The Evolution of Bicycles
Recognize this? It’s almost a bicycle. No pedals, though – just a wooden frame and wheels. The ‘velocipede’ had to be customized to the height of the rider, and could only be ridden without losing your ability to reproduce by sticking to well-maintained garden paths or other flat, soft-but-not-too-soft ground. The kind not found most places.
It was also pretty tricky to turn. You had to lean, firmly but subtly. Crashing not only hurt, but dramatically reduced whatever level of ‘suave’ you’d managed to retain while straddle-running on the darn things.
The natural limitations on who could thus enjoy such a contraption led to the derogatory nickname “dandy-horse” – although if you spent your days frolicking on one of these, you probably didn’t care what the proletariat called you.
Sometime in the mid-19th century, pedals were added. There were no chains or gears; they were connected directly to the center of the front wheel. Variations added a third or even a fourth wheel for balance, but doing so increased the amount of work necessary to propel the beast any direction but straight downhill.
In keeping with their love of all things dainty, the French introduced the metal frame, lighter and sturdier. Unfortunately, the large wooden wheels and lack of any sort of shock-absorbing mechanism led to another unflattering moniker: the “bone-shaker” - less foppish than ‘dandy-horse,’ but still unlikely to facilitate worldwide acceptance and marketability.
Then someone tried rubber tires. Score!
Once successful, they seemed so obvious it was hard to imagine why they’d not been used before. It had only taken a few centuries, but mankind was finally producing a bicycle that didn’t painfully rearrange your bowels every time you rode it.
It was almost… comfortable.
This allowed riders to finally begin complaining about something new – the speed. Sure, pedals were exciting for a generation or so, but now that the frame and tires could handle – without causing permanent physical injury - velocities greater than grandma hustling to the loo, there stirred a need…
Add some #STEM, and the solution once again seemed retrospectively self-evident:
The ‘Ordinary’, later known as the ‘Penny-Farthing’ (due to the disparity in wheel-size, not the cost), altered the elitism of the ride. They were difficult to mount, required great athleticism to balance and propel with any authority, and even minor ruts or obstacles could stop the giant front wheel instantaneously – while the rider and the rest of the machine kept going forward over the now-motionless ginormous front wheel.
Riders were expected to practice ‘taking a header’ in the same way other athletes practice falling correctly or reality stars practice shame and regret. Those less-interested in pain and bone-breaking could still find recourse in tricycles or quadracycles, but the cool factor was completely absent. It may have been in the negatives.
In 1885, an Englishman by the name of John Kemp Starley transformed the centuries of absurdity and sore bottoms into a proper bicycle. He made the wheels the same size – keeping those nice rubber tubes – and based propulsion around a chain drive attaching the pedaled gears to the back wheel, leaving steering to the front wheel.
The ‘Safety Bicycle’ allowed an even greater top speed than the ‘Ordinary’. More importantly, it suddenly made the bicycle easy to ride, fairly safe to steer, easier to control, lighter, and – as production increased to accommodate the wider customer base – less expensive than anything comparable prior.
By the 1890’s, bicycles were a thing. It’s hard to imagine today, when most everyone seems to have one hanging in their garage or collecting dust in the barn. But the craze was real. It was a big - and sometimes strange - deal. We’re talking MySpace levels, or Sigue Sigue Sputnik, even. Social media when any of the half-dozen variations of The Bachelor are on – THAT level of madness.
Because now EVERYONE could ride - yet it was still cool. The feeling of movement, and speed, was unlike anything most had ever experienced – and without the need to purchase a ticket or build a barn. The ‘Safety’ was so accessible even WOMEN could ride – and ride they did.
It really kinda got outta control.
Forsaking long, bulky skirts for practical attire – in some cases even PANTS – women discovered a sense of freedom beyond what they’d believed possible. In addition to fueling a push for better roads, feeding economic growth, promoting health and the outdoors, and simultaneously increasing a sense of community and mobility without apparent irony, the insane popularity of the bicycle also propelled the women’s movement in a way nothing intentional could have.
Suffrage was likely inevitable, but that chain drive and those symmetrical tires shaved the wait by a generation or two. Unintended consequences – the technology became more affordable and easier to use right as the women’s movement was bursting with energy; the two entered a sort of socio-mechanical synergy. Neither caused or even anticipated the other, it just… happened.
History can be funny like that. It’s part of what keeps things interesting.
There are bicycles to suit pretty much any type of rider today – any gender, race, nationality, or income level - but by and large they’re all traceable back to that first ‘Safety’. I suppose we should pay appropriate homage to its ancestors as well – but many were rather awkward and hard to think about. Besides, the incarnations with the most potential – and thus those whose popularity lasted the longest – served only those most able to afford the ideal conditions necessary to enjoy them: the right socio-economic status, a proper upbringing and mindset, and, well… being a smarmy white guy.
The vehicle changed, but each revolution solved one problem by creating another... until J.K. Starley. In a way, he created an entirely new machine. At the same time, it was undeniably based on all that rolled by before.
Suddenly something of great potential but limited use, realistic only for a few, became accessible. The experience reached for by a select minority in prior generations was suddenly not only possible, but intoxicating. It was fun. It was freeing. And it was so good for you – body, mind, and soul.
It’s an analogy, you see. This is more or less an education site, so I’ll let you work out the details.
What can be said with some certainty is that in the end what bicycles provided was opportunity. They let the rider go faster and farther, more safely and with greater comfort. But whatever the make, the model, the price point or color, one thing remained universally true:
It was up to them to pedal. And they did.