In 1817, the German Baron Carl von Drais introduced a "running machine" dubbed the draisine or velocipede that was essentially two wagon wheels connected by a wooden plank with a rudimentary device used for steering the front wheel. The velocipede allowed people to "run" along the ground while perched on the machine, permitting occasional coasting and an increased range and speed.
The velocipede came at a time when "decent" society viewed physical exertion as unseemly and no proper gentlemen (and heaven forbid a lady) would voluntarily exert themselves. Physical effort was left to the unwashed masses of manual laborers who had no choice but to use their bodies to get around. Though velocipedes were not bicycles in the modern sense (they had no pedals and really were just running machines) they tapped into a latent need in society for some form of exercise that cultural mores had long been suppressing. The velocipede became, in a fundamental way, the source not only for the bicycle itself, but also for the concept of bicycle riding as exercise, pastime and sport.
Pedals Change the Velocipede Into the Bicycle
As velocipede designs came and went throughout the early and middle 19th century, so too did society’s interest in the different contraptions. There was no practical model that made the vehicle more than a mere diversion or fad and no one had found a legitimate way to leverage leg power, literally and metaphorically, to allow people to move faster than they could through running alone. It took a breakthrough in the 1860’s by the Michaux factory in Paris and their addition of pedals and lever arms to the front wheel of the evolved velocipede to reveal the world''s first modern bicycle.
During this period, bicycles evolved from the primitive "boneshakers" from the Michaux factory to elegant, high wheeled "penny farthings" commonly called "ordinaries" from such early stalwarts as the American Columbia brand. Since the pedals of these bicycles were attached directly to the front wheel, the only way to increase leverage, and thus speed, was to increase the size of the wheel. This lead to ever larger front wheels, which lead to higher speeds but also to more precarious and unstable bicycles. So while elegant and speedy, there was a growing concern about the safety of the ordinary, which motivated innovators to strive for a safer bicycle.
The Modern Bicycle is Born
Then, all the innovations of the 19th century suddenly combined in 1885 to form the Rover. The Rover had a chain and gear to increase leverage, solving the problem of increasingly large wheels on ordinary bikes. This allowed a Rover with 30 inch wheels to ride as fast as if it had 50 inch wheels. Smaller wheels kept the rider closer to the ground, more stable and, ultimately, safer. This "safety" bicycle lead to a riding boom of unprecedented proportions in the 1890s, and the pastime finally moved beyond a mere fad to an integral part of the modern world.
By the 1890’s, the bicycles coming out of the factories looked remarkably like the ones ridden today. With the distinctive double-diamond frame, pneumatic inflatable tires, chain driven pedaling, and equally sized wheels, the bicycle was born.
Racing Towards the Tour de France
Bicycle races began appearing as soon as the bicycle was introduced. In 1868, the Michaux Company promoted a bicycle race in the Paris suburb of Saint Cloud, in part to help promote the company’s bicycles in the face of competition from dozens of new builders. This established a trend, as the bicycle and bicycle racing developed together-the one always supporting the other.
Early innovations in bicycle design led to the first modern bicycle races. From racing on velodromes to racing on the road, the late 1880s and early 1890s saw the modern sport emerge from shadow to become the dominant athletic event of the times. Milan-Turin first ran in 1876, Belgium’s Liege-Bastogne-Liege in 1892, and Paris-Roubaix in 1896. With its increasing popularity came the increasing acceptance of bicycle as exercise and legions of new cyclists took to the roads.
At the turn of the century, bicycle racing was integrated into all aspects of society, bicycle design continued to improve, and the impact of both on commerce became more and more apparent. The trend of using races for promotion, started by the Micahux factory in 1868, came to a head in 1903 with the Tour de France. The audacity of the plan - a literal tour of France in six stages, covering 1500 miles - struck a chord with the public and its popularity has only grown since that first edition.
Bicycle Racing in the Olympics
Bicycling was so well established as a respected sport that it was included in the first modern Olympic Games held in 1896. But cycling existed beyond the Olympics. Even today, the Olympics competitions pale in comparison to the prestige of the world championships and Tour de France.
Rise of the Six Days
As racing on the road took off, cyclists were setting records and developing their own subculture on the velodrome. Racers proved the superior speed of the new safety bicycles through special speed attempts ranging from one minute to one hour to 24 hours.
The velodromes were also the stage for the endurance spectacle of the six-day race, most notably at Madison Square Garden in New York. Racers rode for six days in straight, 18 hours a day. In response to complaints that this format was inhumane, New York passed a law limiting the race to 12 hours per day. This led to a new format where riders rode as teams of two and took turns on the track. This eventually led to a time in the 1910s and 1920s when bicycle track racing was the most popular sport in America, with stars earning more, much more, than baseball stars of the same era.
From Road to Dirt
While bicycle advocates during the 1890’s boom pushed for more paved roads, there have always been those in the sport who deliberately sought out unpaved routes. Cyclocross, a sort of bicycle steeple chase across barriers, fields and hills using modified road bikes, first made its appearance in France in 1902. The discipline evolved into its own sport with international races starting in the 1920s and the first world championship held in 1950.
A distinct trend in off-road riding began in the 1960s and 1970s on the dirt roads in Marin County, California, and throughout Colorado. People adapted balloon tired cruiser bikes for use on rough downhill dirt roads. This soon evolved into the full fledge sport of mountain biking, and bicycle companies rushed produce off-road bikes and gear.
Into the 21st Century
Remarkably, innovations in bicycles have been largely incremental since the early days of the Rover. . Improvements in materials, design and engineering create ever stronger and lighter bicycles. Racing, also, has also moved forward. The track has receded in importance since the days of the six-day races, but still plays a role at the Olympics and in modern six day competitions in Europe. Mountain bike racing and riding boomed in the 80’s and 90’s and, though somewhat diminished in importance, still commands a large percentage of the cycling audience.
In the 21st century, as in the last century, it is road cycling that commands the public’s attention. Races now shorter now than the 500 km death marches of the early days, and only two races-Milan-San Remo (300km) and Paris-Roubaix (300km)-reach above the 250km mark. The Tour de France runs over three weeks with 21 stages and is still the biggest event in cycling, if not all of sport. Lance Armstrong has become an international celebrity and holds the record for winning the Tour seven times in a row.
The bicycle, and the urge to ride it fast, are permanently part of the world’s culture. The sport continues to grow, with countries outside the traditional hotbed of Europe making strides in the development of cyclists and the promotion of races. Wherever someone is riding a bike, there is also someone thinking about riding faster, sweeping through the turns, and feeling the unique rush that only a bike ride can bring.