Cycling’s History and Impact
The bike is an absolutely iconic mode of transport. Simple, refined and, most importantly, cheap, it has become the transportation of choice for huge swathes of the global population. Today there are more than a billion regular cyclists worldwide, some using bikes as their sole mode of transport and some using it, simply, for recreational use.
For reference: there are more bikes in existence now than cars, with the most popular bike – the Chinese-produced “Flying Pigeon” has around 500 million units produced, making it the most popular vehicle in the world. The point is (and I don’t think I’m exaggerating here) that bikes are one of the most wondrous inventions in the history of the world. People who, before, would have had to walk tens or, in extreme cases, even hundreds of miles on foot to reach their destination can now be there in less than half of the time. With a basket or saddle-bags, you can carry what needs to be carried, allowing business to flourish and people to connect with greater individual freedom than ever before.
It is surprising to me, then, that the bicycle has scarcely been around for more than two centuries. Unsurprisingly, however, it began with the meeting of German practicality and ingenuity when, in 1817, a man named Baron Karl von Drais invented the “Laufmaschine” – essentially what we know of as a modern bike, only made of wood and with no pedals, where one would push themselves along with their feet, while steering using the handlebars as we still do today. When you think about it, not much has changed, really. Pedals were introduced by the French with what they called the “Velocipede” in the early 1860s (inspiring our name – Veloflow!). It had a slightly larger front wheel and a mechanism which allowed the front wheel to turn with the pedals, with the back wheel being used mainly for balance.
Fun fact: the first bike-related vehicle accident is claimed to have occurred in 1842 in Scotland, where a blacksmith was fined five shillings for knocking over a little girl in Glasgow on what the police described as being “of ingenious design.” It must have been a stressful day for the cops to have to deal, not only with a crying child, but with a man flying past on a two-wheeled mechanism that they’d literally never seen before!
For some reason, in the 1870s, bicycle developers decided that the front wheel of a bike should now be massive – so tall that it was impossible to touch the ground while sitting on one, with a second, tiny little wheel attached to the back for balance. It, notoriously, had horrible weight-distribution and so was difficult to ride, but it stuck around as the primary form of bike for around twenty years. I am, of course, referring to the “penny-farthing”, so called for the disparity in wheel sizes, although it wasn’t known as such at the time. In fact, the penny-farthing is the first bicycle in history ever to actually be called – a bicycle. Not a “draisine” or a velocipede – an actual bicycle. The name stuck and is probably the best contribution to biking history that the version made.
By the mid-1880s it was the turn of the English to step the game up a level with the advent of the “Rover Safety Bicycle.” It is here, with this bike, that we see, basically, bikes as they are today – two similarly-sized wheels, with the seat fitted further back and handlebars higher that the knee. It was also the first to operate the back wheel using the chain mechanism that is so prominent in bikes today.
Shortly after, innovations in pneumatic tyres and rear wheel coasting came about, followed by hand-operated cable-pull brakes. So arrived the typical form of the modern bike before the turn of the 20th century. Cars wouldn’t become commonplace until decades later under another, far more infamous, German than the one who had invented the bike. In the meantime, these two-wheeled marvels took the world by storm.