Sometimes a story just doesn’t live up to expectation. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle believed that “The Adventure of the Solitary Cyclist” wasn’t very good even after revision, especially given how proud he was of the previous three stories. The first version of the story was rejected by The Strand magazine, not necessarily because it wasn’t that good, but simply because Sherlock Holmes didn’t feature nearly as prominently in it. A little rewriting later, the story was published, but it was a hard act to follow something like “The Adventure of the Dancing Men.”
Miss Violet Smith of Farnham, Surrey, contacts Sherlock Holmes in regards to a couple of men from South Africa who knew her late father. Her father died poor, and thus left Violet and her mother. After answering an ad in the news inquiring as to their whereabouts, they meet Mr. Carruthers and Mr. Woodley. Carruthers is a congenial fellow, while Woodley is something of a bully. The pair knew Violet’s uncle, Ralph Smith, who also died poor but wished to see his relatives provided for. The red flag here is that Violet had not heard from Uncle Ralph since he left for South Africa 25 years before. The two men assure her that before his death, Ralph had heard of his brother’s death and felt responsible for the welfare of his relations.
Carruthers begins with a job offer to Violet. She accepts the position as a live-in music teacher for his 10-year-old daughter at twice the standard salary, allowing her to visit her mother on the weekends. This seemed ideal until Woodley stayed for a week and made all manner of unwanted and clumsy sexual advancements towards Violet along with a suggestion of marriage. When he demanded a kiss, Carruthers kicked him out, and Woodley has not been seen since.
All of this is prelude to the actual reason for Violet to contact Holmes. She regularly bicycles back and forth from the railway station for her weekend visits. During these travels, she has been followed by a strange man who keeps his distance on his own bicycle, never getting too close or too far, on the same stretch of lonely road. She does not recognize him. Holmes asks about admirers, but she names only the two men, pointing out that Carruthers is a perfect gentleman in spite of his attraction.
Watson observes, upon Violet’s leaving, that a household that would pay her salary but that is too cheap to pay for a horse and coach is glaringly odd. Holmes sends him to Surrey to learn what he can, which ends up being nothing beyond the understanding that Violet’s story is true and that the man in question seems to go in and out at the local Charlington Hall. A letter from Violet states that Carruthers has proposed to her, but she is already engaged to one Cyril Morton, an electrical engineer from Coventry.
After chastising poor Watson, Holmes goes to Surrey himself, where he gets into a fight at the local pub. Holmes relates his hilarious tale wherein Woodley heard his name mentioned in conversation from the taproom and demands to know Holmes’ business. Holmes leaves with a few bruises while Woodley has to be carried out. Holmes then learns that Woodley is a weekend regular at Charlington Hall, rented by Williamson, a clergyman according to rumor.
Another letter from Violet states that she is quitting her position due to Carruthers’ proposals and the reappearance of Woodley. It turns out that Carruthers has since secured a horse and buggy for Violet, so she need not bicycle.
Holmes and Watson arrive too late as Violet has secured an earlier train. As the buggy comes by, no one is in it. Violet has been abducted and our heroes board it in an attempt to go after her. When they come face to face with the strange cyclist, the mystery man pulls a revolver on them. As it turns out, they’re on the same side, each worried for Violet. The abductors are Woodley and Williamson, the man claims, tipping his hat that he’s in on whatever’s happening some how.
They find the unconscious groomsman who was driving the buggy, and then track down all others in question at Charlington Hall. The clergyman, stripped of his status, is performing a marriage ceremony for Woodley and Violet, the latter of whom is gagged. Woodley boasts that he has already married his prize, and the cyclist unmasks. Carruthers has come to save his intended. He pulls his revolver and shoots Woodley, wounding him.
It seems that Uncle Ralph wasn’t nearly as penniless when he died as was thought. He had acquired quite the fortune. Being illiterate, he would die intestate, allowing Violet to inherit as next of kin. The two thieves made their way to England in the hopes that one of them would marry Violet, and Woodley gained his opportunity by winning her in a card game. They brought Williamson in for a share of the money. The plan went wrong when Woodley proved to be brutish and Carruthers fell in love, estranging him from his former partners. The bicycle situation that brought Holmes and Watson in was all in the name of protecting Violet from Woodley at the one location he’d be.
Carruthers gets only a few months while his former partners incur heavier penalties. Holmes confirms the marriage was void on two grounds, one for Violet being unwilling, and one for Williamson having been defrocked, thus holding no authority to legalize such a marriage.
Unfortunately, I have to concur with the author and the publisher: the story isn’t very good, especially as a follow-up to iconic “Adventure of the Dancing Men.” The pub sequence is probably the highlight for me, but it’s pretty much killed by an uncharacteristic berating that Watson receives. The situation really leaves a bad taste in my mouth. This sort of thing is rare in the stories, but it’s also what pop culture latches on to, rendering Watson into more of a buffoon character in need of a good scolding. It descends into unintentional self-parody in most adaptations. As such, it’s a story that I can do without. Even so, it’s a point of trivia to be able to point back to this tale as the reason why such scenes are so frequent in adapted material.