A very brief history of the bicycle and its social effects
Races, Racers, and Tours
Mountain Biking, Off Road Cycling, and Technological Improvements
Recumbents and Human Powered Vehicles
Some Statistics and Definitions
A very brief history of the bicycle and its social effects
“Few articles ever used by man have created so great a revolution in social conditions as the bicycle” (from a 1900 U.S. Census Report).
It wasn’t very long ago that horses were the primary means of personal local transportation and, in rare instances, long distance delivery, eg, the pony express and the stagecoach. Horses had a limited range (less than 100 miles/day) so a change of horses was usually required for continuous travel. While trains could move large numbers of people across great distance at faster speed, they could only go where there were tracks. In the late 19th century, the development and perfection of the bicycle challenged the supremacy of the horse. It also brought amazing social change to the U.S. as well as to Europe, mainly England and France where the greatest innovations and acceptance occurred. The bicycle was the transition between the horse and the automobile, rising in prominence to great heights in the U.S. and then falling to near obscurity in barely two decades. In fact, it was bicycle manufacturers who built the first cars and even the first airplane. Early pioneers in bicycle manufacture in the U.S. included Pierce, Rambler, Ford and the Wright Brothers.
The earliest commercial bicycles were produced in France by Pierre Michaux in the 1860s but were not patented. Recent research suggests that the brothers Aime and Rene Olivier were key to the design. But it was Pierre Lallement, who worked with Michaux, who took the “pedal velocipede” or a two wheeler with pedal-cranks attached to the front wheel to Connecticut and obtained the first U.S. patent in 1866 with an American, James Carroll. Early bicycles were called boneshakers, for good reason, and were very expensive, upwards of $100. Because there were no gears, speed depended on the diameter of the front wheel. James Starley of Coventry, England, considered to be the father of the bicycle industry, developed wire wheels which could be enlarged without compromising structural integrity or adding significant weight. As the demand for speed increased, so did the diameter of the front wheel, which ultimately became quite large and difficult to mount and maneuver. Eventually called the Ordinary, these odd looking bicycles with huge front wheels and much smaller rear wheels were energy efficient, fast and popular. They allowed large numbers of people to travel quickly and easily to other nearby villages under their own power. Unfortunately, the fact that the seat was literally on top of the front wheel meant that riders often tumbled forward or took “headers” or “croppers” as they were affectionately called. For reasons of safety, tricycles were produced including the Sociable, where men and women could sit side by side. There was much bitterness and rivalry between bicyclists and tricyclists, the former considered to be the choice of ruffians and commoners and the latter the favorite of socialites who could afford the higher costs.
The Philadelphia Centennial Exposition of 1876 included a display of high front-wheel English bicycles, which caused renewed excitement. English manufacturers had developed three important improvements: spider wheels with hard rubber tires, lightweight steel tubes, and improved bearings. The earlier “velocipede” craze had only lasted a few years in the U.S. In 1878, Colonel Albert A. Pope, considered by many “the father of American bicycling”, purchased the original U.S. patent and started to both import these high wheel machines and to build his own, called the Columbia. Exclusive clubs for cyclists were formed much as Porsche clubs exist today for motorists. The first U.S. bike club was formed in Boston, the second in San Francisco. On Memorial Day 1880, in Newport, R.I., the League of American Wheelmen (LAW) was founded and its membership grew to 141,000 by 1898. Now known as the League of American Bicyclists, with 300,000 members it is still prominent and the leading spokesperson for bicycle safety and benefits for the estimated 42 million U.S. cyclists. There were academies where one could learn to ride a bicycle, much like auto driving schools today. Hickory wood, which is very sturdy, was used in constructing bike parts and innovations in design and construction were widely circulated. Bicycles were frequently the subject of articles in magazines such as Scientific American.
In 1885 in England, James Starley’s nephew, John Kemp Starley, produced the Rover safety bicycle, which resembles today’s bikes with chain-driven rear wheel and direct front wheel steering. It was not only safer but faster than the high-wheel Ordinary. The safety bicycle triggered a boom in sales all over the world. It was easy to mount the machine, the wheels were equal size. It was not only favored by men of all social classes but also by women.
The development of pneumatic tires (first in Ireland, invented by John Boyd Dunlop around 1888) was a major step towards greater acceptance and use of bicycles, especially by women.
In the U.S., manufacturers were slow to change, especially since the safety Rover sold for $150 and the Ordinary was only $100. But society women clearly favored the Rover, which was eventually adapted and manufactured by Columbia. Bicycles had their brief panache. John D. Rockefeller was a bicycling enthusiast before moving to motorcycles. The Metropolitan Club in NYC had 200 bicycles available for its members. There were cycling clubs in most towns and, although social centers, they were also instrumental in promoting better roads. The first U.S. women’s bicycle club was formed in Washington, D.C. by Mrs. Harriette H. Mills in 1888. By 1890, there were about 150,000 cyclists in the U.S. compared with about 500,000 in Britain.
The Raleigh Company developed in the 1890s and by 1896 had the world’s largest bike factory making as many as 30,000 bikes/year. (The Raleigh name still exists. In 1982, Raleigh USA was bought out by the Huffy Corporation). Another famous name, the Arnold Schwinn Company of Chicago was formed in 1895 when Ignaz Schwinn joined with Adolf Arnold. (The Schwinn name still exists although the company went bankrupt in 1992. It was sold to the Scott Sports Group in 1993 and moved to Boulder, CO.) The production of bicycles and bicycle parts became the fastest growing industry in the world with 500 companies in the U.S. alone. The crest was reached in 1896, by 1897 prices were cut drastically, leading to cheaper bicycles and sales to department stores. Hundreds of thousands of bicycles were sold and by 1898, the market was saturated, having reached a manufacturing peak of one million units. To monopolize the sale and production of bicycles, A.G. Spaulding formed a bicycle trust, the American Bicycle Company. He convinced many manufacturers including Pope, to join him. Although they absorbed 40 companies and controlled 75% of the bicycle trade, it was too late and the company collapsed in 1902. With everyone riding a bicycle, it no longer had cachet for the wealthy, and interest subsided. Membership in the LAW fell to only 10,000.
By 1900, motoring was the new fascination. Henry Ford left bicycle mechanic work to form the Detroit Automobile Company with friends. Jeffery built Rambler bike, moved to the Rambler Car in 1902, merged with Nash, and later with Hudson, to form the American Motors Corporation. What had been the major bicycle show at Madison Square Garden in New York City became the “Annual Cycle and Automobile Exhibition” by 1899. But in that window of about 20 years, the bicycle had a very important influence on life in America.
The bicycle was not universally adored. For one, the quick movement of a cyclist along lanes occupied by horses resulted in “frightening” the horses, which was dangerous. The decrease in horse use meant fewer sales of horses and accompanying tackle, boots, and clothing. Churchmen complained that the popularity of Sunday bike rides was reducing the size of the congregation. Theatre owners had similar complaints. But bicycles were favored by the temperance movement because one could not drink and ride successfully. This fact was painfully obvious to me when I passed up continuous opportunities for wine tasting when cycling in France and Italy.
Parades would have several thousand cyclists. The bicycle ride from Jamaica to Long Island N.Y. along Merrick Road was extremely popular. Since there were few decent streets, the existing ones were packed with cyclists, reportedly tens of thousands in New York City. That, of course, led to a large number of accidents with pedestrians. In 1881, Central Park in NYC was officially closed to bicyclists. However the ban on bicycles was overturned in 1887 by a New York State law, which opened public roads and parkways to cyclists. Today, parts of Central Park are officially closed to automobiles on weekends to provide safer riding for cyclists. In 1897, NYC had an ordinance which listed the maximum speed for horses at 5 mph, for bikes 8 mph, and the need for a lamp at night.
Since bicycles were popular and expensive there were many thefts. The League of American Wheelmen offered a $25 reward for the arrest of anyone who stole a member’s bicycle (the forerunner of AAA’s automobile theft policy). In 1898, Sears Roebuck advertised a “bicycle rifle” and the U.S. military, who did experiment with bicycles (and still do), considered mounting a rifle on the bicycle. In June 1897, members of the black 25th U.S. Infantry Bicycle Corps left Ft. Missoula, MT and wheeled to Jefferson Barracks in St. Louis, Missouri, arriving 40 days and almost 2000 miles later. It may not seem like much but it was clearly faster than cavalry and that may have been the point of the exercise. There was an inspection manual for bicycles for the use of the Regular Army of the U.S. and one can see photographs of guns mounted on the bicycles.
Cyclists promoted street and highway improvements not sought by horsemen or railroad people. Better roads opened the possibility for working men to live further from their employment (the beginning of urban sprawl?) and to court ladies from towns further away. I recall that as a teenager using public transportation, potential dates who lived more than one hour away by mass transit were termed “GU” for geographically undesirable. The LAW pushed hard for better streets and over 1 million cyclists were organized toward that end. It worked. Politicians started to promise to deliver better highways and city streets. By 1898, Missouri had Good Roads Associations in more than half its counties.
The big push for good streets led to bicycle paths (which are cheaper than streets). The Prospect Park to Coney Island Cycle Path in Brooklyn, NY was the nation’s first in 1895. It was 5.5 miles long, 14 feet wide made of crushed limestone and an estimated 10,000 bicyclists used it on opening day. That route was converted to motor vehicle use by 1920 but a narrower path still exists in the middle of the street called Ocean Parkway and I biked it when visiting my father, stepmother and half brothers, Eric and Bob, who lived on Ocean Parkway. In 1976, my brother, Bob, wanted a bicycle for his thirteenth birthday. I bought one in St. Louis and brought it with me, still packed in the carton, on the flight to New York. Bob and I immediately began putting it together so that he could ride it on Ocean Parkway. A neighbor stopped by and thought we were crazy constructing this bicycle. “Can’t you just buy one in the neighborhood store?”, he queried. Bob, only thirteen at the time, winked at me and said “He doesn’t understand”. In 1987, the former Ocean Parkway Cycle Path became part of the 40 mile Brooklyn-Queens Greenway.
Side path roads became links to cities. A good example was a continuous side path along the shore of Lake Erie from western N.Y. through Ohio called the Lake Shore Route. In 1916, Chicago announced the development of 36 bike paths in parks and forest preserves, most of which still exist and make Chicago a good location for urban cycling. My favorite bike route in New York City was along Riverside Drive which followed the Hudson River along Manhattan’s upper west side. I lived on 103rd St in Manhattan in 1973 and used that 100 year old route through parkland settings frequently.
Cyclists proposed cross-country connections which never occurred until the interstate system was developed for automobiles during the Eisenhower presidency. Interestingly, the Eisenhower presidency and his heart attacks, brought a return to promoting the bicycle, but as a method for improving health, not transportation.
It was cyclists and their organizations that developed road maps which were ultimately printed in newspapers with listings of the best routes, the quality of roads and road conditions. The LAW pioneered road signs and traffic signals. There were four signals used employing circles with an arrow. An arrow to the L or to the R was obvious. An arrow pointed straight down was danger. An arrow 45 degrees from the horizontal (between 4 and 5 on a clock face) was for caution.
Bicycles were continually being tested for new uses and for new speed and distance records. An obvious use was for courier transport. In Chicago, there were 115 postmen on bikes and the Western Union Telegraph Company was known for their bicycle deliveries. I spent one summer in the 1950s working as a “mounted messenger” which meant that I used a bike, not a car. The United Parcel Service was started in 1907 with bicycles used for deliveries. Today, there are bicycle messengers in major cities all over the world. It is a proud but dangerous profession. Aviation pioneer Glenn Curtiss was a bicycle messenger for Western Union before opening a bicycle shop at age 22. By 1908, Curtiss was building aircraft but even after becoming famous, he was known to ride his bike to work.
Because of their speed, bicycles were purchased by the NYC police to use to catch criminals 100 years ago. Today, there are an estimated 500 police-on-bikes units in the U.S. Speed is not the issue. To outfit a 15 person bike patrol might cost $25,000 with maintenance costs of perhaps $200/bike. Compare that to the cost of just one patrol car and annual maintenance and fuel costs of thousands of dollars.
Speed is a major force in developing transportation and that was true of the bicycle. In 1896, William Randall Hearst sponsored a relay from San Francisco to New York, more than 3,000 miles. A relay of riders completed the distance in only 13 days. In 1934, the Transcontinental Relay record from L.A. to New York was reduced to 7 days. These speed and marathon events carried over to automobiles and finally airplanes where Lindbergh’s flight from New York to Paris was probably the most widely heralded event of this type.
Riding “centuries”, or 100 miles in a day, became a thing to do, a personal challenge. Notwithstanding the simplicity of the bicycles of that time, Teddy Edwards, a New Yorker, attempted to ride a century every day of the year starting on Jan 1, 1898, but was stricken with typhoid fever… in September! John Noble rode 253 centuries in one year. Gus Egloff rode 1000 miles in 108 hours, sleeping only 6 hours.
Women were active participants in bicycle marathons. Mrs. A. E. Rhinehart of Denver reportedly rode 17,152 miles in 1896 including 116 centuries. In 1899, Mrs. Irene Brush of Brooklyn NY, at the age of 25, was the first woman cyclist to ride 400 miles in less than two days. Miss Jane Yatman of NY followed two weeks later doing 500 miles on Long Island in 58 hours. And in 1897, a 7 year old completed a century. The excitement surrounding these feats led to punishing 6 day races, the ones in Madison Square Garden being the most famous. Riders had to actually ride 20 hours/day, a minimum of 1350 miles in the 6 days and first place was worth at least $1300.
An early black athletic champion was Marshall “Major” Taylor, who won many bicycle races but could not race in many cities and could not join the LAW due to color barriers. He was prevented from winning the national bicycle sprint championship in 1897 but did receive that honor in 1900, beating Frank L. Kramer, who later became one of America’s greatest racers. Taylor was the first African-American to establish world records, be a member of an integrated professional team, and to have commercial sponsorship. In Montreal in 1899 he won the one-mile sprint becoming a world champion, probably America’s first black world champion, an honor usually attributed to the boxer, Jack Johnson. Taylor was a religious man and when championship races were held on Sunday he refused to participate. Racism was rampant then, yet Taylor was one of the highest paid athletes. Taylor died in 1932, a forgotten hero, and was buried in a pauper’s grave near Chicago. Years later, his body was moved to a more distinguished location. His fascinating life is the subject of recent books.
The first of America’s international bicycle racing stars was Arthur A. (“Zimmy”) Zimmerman, born in Camden, N.J. He was Champion of America, Europe and the World in 1893 winning over 100 races. He set a 100 meter record of 66.6 kph (41 mph). Zimmerman had a manufacturing company in Freehold, N.J., the current home of the Metz Bicycle Museum (www.metzbicyclemuseum.com). This absolutely outstanding museum, which is now permanently closed upon the death of Mr. Metz in 2013, was available to visit by appointment and had a Zimmy bike in its collection. Mr. Metz, an avid collector, gave me a personal tour several years before his death. Almost all of his antique bikes were in working order and the variety of bikes would amaze you. Also in New Jersey is the U.S. Bicycling Hall of Fame in Somerville (145 W. Main St., 908/722-3620; www.usbhof.com), site of the 50 mile Tour of Somerville bicycle race, held every Memorial Day since 1940. Although densely populated New Jersey is rarely mentioned as a bicycling state, one of the top velodromes in the U.S. was the Nutley Velo in Newark, N.J., the site of the 1912 world championship races.
The first American to ride around the world on a bicycle was Thomas Stevens of San Francisco. It took him three years on a Columbia high-wheeler and at the conclusion in 1887, he published a book about his adventures, which became a classic. The next two were William L. Sachtleben of Alton, IL and Thomas G. Allen, Jr. of Ferguson, MO. The recent graduates of Washington University in St. Louis started in June 1890 in Liverpool, England and finished in the summer of 1893 on Humber one speeds. Frank Beedleson rode from San Francisco to New York in 1893 in 66 days. But he had only one leg! A book that makes wonderful reading but is rarely cited is “The Wonderful Ride”. It is the journal of George T. Loher who cycled from San Francisco to New York in 1895 (Harper and Row, Publ, NY 1978). I devote a few pages to it later.
By the end of the 19th century, the bicycle had caused a social revolution. Bicycles were used by all elements of society, rich and poor alike. The horse and carriage was too expensive to be maintained by the average citizen but the upkeep cost of a bicycle was trivial (“eats nothing”). So the bicycle was the “engine of democracy”. That sense of equality lasted until the automobile came into vogue and before the production line lowered auto prices allowing average income workers to afford one. The bicycle also led to the new woman’s emancipation. Bicycles could not be easily ridden with long dresses and petticoats so some women wore bloomers, which had been used for calisthenics. Although similar to men’s knickerbockers, bloomers exposed the calf and were the subject of moral tirades, fines, and songs. These outfits appear on many bicycle advertisements from that period. Women continued to use bicycles as a major mode of transportation and, today, comprise 50% of adult ridership. In the 1930s, it was women’s pedal pushers that made fashion news, casual form-fitting pants cut near the knee. In the 1980s, the introduction of Lycra suits, while practical for cycling, also made a fashion statement.
In the U.S., the excitement surrounding bicycles was diminishing by 1900. Bicycle news was relegated to the back pages. There had been 85 journals devoted to cycling news including 5 in St. Louis, Missouri, but high society had abandoned the bike. Electric automobiles were now challenging citizen interest, and that was followed by the internal combustion engine powered vehicles. The first airplane flight in Kitty Hawk, N.C., occurred in 1903. Changes were occurring rapidly but many of these changes were being driven by improvements provided by bicycle manufacturers including variable speed gears and improved ball bearings. Between 1880 and 1900, the majority of U.S. Patent Office volume concerned bicycles. However, by the 1920s, the use of bicycles diminished as automobile production and personal wealth increased. The Depression led to a brief bicycle revival (“the fad of the Nineties”) for financial reasons. In 1936, more than one million bicycles were sold in the U.S. but they were mainly bikes designed for youngsters. One often thinks of the newspaper delivery boy on his bicycle. But almost one third of bicycles were purchased for adults and one third of them were women. American Youth Hostels was founded in 1934, which encouraged bicycle touring in the U.S. and Europe. Now called Hostel International, it lists facilities in countries all over the world. Innovations in bicycle production were still occurring with an eye to the adult market especially by European manufacturers whose market was more consistent. The 1938 Schwinn Paramount had lightweight chrome-molybdenum tubing. Raleigh was using a Sturmey-Archer three speed internal-gear hub and caliper brakes. A light, folding bike was developed for paratroopers. In fact, folding bikes are still very popular with commuters and boaters. The bikes fold quickly into compact packages for storage on board until needed when in port. Commuters can more easily take them on trains. A portable bike built by C. H. Clark, appeared in Scientific American in 1919. It is remarkably similar to the Strida folding bike currently being produced. For more information on folding bikes, see www.atob.org.uk.
World War II brought many changes in adult riding interest. American soldiers in Europe saw lightweight, thin tire European bikes and took some home. Soon there was a popular push for ten speed English racers. By 1960, the Schwinn Varsity 8 speed bicycle was being produced using derailleurs from France. After Eisenhower’s heart attack, his cardiologist, Dr. Paul Dudley White, put Ike on a stationary exercise bike. Dr. White was a biking enthusiast and spoke about exercise and the importance of cycling. In 1960, the Charles River Basin Bicycle Path in Boston was dedicated and named after Dr. White.
As more cars populated the road, streets once again became off limits for bikes. In 1962, Congress approved $2M in federal funding for bicycle paths if local communities could provide matching funds but the public ignored it and the funds were not spent. Most adults were not interested in riding bicycles, they wanted cars. That changed with the advent of bike racing in the U.S.
Although bicycle racing remained a very popular sport in Europe, it did not in the U.S. There were a few road races in the U.S. and a popular banked track (velodrome) in Kenosha, Wisconsin, which attracted riders. All three members of the 1960 U.S. biking road racing Olympic team were from California where biking was popular and many road racers seemed to come from the midwest. The popular 1979 movie, “Breaking Away”, concerned an annual bicycle race in Indiana and stimulated interest in the sport. In 1969, Audrey McElmury of San Diego won a 43 mile race in Brno, Czechoslovakia and became the first American (male or female) to win a world cycling championship since Frank Kramer in 1912. Yet another biking renaissance was underway. In 1973, 15 million bikes were sold in the U.S., the most ever in one year. In 1974, the Schwinn Bicycle company attained peak sales of 1.5 million units but ultimately closed its Chicago factory by 1983 and its last domestic manufacturing plant in Greenville, Mississippi in 1991. The company was sold in 1993 and relocated to Boulder, Colorado. In 1986, Greg LeMond became the first non-European to win the prestigious Tour de France. In 1991, Congress passed the Intermodal Surface Transportation Efficiency Act (ISTEA) which made funds available for bicycle paths. This time, the money was spent.
Races, Racers, and Tours:
The first long distance bicycle road race of note was Paris to Rouen in November 1869. The 123 km (76 mile) route was won with a time of almost 11 hours and the approximately 100 racers included four women who could compete against men in France. The most watched annual sporting event in the world is the Tour de France bicycle race. It is estimated that one billion people follow news of the Tour de France and 20 million watch it on the roadside every year. Thus, it is probably the most watched annual event (the Olympics and World Cup Soccer occur every 4 years) and the world’s largest annual sporting event in terms of budget and duration. The first Tour de France in 1903 was won by Maurice Garin, no relation to this author, who averaged 16 mph.
In the U.S., the Race Across America (RAAM) is a well known transcontinental endurance challenge which receives too little news coverage. When Pete Penseyres won in 1984 his detailed record showed that he was off the bike a total of only 23 hours (which included 18 hours total sleep) in 10 days (2,968 miles). Lon Haldeman from Harvard, IL won the first two races (1982, 83) and his wife, Susan Notorangelo, has won in the women’s division. Casey Patterson, a mother of three, won in 1987 at age 43. The winners currently complete the course in less than 9 days, both men and women! In 1976, when Bikecentennial inaugurated the 4,235 mile TransAmerica Bicycle Trail, two thousand cyclists completed the tour. In fact, after exercise walking and swimming, bicycling is next highest in number of active participants in a sport with more than 50 million (estimated). I didn’t ride in the above races/tours but I have ridden in the annual St. Louis Moonlight Ramble. Initiated in 1965 under an August full moon, the St. Louis Moonlight Ramble starts on midnight Saturday night, with more than 10,000 participants riding an organized route through the city streets. I have participated several times but after suffering a few accidents through no fault of mine, I have sought less populated events.
Mountain Biking, Off Road Cycling, and Technological Improvements
Perhaps the most significant cycling changes of the past 25 years began with a very different kind of race called Repack in 1976 in California. It was the beginning of the “fat tire” mountain bike and off road bicycling and racing. This time, the production of bicycles would be driven by engineers who had worked on motorcycles and automobiles. The first fat tire bicycles were home made and the best bike frame was considered to be the old 1930-40 Schwinn Excelsior. Such balloon tire bicycles had been introduced in the U.S. by Arnold, Schwinn and Company in Chicago, fifty years before.
In 1979, Gary Fisher and Charlie Kelly formed a company called MountainBikes. The next year, the U.S. market for these hand-made bikes was less than 500. But in 1982, when Specialized Bicycles of San Jose, California introduced a near exact replica of a MountainBike for under $1,000, made in Japan and called the Stumpjumper, the market expanded. Their ad campaign declared, “It’s not just a bike. It’s a whole new sport.”
European and American manufacturers of road bikes were slow to get on the bandwagon so Japanese parts and Taiwanese labor produced most of the mountain bikes sold in the U.S. And sell they did. By 1993, more than 95% of the U.S. market of 8.4 million bicycles were the fat tire variety.
When the National Off Road Bicycling Association (NORBA) required racers to fix all their own mechanical problems during a race, it challenged designers to create durable components. Innovation produced lighter, stronger units. There is still a debate regarding steel vs. aluminum bicycle tubing and titanium is now available for a higher price. Aluminum is light and rigid but requires good frame design to provide flexibility and comfort. Composites include carbon fiber wrapped around aluminum. Suspension forks with shock absorbers makes the ride over hills, holes, and rocks a lot easier. The hardtail is a diamond frame with a suspension fork; the softtail is a full suspension frame with shocks at both front and rear. In 1987, Paul Turner, a Honda motorcycle designer, founded RockShox which provides the shock absorption in many suspension forks.
Different tread designs allowed tires to be able to climb at high angles and hold on steep grades and on a variety of surfaces. Cantilever brakes are standard but disc brakes are now being used in higher priced bikes. Saddles are continually being designed for rider’s needs, including the casual rider. Options include springs, dropped nose, center cut out, and anatomically shaped variations. For mountain bikers, the culmination of success was probably the introduction of mountain biking as an Olympic sport in the 1996 Olympic Games in Atlanta. In the first modern Olympics in Athens in 1896, there were six bicycle events including a 100 km (62 mile) race won by Frenchman Leon Flameng in slightly more than 3 hours. In the St. Louis Olympics of 1904, Americans won all 7 bicycling events. However, after 1912, Americans didn’t win an Olympic medal in cycling again until 1984.
Recumbents and Human Powered Vehicles
Recumbent bikes are often thought to be of fairly recent design. But they were first built in the 1890s and were refined along with other safety bicycle designs. In 1933, Paul Morand won the Paris-Limoges pro road race in a recumbent, the Velocar bicycle manufactured by Charles Mochet. That year, Francoise Faure riding a Velocar broke the world hour record riding 45 km, the current record is only slightly over 50 km. Afterwards, the Union Cycliste Internationale (UCI) set limits on the dimensions of racing bicycles and rejected Faure’s record. Recumbent bikes still get a bad rap but people who use them, love them. I have also seen recumbent bicycles built for two and recumbent tricycles. Today there are hundreds of cycle makers worldwide offering recumbents and human powered vehicles (HPV). As new lightweight materials are developed, there are new attempts to find the maximum speed for human powered vehicles. Streamlined bikes can exceed 34 mph on level roads and with a faring can exceed 50 mph. But going downhill at 30 mph is exciting enough for me.
A Most Outstanding Machine: Energy Efficiency
Bicycles are the most energy-efficient way of moving a body. The bicycle wheel has a load to weight ratio of about 400:1. That means that a 2.5 pound wheel can support 1,000 pounds. Ever wonder how those thin spokes do it? And when it comes to human transport, the cyclist is the most energy efficient traveler. In terms of calories required to move a mass a certain distance a cyclist is five times more efficient than a walker. In comparison to the horse it replaced, the cyclist is three times more efficient and compared to a car, the cyclist is five times more efficient (see S.S. Wilson, “Bicycle Technology”, Scientific American, March 1973, pp 81-91; or Perry, Bike Cult, p. XX or Wilcockson, Bicycle, p. 13). But since the mass of the car is so much more than the passenger, the car requires fifty (50) times the energy of a cyclist to move one person a given distance (Marcia D. Lowe, The Bicycle: Vehicle for a Small Planet, Worldwatch Paper 90, Worldwatch Institute, Washington DC, Sept. 1989). Cycling is one of the best ways to stay healthy with positive aspects including effect on breathing, blood circulation, muscle tone, digestion, weight control and a good overall feeling about life itself. The average bike rider burns about 120 calories/hour. Now you can understand why I love to bike in regions that have good restaurants.
The Worldwatch Paper and Perry’s book, Bike Cult, also emphasize that bicycles can move more people in less space. It seems hard to believe but the amount of land given to motor vehicles (for parking and moving) is 45% in New York City, 60% in Los Angeles and 20% in London (see Perry, Bike Cult, p. 256). Pedicab, anyone? In Bonn, Germany, there are large signs, Fresh Air for Bonn, suggesting bicycle riding and roller skating in addition to using bus and rail as alternatives to using a car. Many bike paths and bike parking areas encourage this activity. I noticed at least one hundred bicycles parked by the Bonn main train station occupying the space that would be required for perhaps only 10 cars. And there is a huge parking garage for bicycles at the Amsterdam train station. There must be more than 1,000 bicycles there on any given day.
In North America, the cost of an adult bike is a week’s worth of average pay while the cost of making payments on and maintaining a typical auto is over 2 months of average annual income (assuming a $15,000 car and $30,000 income). Moreover, the small number of cycling trips that displace car trips in the U.S. have saved an enormous amount of imported gasoline, which translates into a better balance of trade and economy. In homage to the bicycle, David B. Perry, the author of “Bike Cult” has stated “The bicycle offers the most economical means of travel. Compared to walking, cycling saves time. Compared to driving, cycling saves money. Compared to anything living or man-made that moves, cycling saves energy.”
Some Statistics and Definitions
It is estimated that more than 75 million Americans will ride a bicycle this year. Biking is the third most popular sport among Americans, after walking and fishing. It is a family sport and can last a lifetime. In 1994, there were estimated to be 1 billion bikes worldwide. The 100 million bikes produced in 1994 outproduced cars 3:1. Adult cyclists outnumber child cyclists by about 2:1; women ride as often as men (Worldwatch Paper 90 cited above). Bicycling, which claims to be the world’s leading bike magazine, reaches 1.8 million readers monthly.
There are three types of roadways for cycling: mixed-traffic roads, bike lanes, and cycle paths. Class I bike routes are separate bike lanes or cycle paths and are most desirable for a quiet outing; Class II routes are marked bike lanes on mixed-traffic roads, and Class III routes have posted route signs but no special lane other than the road shoulder. Single track trails are 5 feet wide or less.
Bicycling Into the 21st Century
As the song repeats, the spinning wheel goes round and round. Once again, America has its bicycle heroes. Best known was Lance Armstrong, who made international history with his successive victories in the Tour de France before having to relinquish the titles due to the use of performance enhancing drugs. Even comfort is back in cycling as observed by the introduction of efficient recumbent bikes and fat tire, low gear, “comfort” bikes. Speaking of retro, there is renewed interest in using beech and ash wood in producing bikes. A new popular bike is the single speed, which makes for simplicity and is used for special races and often for rentals.
Electric bicycles and electric motor assist bicycles are gaining acceptance worldwide, especially for commuter transportation. You can check the website, (www.ebike.com), to see what is available. One sees “mounted” police on college campuses, mounted on bicycles that is. It provides more people contact, is safer in crowded situations and the use of bicycles by police dates back 100 years. A new, urban commuter bicycle has been designed by Joe Breeze, who is credited with having influenced the development of the mountain bike.
There are many trails now designed for off road bikes and a great deal of concern about keeping those bikes off hiking trails. It is not so much scaring the hikers as eroding the trails if they are used continuously. Currently, the best areas for off road biking are considered to be Durango, Colorado, Moab, Utah, and Crested Butte, Colorado, home to the Mountain Bike Hall of Fame. Overseas, bikers prefer the paths to be found on El Camino de Santiago in Spain and Lago di Garda in Italy.
For those of us who remember the old Schwinn bicycles with nostalgia, there was a museum in Chicago called the Bicycle Museum of Chicago, which had a huge collection. It closed and the bikes were sold at auction. Many of them apparently can now be found at the Bicycle Museum of America, 7 W Monroe St, New Bremen, Ohio; 419/629-9249; www.bicyclemuseum.com, as the Schwinn family collection. The biggest and most complete bicycle museum in the U.S. is the Pedaling History Bicycle Museum, 3943 North Buffalo Rd, Orchard Park, N.Y. 14127, which is just southeast of Buffalo; 716/662-3853; www.pedalinghistory.com. The museum is not currently open and is attempting to find funds to maintain its collection or sell it.
A few years ago, I noticed that all of the municipal buses in Burlington, VT had bike racks in the front. Recently, I was surprised and overjoyed to see that buses in my hometown of St. Louis, MO now have incorporated the same design allowing for a mix of bicycle and public transit for commuters and pleasure riders. By having the bikes in front, they are in constant view of the bus driver.
And don’t throw away those old bicycles, recycle them. Many cities have wonderful programs for kids where they are taught to repair used bicycles and do community work in order to “earn a bike”. Neighborhood Bike Works in Philadelphia, St. Louis Bicycle WORKS, Inc. in St. Louis, MO, and Bikes Not Bombs in Roxbury, MA are but three examples. Pedals for Progress collects repairable bikes in the U.S. for donation to charities overseas (www.p4p.org/ or call 703-525-0931). If you want to repair your old treasured bicycle but cannot find parts, try Recycled Cycles in Seattle (www.recycledcycles.com; 206/547-4491).
To learn more about the history of the bicycle, there are several books I recommend from which I have gleaned many of these interesting tidbits and statistics:
Bicycle: The History, by David V. Herlihy, Yale University Press, New Haven, Conn., 2004; Outstanding, detailed text, beautifully illustrated, by a well respected historian, fully referenced. ISBN-0-300-10418-9.
A Social History of the Bicycle, Robert A. Smith, American Heritage Press (McGraw-Hill), N.Y., 1972; ISBN 0-07-058457-5.
Bike Cult, David B. Perry, Four Walls Eight Windows, N.Y. 1995; a most useful text covering almost everything about human powered vehicles with an extensive bibliography and references; ISBN 1-56858-027-4.
The American Bicycle, Jay Pridmore and Jim Hurd, Motorbooks International Publishers, Osceola, WI 54020, 1995; ISBN 0-7603-0037-2.
Fat Tire: A Celebration of the Mountain Bike by Amici Design, Chronicle Books, San Francisco, 1999, ISBN 0-8118-1982-5 (see www.chroniclebooks.com).
The Bicycle by Pryor Dodge, Flammarion, Paris-N.Y., 1996, ISBN 2-08013-551-1.
The Wonderful Ride: Being the True Journal of Mr. George T. Loher Who in 1895 Cycled from Coast to Coast on His Yellow Fellow Wheel, by George T. Loher, edited by Ellen Smith, Harper and Row, Publ, NY 1978; ISBN 0-06-250540-8.
King of the Road, An Illustrated History of Cycling, Andrew Ritchie, Wildwood House Ltd., London, 1975, ISBN 0-913668-41-9, a well documented history of the early development of the bicycle with emphasis on Britain and France.
Bicycle, The Total Illustrated Guide to Bicycles and Bicycling, John Wilcockson, Butterick Publ., N.Y., 1980, ISBN 0-88421-156-8. Written by a British author for an international readership, it is full of useful information, good photographs and is an enjoyable read.
Most people know the rudimentary workings of the Internet and can access web sites, if not from their own computer than from one in the public library. In recent years, to my surprise, I have been able to glean more useful information from the web than I can in the book section of the library and in less time. And the web site information is more current. I still have a greater nostalgia for books, however, and that prejudice or favoritism is reflected in my travel documentation.
Nonetheless, I strongly recommend the use of Internet sources in obtaining information and planning your trips. Websites listed in articles and books can be a good source but since URLs change frequently, many recommended sites may no longer be available. While this can be frustrating, the Internet is still one of the best sources for up-to-date information. For example, www.bikeleague.org is serviced by the League of American Bicyclists, which is a nonprofit organization which “promotes cycling for fun, fitness and transportation, and works through advocacy and education for a more bicycle-friendly America.” For an extensive listing of commercial rides, the National Bicycle Tour Directors Association member rides can be found at www.nbtda.com. There is a wonderful feature, Search Tour, which allows you to enter your choice of dates, price, and details such as maximum distance and number of days, and then gives you a listing of available tours that meet those criteria. The Adventure Cycling Association provides a website with routes, maps, tours, and other information www.adventurecycling.org.
To find interesting trails all over the U.S.A., go to www.traillink.com; in the UK, go to the National Cycle Network, or Sustrans for sustainable transportation, at www.sustrans.co.uk.; in Germany go to www.germany-tourism.de/biking.