Bicycling tips from the world of Flavia de Luce

So, this is a bit of a silly post, a (hopefully) fun post. Definitely not a Let’s sit down and discuss literary theory and see how long we can go before we broach the inevitable of Freudian interpretation sort of post. (Although I’m really itching to wash over this book series with a more analytical treatment. Future post, yeah?) But it’s a post that I’ve wanted to do ever since I came up with the idea a couple of weeks ago. And with May being National Bike Month – whooooo! – I figured, why not? I want to make it clear, though, that I don’t really know what my intention is for this entry. I’m certainly no bike guru, and I don’t want to sit you all down for a nice, stern, matron-with-spectacles lecture on how to be a respectable modern-day bicyclist. (I point you to the DMV and local bicycle coalitions for that sort of thing.) Nor am I claiming that Alan Bradley’s Flavia de Luce books should be treated as a manual for the noob bicyclist who wants to learn how to avoid the inconvenience of becoming splatter on someone’s front grill. I guess I just want to draw parallels between the fictional world in my hands and the real world I’m living in. And amuse the inner child in me who can’t help but tug at her mother’s pant legs and exclaim, “Mommy, look! Minnie Mouse and I are wearing the same dress!”



Don’t be afraid of buying secondhand. And maintain thy bike!

Until I rescued her from rusty oblivion, my trusty old three-speed BSA Keep Fit had languished for years in a toolshed among broken flowerpots and wooden wheelbarrows. Like so many other things at Buckshaw, she had once belonged to Harriet, who had named her l’Hirondelle: “the swallow.” I had rechristened her Gladys.

Glady’s tires had been flat, her gears bone dry and crying out for oil, but with her own onboard tire pump and black leather tool bag behind her seat, she was entirely self-sufficient. With Dogger’s help, I soon had her in tiptop running order.

— pg. 72-73 (The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie)

Going the secondhand or vintage route may take more time and money than buying a glossy new thing fresh out of the factory. Depending on the condition of the bike, you may need a new coat of paint, new gears, new brakes, new tires, and/or a new seat; not to mention, time to research the different makes and models (pros & cons, that sort of thing), as well as time to hunt down good deals on Craigslist and other similar venues. But as Flavia demonstrates throughout the series, going secondhand is definitely NOT settling for second-rate. Flavia is very fond of Gladys, and Gladys has proven herself many times over to be a very sturdy and reliable bike.

Also, this is a good reminder to always keep your bike in good shape. Wipe it down, oil the gears, check tire pressure from time to time, that sort of thing. If you have a leather saddle, it’s a good idea to occasionally treat it with a suitable conditioning cream. Please don’t doom your bike to a slow and rusty death in the family tool shed. I will cry if you do.


Be visible, especially in the rain.

“When cycling in the rain,” Dogger had told me, “being visible is more important than keeping dry.”

“You mean that I can always dry out, but I can’t be brought back to life when I’m impaled on the horns of a Daimler,” I said partly joking.

“Precisely,” Dogger had said with a perfect tiny smile, and gone back to waxing Father’s boots.

— pg. 262 (A Red Herring Without Mustard)

While it would be ideal to be visible AND dry, when pressed to choose between the two always opt for visibility. However, this doesn’t mean you have to run to the nearest outfitter and go crazy on neons! (Although you certainly can if you want to.) Bright colors will do just as well, in my opinion. In this scene, Flavia dons a yellow raincoat, and that gives her ample visibility on the country roads around Bishop’s Lacey.


Give your bike a good name. 

In the kitchen garden, I grabbed my faithful old BSA Keep-Fit from the greenhouse. The bicycle had once belonged to Harriet, who had called her l’Hirondelle, “the Swallow”: a word that reminded me so much of being force-fed cod-liver oil with a gag-inducing spoon that I had renamed her “Gladys.” Who, for goodness’ sake, wants to ride a bicycle with a name that sounds like a sickroom nurse?

And Gladys was much more down-to-earth than l’Hirondelle: an adventurous female with Dunlop tires, three speeds, and a forgiving nature. She never complained and she never tired, and neither, when I was in her company, did I.

— pg. 102 (A Red Herring Without Mustard)

I think this goes without saying, but … bikes need good names too! For those who have trouble coming up with names — I know I fall into that camp sometimes — try names of people you admire, or fictional characters that you like. If that fails, you can always tweak a stranger’s random comment.


Always remember to lock up!

I strolled casually over to the bicycle stand. Ten seconds more and I’d be on my way. And then, as if someone had thrown a pail of ice water into my face, I froze in shock: Gladys was gone! I almost screamed it aloud.

There rested all the official bicycles with their officious little lamps and government-issued carriers — but Gladys was gone!


Fear filled me and then anger. How could I have been so stupid as to leave Gladys unlocked in a strange place?

— pg. 167 (The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie)

Flavia has a habit of leaving Gladys unlocked wherever she goes, and I always wince whenever she does because to me it’s utterly unthinkable to leave one’s bike unprotected and utterly vulnerable to thieves like that. But Flavia does live in a small country town, where everyone knows everyone, and no bike thief would be able to go very far before their stolen good was identified by someone on the street, and their person dragged unmercifully by the ears to the constabulary or to the rightful owner for a good old-fashioned tongue-lashing. And in that sort of environment, I suppose it’s really not necessary to lock one’s bike.

But Flavia does get a good scare once, in the scene above. Luckily for her, Gladys wasn’t stolen at all: a well-meaning police officer had stowed her into the truck of his car, and later offered her a ride home on account of the rain. But nevertheless, it’s a good reminder to lock up one’s bike, regardless of how “safe” you feel your city to be. A u-lock is a basic must; pair it with a cable for double protection. Or even better, store your bike indoors if possible.


Don’t be afraid to explore!

I think there must be a kind of courage that comes from not being able to make up your mind.

Whether it was this or whether it was Gladys’s willfullness I can’t be sure, but there we were, suddenly swerving off the main road and into the Gully.

— pg. 273 (A Red Herring Without Mustard)

Certainly, there is wisdom in avoiding unfamiliar places — what if you end up in a bad part of town, or somewhere where road conditions are dangerous? — but that doesn’t mean you can’t be safe AND adventurous. One of the joys of bike-riding is being able to wander at will and happening upon tucked-away gems, like a cafe that serves up a mean espresso, or a hidden park filled with sunlight and beautiful flora. But be smart about it. Research your environs beforehand; know which streets are the most bike-friendly. And go! See where your bike takes you.


Have fun!

Gladys’s tires hummed their loud song of contentment as we sped along the tarmac.

Summer is icumen in,” I warbled to the world. “Lhude sing cuccu!”

A Jersey cow looked up from her grazing, and I stood on the pedals and gave her a shaky curtsy in passing.

— pg. 113 (The Weed That Strings the Hangman’s Bag)

Bicycling has a bunch of benefits: it’s good exercise; it gets you out of the house and breathing fresh air; it’s an excellent alternative to driving, especially for short trips. But best of all, it’s just plain fun. So go out there and enjoy!

Some ideas that I’ve come across and have found tantalizing or interesting:

♦ Sign up for a tweed run! For Bay Areans, there is the San Francisco Tweed Run that happens twice a year.

♦ Call up friends and go for a ride together!

♦ Deck out your bike with pretty things! I spotted one young lady complementing her ride with a bouquet of flowers.

♦ Switch things up a bit! Ditch your spandex and fluorescent safety vests, and dress up in bright colors.


♦ I don’t think Flavia wears helmets … but you definitely should! Helmets are an absolute must, regardless of where you’re biking, or how unlikely you think the chances are of getting into an accident, or how experienced you are as a bicyclist. Accidents do happen, and truly, truly, it’s better to be safe than sorry! If you don’t like traditional bike helmets, there are plenty of alternative shapes & sizes out on market for you to choose from. Gala Darling mentions a few in her article on cycle chic. Nutcase Helmets is also a good place to look; they have some awesome designs in their collection! And just for kicks, because this is really too epic to not share: go supervillain. (Warning: some swearing, ahoy. Also, thanks to Anne for the head’s up!)

♦ Your local bicycle coalition is an excellent place to start for information on bicycling etiquette and bike safety. For those in the SF Bay Area, you can check out the SF Bicycle Coalition, the East Bay Bicycle Coalition, and the official SF Bay Area Bike to Work Day website. Their online resources are super helpful!

Readers — What books have you been really into lately? Do you bike?

3 thoughts on “Bicycling tips from the world of Flavia de Luce”

  1. Hi Jen! :) Thanks for the post. I’m actually thinking about getting a bike in Philly so these were some nice tips. Oh! Let’s vchat some time. When are you free??^^

    1. How exciting! Let me know when you get one – I wanna see pictures!

      Oh, and yes yes, let’s v-chat sometime! I’ll e-mail you.

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