From their most rudimentary origins in the 1800s, bicycles have seen huge changes through the generations. Initially, bikes were invented as something of a novelty to entertain the rich, before becoming a method of transportation and now, today, a mode for both transport, keeping fit and leisure activities.
From uncomfortable and downright dangerous through to technologically sophisticated and innovative, the journey of the bike has been extraordinary. You only have to look at cycling posters through the years to get an idea of the changes.
A brief history of the bike
The earliest records of bicycles as we know them today date back to 19th century Europe, where simple wooden devices with two wheels were first created as toys.
The very first bicycle designed with pedals was engineered in Scotland in 1839, when Kirkpatrick Macmillan, the son of a blacksmith, created a bike capable of approximately 8 miles per hour and a range of 140 miles.
In 1861, the first velocipede was introduced in France, which became the single most popular bike of its kind to date. Its inventors – Pierre and Ernest Michaux – would eventually go on to produce more than 400 every year. Despite being popular and relatively advanced given the time, it was nonetheless incredibly uncomfortable and became known as the “boneshaker”.
There was another significant step forward in the production and popularity of bicycles in general with the invention of the penny-farthing in 1870. Engineered by the Coventry Sewing Machine Company in the UK, the Penny Farthing was surprisingly popular, irrespective of the fact that it was linked with many severe accidents due to its unique design.
Chain-driven bicycles made their first appearance in 1874, though distinguished riders were initially unimpressed by the proximity of the pedals to the ground. The result of which being dirty shoes after a ride.
The first ever air-filled tires were added to bicycles in 1888 by JB Dunlop, radically transforming comfort and control. By the end of the 1800s, bicycles had become not only more comfortable and efficient, but more widely available and popular like never before.
Competitive cycling history
Official records suggest that the first competitive cycling race took place in Middlesex in the year 1868. Things progressed relatively slowly, but ultimately culminated with the first ever world championship cycling race in 1893.
Three years later, the Olympic games officially added cycling as an Olympic sport, while 1903 brought about the introduction of the very first Tour de France. A completely new and explosives spectacle, the 19-day event saw riders traverse a course of 2500 kilometres.
Interestingly, the Tour de France wasn’t invented for the purposes of promoting cycling. Instead, its promoters were simply looking to boost sales of L’Auto Newspaper. Given the extraordinary nature of the event at the time, it worked!
Competitive cycling became a recognised sport on a global basis, paving the way for countless new competitions and tournaments to be held all over the world. One of which being the Tour of Britain, which was first introduced in 1951.
Evolving bike designs
Despite technology having brought about some of the most incredible innovations imaginable, the basic premise of bike design and the mechanics of how bikes are propelled have remained relatively unchanged over the years.
These days, the vast majority of innovations focus on things like better aerodynamic design for bikes, lightweight frames and the use of more advanced materials, suspension forks in some instances and additional safety features like helmets and protective clothing.
On the competitive side, there has continuously been a great deal of debate as to if and to what extent competitors and the team should be able to introduce unique technological advancement and features for their own bikes. The reason being that many cycling enthusiasts and authorities in the world of competitive sports believe that racers should be competing directly against one another, as opposed to simply creating a fight to produce and introduce the most advanced technology.
For most, cycling is primarily about recreation and enjoyment. Use of bicycles for transportation is of course prevalent worldwide, but most cyclists simply enjoy riding bikes for the sake of it. The origins of recreational cycling date back to the 1880s, at which time rudimentary bikes started to become significantly more affordable and comfortable to ride.
These days, cycling is often highlighted as one of the most important and potentially beneficial activities for those looking to keep fit and stay healthy.
In America, it is estimated that around 65 million people regularly ride bikes purely for recreational purposes, while a further six million use their bikes to commute to and from work. The popularity of cycling in Europe has spurred the introduction of countless cycle-tourism associations, along with the creation of thousands of miles of cycle paths across the entire continent.
The future of cycling
In terms of what the future holds for cycling, some of the world’s most advanced manufacturers are already designing and engineering the most extraordinary bikes the world has ever seen. In many instances, recreational and road-bike designers are coming up with increasingly more portable and compact bicycles, designed for use in cities and towns.
At the same time, those focusing on competitive cycling are creating lighter, stronger and more aerodynamic designs than ever before.
Some are also focusing heavily on the inclusion of advanced technological components and computers as core elements of bikes of the future. GPS systems, security systems and various powered mechanical components make cycling easier and more enjoyable.
Given how things have changed so radically over the last 100 years, chances are we’ll be seeing the kinds of things we’d never dreamed possible hitting the roads soon enough.