Bicycles are an ingenious invention! Powered by your own two legs, bicycles make getting around easy and effortless. With a bicycle, you don’t have to rely on public transportation or anyone else to get you from point A to point B. Bicycles are freedom! Just hop on and go! But have you ever wondered about the origin of bicycles? Believe it or not, people have been riding bicycles (or at least crude versions of what we call bicycles) since the early 1800s. The design of bicycles has come a long way. What started out as an uncomfortable contraption with four wheels and no pedals has evolved into a very comfortable, eco-friendly mode of transportation that is enjoyed by hundreds of millions of people worldwide. Before you take off on your next road trip on your racing bike or meander through town on your custom cruiser, discover the interesting history of the bicycle right here!
Bicycle History in Debate
Historians do not agree on the origin of the bicycle. Conflicting evidence shows the dates of the first bicycle being either around the 1860s or earlier. Historians do agree on the fact that Pierre and Ernest Michaux, French father and son carriage makers, invented a bicycle with pedal and rotary cranks in 1861. But it is unclear whether this was the first bike with pedals or not. There is evidence that the bicycle and other bicycle-like vehicles were invented before this.
The Celerifere was invented in 1790 by a Frenchman named Comte Mede de Sivrac. It resembled a modern-day bicycle with its seat, although it had some quirks. It had no steering and no pedals, and it had four wheels. Since there weren’t any pedals, a rider would use a push-off motion with their feet and then glide on it.
The Steerable Laufmaschine
With laufmaschine meaning “running machine” in German, the Steerable Laufmascine was a 2-wheeled version of the celerifere. German Baron, Karl Drais von Sauerbronn, invented this bicycle which he made entirely of wood. Still lacking pedals, a rider would push his/her feet against the ground to make the machine go forward, much like with the celerifere. Drais’ vehicle was first exhibited in Paris on April 6, 1818.
The Steerable Laufmaschine was renamed the Velocipede by French photographer and inventor Nicephore Niepce. All bicycle-like inventions of the 1800s soon became known as velocipedes.
In 1839, Scottish inventor Kirkpatrick Macmillan used driving levers and pedals on velocipedes that allowed the rider to move the bicycle without having to use a push-off motion with their feet on the ground. The first really popular and commercially successful velocipede design was invented by French blacksmith Ernest Michaux in 1863. Michaux’s simple and elegant design included rotary cranks and pedals mounted to the front wheel hub. In 1868, Ernest Michaux founded Michaux et Cie (Michaux and company), the first company to commercially manufacture velocipedes with pedals.
The Penny Farthing, invented in 1871 by British engineer James Starley, is also referred to as the “High” or “Ordinary” bicycle due to its design. This bicycle features a small rear wheel and a large front wheel that pivot on a simple tubular frame with rubber tires.
In 1885, British inventor John Kemp Starley (James Starley’s nephew) designed the first “safety bicycle” with a steerable front wheel, two equally sized wheels, and a chain drive to the rear wheel.
Historically, the bicycle met a need for easy, inexpensive transportation. Around the turn of the 20th century, automobiles were scarce, horses and carriages were expensive to maintain in crowded cities, and public transportation in cities was mostly slow and inadequate. Bicycles made it easy to get from one place to another and provided a form of recreation. However, around 1905, the popularity of the bicycle began to wane for a number of reasons. Interest in the automobile was on the rise, so not as many people were hopping on their bikes for transportation anymore. Other forms of recreation were popping up in addition to the bicycle. And the presence of electric railways on sidewalks took over where bicycles once rolled along. Because of this decrease in interest, the bicycle was largely used only by children for over half a century.
The late 1960s saw a resurgence of interest in cycling. People were drawn to its eco-friendly design that didn’t create pollution and offered a means of transportation that was also a form of recreation. In 1970, nearly 5 million bicycles were manufactured in the United States, and an estimated 75 million riders shared 50 million bicycles, making cycling the nation’s leading outdoor recreation. In the 80s, Japanese and American companies started manufacturing the high-tech machines that we know as bicycles today.
Bicycle Road Racing
Road racing in its modern form originated in the late 19th century. The sport was popular in the western European countries of France, Spain, Belgium, and Italy. Some of Europe’s earliest road bicycle races remain among the sport’s biggest events.
Single-day race: Distances range from a few miles to more than 125 miles! Riders may travel a long distance or compete via laps of a circuit. Some courses combine both (riding a route and also doing laps of a circuit).
Time trials: Individual time trial (ITT) events have cyclists racing alone against the clock on rolling or flat terrain or through the mountains. A team time trial (TTT) takes place on the road and features two-man teams that race against the clock.
Stage races: Stage races consist of several races, or stages, ridden consecutively. The competitor with the lowest cumulative time to complete all stages is declared the overall, or general classification (GC), winner. Stage races may also have other classifications and awards, such as individual stage winners, the points classification winner, and the “King of the Mountains” (or mountains classification) winner.
Ultramarathon: Just like a marathon with runners, this Ultramarathon is a very long and strenuous race. With the clock running continuously from start to finish, these races last several days. The riders take breaks on their own schedules and the winner is the first one to cross the finish line.
Notable Bicycle Races
Tour de France: The most famous and well-known cycling race is the Tour de France. This race takes place over three weeks and it travels throughout France, typically ending in Paris. Similar tours are held in Italy (the Giro d’Italia) and Spain (the Vuelta a España). These three races make up the “Grand Tours”.
UCI World Tour: The World Tour includes the Grand Tours and other large stage races such as Tour Down Under, Tour de Suisse, Paris–Nice and the Critérium de Dauphiné Libéré.
Olympic Games: Olympic cycling has been around as long as the first Olympic games in Athens, Greece. The Europeans have always dominated Olympic cycling, particularly French and Italian competitors. Eastern European countries also lead the pack in Olympic medals, especially in track cycling.
Paris–Rouen: The success of the races in the Parc de St-Cloud inspired the Compagnie Parisienne and the magazine Le Vélocipède Illustré to run a race from the Arc de Triomphe in Paris to the Cathedral in Rouen.
Chain ring: A large-toothed ring (part of the chainset) that drives the chain via the pedals and cranks.
Chainstay: The two horizontal parts of the bike frame that join the bottom bracket to the rear wheel.
Cogwheel: A less commonly used term for a sprocket.
Cranks: The arms that drive the chain wheels. Cranks are bolted to the crankshaft.
Derailleur: The mechanism that moves the chain from one chain ring or sprocket to another.
Handlebars: The part of the bicycle that the rider holds onto and steers the bicycle with.
Saddle: The seat of a bicycle.
Bicycling Fun Facts
- Orville and Wilbur Wright, who built the first flying airplane, operated a small bike repair shop in Dayton, Ohio. The Wright Brothers built the 1903 Wright Flyer in their bicycle workshop.
- A 25-year-old-man named Fred A. Birchmore rode around the world on his bicycle in 1935. He traveled through Europe, Asia, and the United States, covering forty thousand miles on his journey. He went through seven sets of tires, pedaled about 25,000 miles, and crossed the oceans by boat.
- There are over half a billion bicycles in China!
- About 100 million bicycles are manufactured worldwide each year.
- In large cities, bicycle courier services are booming! Bicycle couriers aren’t affected by grid lock–they can travel at high speeds and weave in and out of traffic while people sitting in their cars are prisoners of traffic jams.
- Compared to other cultures, Americans rely on bike transportation far less than other nations do. While Americans use their bikes for less than 1% of urban trips, Europeans hop on their bikes and go all the time. Italians use their bikes for 5% of their trips, the Dutch use their bikes for 30% of their trips, and seven out of eight Dutch people over the age of 15 have a bike. This method of transportation is eco-friendly, inexpensive, and a great form of exercise.
- Established in 1903, the Tour de France is considered to be the biggest test of endurance out of all sports.
- Bicycle Moto Cross (BMX), an extreme style of bicycle track racing, became a sport in the 2008 Summer Olympic Games in Beijing, China.
How do you like to use your bike? Do you commute to work on it? Do you use it for recreation and exercise? Does your family go on bike rides? Do you have favorite trails you’d like to tell us about? Let us know what fun and interesting things you do on your bike! We’d love to hear from you!