We grew up racing them in back lanes and down gravel roads. We groaned climbing hills on them and had more than a few wipeouts. As soon as we were old enough to ride without the training wheels, we took full advantage of the new-found freedom bicycles offered. We’re all familiar with the concept of the bicycle, but I’m willing to bet that most of us have never stopped to consider its long history. It’s time we paid the bicycle some long overdue attention and pay tribute to the two-wheeled machine that the world never got tired of.
The bicycle’s first known appearance dates back to 1817, when Karl Drais decided to invent a “running machine” that would help him get around the Royal Gardens faster.
Drais’s design consisted of two in-line wheels of the same size, with the front wheel being steerable. However, this design had no pedals. The user would straddle the wooden frame and push along the ground with their feet to be propelled forward in a gliding motion.
Known as the Draisienne, this precursor to the bicycle was very popular for a time. People jumped on the idea of being able to glide gracefully around the Royal Gardens with minimal effort.
However, like aerobics and leg warmers, Drais’s running machine was a fad. It ceased to be useful on the unmaintained pathways outside the Royal Gardens, and enthusiasm for it soon waned.
In the 1860s, improvements to Drais’s design began popping up in France. Pedals were incorporated into the design of the front wheels, and the machine was called a “velocipede” — but there is debate as to who pioneered this innovation.
The frame and wheels of the velocipede remained wooden, making for a very rough and uncomfortable ride on cobblestone streets — earning the contraption the nickname “boneshaker.”
In the 1870s, a new all-metal design surfaced. This model made use of rubber tires, which reduced the bone-jarring ride.
This new design had a front wheel disproportionately larger than the rear. This placed the rider high above the ground, leading the machine to be called the “high-wheel bicycle.”
The high-wheel bicycle was nicknamed the “penny-farthing bicycle” after British coins of the era. The farthing coin was considerably smaller then the penny — when the coins were placed side-by-side they resembled the disproportionate wheels.
The objective of the disproportionate wheels was to ensure that the bicycle travelled the greatest possible distance in one rotation of the front wheel.
However, this design had little means of stopping, and if an obstacle stopped the large front wheel suddenly, the rider would be thrown abruptly over the handlebars, giving birth to the phrase “taking a header.”
Over the next thirty years the wheels of the bicycle were once again made the same size; chains, sprockets and gears were included to make powering the vehicle easier, and pneumatic tires were introduced to improve comfort.
The bicycle serves as a vital form of transportation for many people in all walks of life. Learning to ride a bicycle is a rite of passage for many. I still remember how happy I was when those training wheels came off for the first time. In addition to offering freedom of movement, the bicycle creates no emissions, requires no natural resources for operation and is excellent for exercise.
So just one day this week I challenge you to slow things down and take a bike ride. You could bike to work, go for a ride with friends you haven’t seen in a while or even make it a much-needed family outing.
For that one day, though, take your mind off the destination and enjoy the journey. Who knows, you might even get to relive some great childhood memories along the way.