For those of us who are avid cyclists, we know the joy and freedom that riding a bicycle can bring. It’s a fabulous sport to partake in no matter your age and provides an opportunity to bond with family, friends, colleagues, potential clients, and even strangers. When the “exercise gap” opened during the harsher lockdown period, I was delighted to see our neighbourhood crawling with humans of varying shapes and sizes pedalling an equally diverse variety of two-wheelers.
Cycling fills me with joy and a range of other emotions, often conflicting – especially when mountain biking. Few things make me feel more alive than exploring the world on a two-wheeled machine powered by my legs – the burn in my lungs when climbing steep off-road trails, followed by an exhilarating release as I steer my way down the decline on the other side; a feeling I seldom experience in other aspects of my life – pure bumpy, concentrated joy. A contrasting combination of elation, fear, and focus.
As I reflect on the pleasure I experience on both my road and mountain bikes, I feel a sense of gratitude towards the several inventors involved in the evolution of this remarkable machine. The first steerable, two-wheeled contraption was made in 1817 by Karl von Drais, a German baron. This contraption went by many odd names in those days – velocipede, hobby-horse, draisine, running machine, amongst others. Although Karl von Drais was widely acknowledged as the father of the bicycle, the history thereof is a little more intricate.
In the 19th century, the bicycle evolved to what we know it to be today. In fact, Karl von Drais’ “running machine” improved markedly across Europe when Frenchmen, Pierre Lallement, Pierre Michaux, and Ernest Michaus developed models that had pedals attached to the front wheel. The riders of this machine experienced a rather rough ride, hence aptly referred to as a “boneshaker”. Vastly different from the dual suspension, smooth ride some of us enjoy on our mountain bikes today (thank goodness for the evolution of machinery).
To improve on the stability of the “boneshaker”, Eugène Meyer and James Starley in time invented new and improved models with a huge front wheel. During the 1870s and 1880s, these enhanced machines became the trend of the day. They were known as penny-farthings or ordinaries. The first bicycle clubs were born at this point as well as competitive races. One could move rather rapidly and cover a large distance for every rotation of the legs due to the gigantic front wheel. The penny-farthing also provided a degree of comfort as the bigger front wheel catered for more shock absorption (I’ll take their word for it). In 1884, Thomas Stevens, an Englishman, famously journeyed around the globe on his high-wheeler bicycle (respect Mr Stevens – that’s an incredible feat).
A penny-farthing’s saddle was four-foot-high (1.22 m). Yikes! I know what it feels like to fall off a bike. I can only imagine the pain of falling from that height, admittedly their machines never travelled at the speeds we are capable of on our bicycles today. But the penny-farthing can still travel at a decent enough speed, as recently proven by an English lad, Neil Laughton, who recorded the fastest speed of 29.603 kph – no hands – at the Preston Park Velodrome in Brighton, UK in November 2019.
However, they soon realised that the penny-farthing was too dangerous for most people to ride. Thanks to John Kemp Starley, James Starley’s nephew, who in 1885 invented a safer bicycle that introduced equal-sized wheels and a chain drive. Shortly thereafter, there were new developments in brakes and tires too. The basic prototype for the modern bicycle.
The interest in bicycles heightened. So much so, that by the 1890s there was a bike boom in Europe and the United States (US). Jump ahead to the 20th century and we see a sharp increase in adult cycling. During the bike boom in the US between 1965 to 1975, Time magazine referred to it as “the bicycle’s biggest wave of popularity in its 154-year history”. More bicycles were sold between 1972 to 1974 than cars, especially when derailleur-geared 10-speed racing bicycles became widely available. The 1973 oil crisis further encouraged cycling, as the cost of driving a car increased.
During the 1990s, the United Kingdom (UK) experienced a boom in mountain bike sales. This market offered new features such as suspensions not necessarily required for a road bike. Different materials were also being used such as carbon fibre, aluminium, and titanium. Sadly by 2001, the market started to shrink.
A literal and metaphoric undulating ride. In 2012, there was yet another bike boom in the UK – fuelled by the UK cyclists’ success in the London Olympics and the Tour de France (one of cycling’s Grand Tours*, which in 2012 started in the Belgian city of Liège on 30 June and ended on the Champs-Élysées in Paris on 22 July.) *The “Grand Tour” I’m referring to, for any non-cyclists reading this article and wondering what on earth a grand tour has to do with cycling. It is one of the three major European professional cycling stage races (Giro d’Italia, Tour de France and Vuelta a España). A stage race is a unit of a race divided into parts, usually because the distance to be covered is lengthy, thus the race is completed over a few days.
The after-effects of the London bombing in July 2005, were also found to have had an impact on the boom, as parts of the rapid transport system (the London Underground/Tube) were closed during that time. Of course, this too encouraged cycling as a commuting option. The financial incentive of the UK Cycle to Work scheme also played its part in encouraging the public to pedal. The scheme is a UK Government tax exemption initiative that was introduced in the Finance Act in 1999 to reduce environmental pollution, thus promoting healthier measures of commuting. The scheme enables employers to loan bicycles and the necessary safety equipment to employees as a tax-free benefit. Bring it on in South Africa – I dream of cycling on less congested roads – safer riding, happy lungs, healthier body, fresher air, enhanced feeling of freedom – with exercise simply being the by-product.
It’s also interesting to note that the greatest impact that this two-wheeled contraption had in the 1890s was on the role of women. It provided women with a larger amount of social mobility. The upper and middle-class group of women’s roles in society transformed from staying at home as wives and mothers to where they could be more involved in the community and enjoy a more public appearance. Since history has a way of repeating itself, the most rapidly growing group of cyclists in the 21st century is women.
Another of the myriad benefits of the bicycle today is that it’s become what one may call “the new golf”. Many business executives are enjoying long rides with potential clients and colleagues, which is proving to nurture and grow relationships. If this appeals to you, but you have not yet built up enough pedalling muscle memory to close a deal that may extend over a long distance – you can rely on an e‑bike. Yes, a bicycle with a motor to help you out when your legs can no longer offer enough power to propel you forward.
Bicycles even featured when the COVID-19 pandemic took hold. It was a way to get out of the “caged in” feeling during the harsher lockdown period. Instead of commuting by car to undertake those “essential” trips, one could hop onto a bicycle and reap the benefits of exercising outdoors while undertaking permissible errands. It’s also a great alternative to public transport – the perfect way to practise social distancing.
Gratitude fills me – this invention has surely made a massive difference in my life. I’m convinced that even our Yorkie pup, Harley, will express a resounding grateful bark to the inventors of this great two‑wheeled steed. He too relishes the feeling of flying as he joins us on many of our expeditions in his bicycle basket (another fantastic invention). As we ready ourselves for a ride, Harley eagerly runs to where we store the bicycle basket and hops right in. We fully appreciate that the cycling bug has infected even our tiny four-legged bundle of fluff.
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Authored by Delilah Nosworthy