The 19th century bicycle

Nowadays everyone knows about the Tour de France and the Tour de Italy. These gruelling races are two of the most prestigious events in the cycling calendar and even people who aren’t the biggest of cycling fans will tune in to follow the results. The first ever Tour de France was held in 1903, making it one of the oldest races in cycling history. However, in 1903 the bicycle had already been around for nearly half a century. But that doesn’t mean that the bicycle or its earliest of competitive events bore any resemblance to those events of today.

Firstly, what we now consider the first precursor to the bicycle very easily could have turned out to be something else altogether. The first velocipedes, as they were known, were not bicycles in the sense that we know them, but two wheel, one in front of the other, with a wooden or metal frame and something of a vague saddle. The pedals and chains of a modern bike were non-existent and the rider used his (or less frequently her) feet to kick the ground to propel the machine. Pedals were introduced as early as the 1860s, but not the chain. The pedals were attached directly to the slightly larger front wheel.

As many cyclists will know, it’s easier to obtain a higher speed with larger wheels and although these early machines were dangerous enough, not having a functioning brake, suspension or any of the features one would expect on a bike, the need for speed, as they say, grew and grew. With it, so too did the front wheel size. This eventually led to the development of the penny-farthing. Despite what many now see as their comical appearance their popularity soared, especially in the UK were they were first developed, and the US where they enthusiastically embraced.

However, these penny-farthings were dangerous and crashes could sometimes be deadly. This prompted inventors to create what became know as the ‘safety bike’. This was one could immediately recognise as the first modern bicycle.Although not all safety bicycles had same-sized wheels what made these bikes different from the penny-farthings was the addition of the chain. This crucial invention allowed the riders feet to be farther away from the spokes of the wheels, eliminating (or at least diminishing) the problem of the riders’ shoes or trousers getting caught in the rotating wheel. In addition to that crucial development, the riders’ feet were also much closer to the ground which aided the rider in being able to stop and manoeuvre quickly, if need be.

The safety bicycles weren’t developed until 1889, some thirty years after the development of the earliest bikes, but from that point on they became less novelty items and more practical forms of transport and sources of competitive joy leading to those most famous of bicycle races.