, bicycling erupted into a craze in the U.S. almost as soon as the first velocipedes began arriving on our shores following the Civil War.
People joined clubs that held outdoor and indoor bicycle rallies. The riding was so rough in the days of horse-and-buggy roads that organizations such as the League of American Wheelmen (now the League of American Bicyclists) lobbied legislatures for improved highways and byways.
Meanwhile, bicycle racing became a huge sport that was expected to rival baseball for a time. Racing rinks gave way to velodromes, where events from sprints to six-day endurance races filled venues with spectators.
Racism and women's liberation
Racism — often a topic in Burns' documentaries — plays a part in bike racing. One of America's most famous cyclists at the turn of the century, Major Taylor, battled so much discrimination in clubs and racetracks across the U.S. that he preferred racing overseas.
The bicycle also played a huge part in women's liberation in the U.S. as they left their homes for bike rides, even traveling around the world like Anne Londonderry. Civil rights leader Susan B. Anthony said more than 100 years ago:
“Let me tell you what I think of bicycling. I think it has done more to emancipate women than anything else in the world.”
The bicycle continues to play a role in American society today. It can be a source of conflict for space on the nation's roads (originally conceived for bicycles) as more people opt to commute to work by bicycle. It's also a growing source of recreation, as well as philanthropy and sport.
And the story is full of colorful characters, from early bicycling explorers like Thomas Stevens to the roadies and mountain bikers of today.
The visual elements that Burns needs also are readily available. The popularity of photography grew along with the bicycle, so there are thousands of photos available for use. There also must be moving pictures available for those early, turn of the century bicycle races.
David Herlihy, author of “Bicycle” and “The Lost Cyclist,” would be a great resource for interviews to put bicycling into its historical perspective, much like Shelby Foote did for “The Civil War.”
Bike Snob Eben Weiss also comes to mind for contemporary views of the bicycle scene, and commentator Bob Roll could address modern bike racing.
I don't know what project Ken Burns is working on next, but he couldn't go wrong with bicycles.