Reviewing the history of bicycling to figure out where it’s going, I find it quite fascinating.
Most books start about 1816 with the “Draisine”, the Bavarian Count Drais’ “running machine”, later a “Hobby Horse” in England. Two wheels and handlebar steering but no pedals. Pedals were attached to the front wheel in France around 1860. With wood-spoked iron-rimmed wheels and wood, cast iron, or wrought iron frames, they weighed about 80 to 100 pounds and shook the rider to the bones, hence the common name “boneshaker”. Still, pedaling about at 6 or 8 miles per hour was much faster than walking. And immediately, there were races.
Since the pedal was fixed to the wheel, higher speed needed a larger wheel. Anything over 40 inches was too heavy and clumsy until about 1870 when wire-spoked wheel with metal rims and solid rubber tires appeared. Light weight and great strength allowed ever larger wheels, the limit now being the length of the riders’ legs. Steel tubing replaced the solid iron frames to reduce weight while ball bearings dramatically reduced wheel friction. To reduce weight further and to keep length reasonable, the rear wheel was made smaller, eventually about a quarter the size of the front. High wheelers with 50 and even 60 inch wheels soon weighed under 40 pounds and were quite comfortable for even long distance rides. And the racers were really fast.
Mounting required skill. There was a peg on the frame above the back wheel. Holding the handlebar and taking a few steps to start rolling, the cyclist put one foot on the peg and then heaved himself up, swung his other leg over the back and plopped himself onto the saddle and quickly planting his feet onto the now spinning pedals. Dismounting meant reversing the process, or the alternative of slowing, turning slightly and jumping off before it all crashed down.
The rider sat high up above the axle, his legs pumping straight down on the pedals. This achieved maximum power but also made the bicycle dangerous since any bump in the road that slowed the wheel could send the frame and rider straight forward over the axle, head first and face down into the ground. Hard braking of the front wheel could have the same result while braking the trailing rear wheel was almost useless. Serious injuries and even deaths were common. These high wheelers required considerable athletic ability and skill. The aged, unathletic, infirm, and especially women (due to clothing of the time) could not even consider riding what were now very expensive sporting machines. And folks with common sense weren’t keen on them, either. But bicycle race tracks, called velodromes, made for spectacularly fast races.
Then came some good Victorian engineers and capitalist businessmen who examined the commercial market, took a step back, and came up with safe and practical bicycles. Key was the bicycle chain, an engineering marvel in its time. With it, the pedals could easily power the rear wheel without interfering with steering the front. More important, gears could be used to allow higher speed with smaller wheels. The rider sat low between equal-sized wheels, his seat stable when pedaling and braking, and he could even set both feet on the ground without dismounting. In the 1880s, the diamond frame still common today became the dominant form, superior to cross frames and other designs with its strength, stiffness and durability. A modified “lady’s” frame without a crossbar (top tube), though slightly heavier, allowed riding while wearing a skirt. Alas, the smaller wheels resulted in a bumpy ride reminiscent of the old boneshakers. But about 1890, Mr. Dunlop introduced the pneumatic tire and not only was it comfy, but also faster in races.
The freewheel was invented around 1900. It allowed the wheel to spin faster than the chain gear and coast downhill. Alongside came improved brakes, including the “coaster” (back pedal) brake most of us grew up with and various rim brakes. 2-speed and then 3-speed hubs came out about 1903. Today’s “modern” bicycle was complete.
Immediately there were three general types of cyclists: racers, recreational riders, and utilitarian riders.
As today, the racers were the famous ones, the celebrities, the sports heroes whose exploits and demands drove engineers and designers to develop ever-improved, perhaps radical and exotic but certainly expensive, sporting bicycles. Lighter, faster, more durable, specialized; expense is no object when prize money depends on it.
The recreational cyclists are related to the early high wheelers, the athletic elite with time and money enough to show off their sports prowess on quality equipment, and they also raced a lot. They support industry advances by purchasing the higher- or at least mid-level bicycles and equipment that allows them to excel as amateurs, simply for pleasure, at riding and racing.
Then there are the utilitarian cyclists. These are the workers, laborers, students, delivery boys and messengers; common people who ride bicycles to work and errands, to extend their range, save time, and perhaps even for exercise and improved health. In early days, they could not afford bicycles and settled for used ones but later the market introduced cheaper, lower quality but serviceable bikes just for them.
While looked down upon by their self-presumed elitist “betters”, utilitarian cyclists make up the vast majority of cyclists. Statistics are debatable but I’d expect that they make up 98% or more of the market, and even more in the third world. And they are ignored by the industry, at its peril.
These are the citizens and tax payers served by proper cycling infrastructure. Instead of velodromes and bicycle paths, they need only properly maintained roads, a legal right to them, and fair law enforcement to protect them from harassment and reckless drivers.
I hope that I’ve dispelled some concerns and encouraged others to give bicycle riding a try. Perhaps we’ll meet soon. I’ll ring my bell!