A Bicycle Retrospective

This month loose cannon correspondent David Bristow looks back at 200 years of cycling, and peeks into the future of mountain biking.

While descending the Vasbyt track on New Year’s Day, I thought about my trajectory from roadie to downhill demon and what an amazing machine a bicycle really is. It’s estimated there are a billion bikes out there, twice the number of cars…

So it did hit a flat note when, on getting home I discovered that while readers of the Chicago Tribune  had voted the wheel the second most important invention of all time (after making fire), they rated the fabulous bicycle a humiliating 99 out of 100 and way below the automobile.

With any luck, I thought, the meek bicycle shall inherit the transport world and save us from ourselves, but maybe that was just the hangover talking. The truth is: the versatile bicycle is a low resource user, an easy form of transport, promoter of good health and great all-round fun machine. Looking at the early models, however, you’d be hard pressed to figure out how or why.

How, for instance, we got from a crude scooter to a machine that is, watt for watt, up to 98% efficient. While pounding down the Blue Route training for the Argus Tour (which, I confess, I’ve decided to try after an eight year lay-off), I’d be pushing out around 200W (1/4 horsepower) at 40kph. To pass me at the permissible 100kph, a car would be putting out around 100 000W, or 134HP. So, with all this efficiency going around, have you ever wondered why the bicycle is often referred to as a push bike?

The first means of transport to use two wheels in tandem made its appearance in France and Germany around 1817 (or 1818) and named the Draisiene after its inventor Baron Karl von Drais de Sauerbrun. It soon found its way over to the Great Britain where it was dubbed the dandy horse.

The rider sat astride something that looked very much like a disselboom with two iron wheels in-line. The fearsome machine was propelled by running astride, while steering the front wheel with a wooden lever. This, it must be said, was not the most elegant or efficient form of transport ever created. Who knew where it would lead…

The first machine that, with any degree of honesty, could be called a bicycle is attributed to the Scottish blacksmith Kirkpatrick MacMillanan. In 1839 he came barreling down from the Highlands on a mechanically propelled, two-wheeled vehicle that was swiftly dubbed the bone-shaker. It was propelled by the rider pumping opposing pedals that were connected to the rear wheel cranks by connecting rods.

In 1860 Frenchman Pierre Michaux added a fixed-pedal crank mechanism and thus was born the velocipede. One of these won the first ever bicycle race, a 123-km dash from Paris to Rouen in1869. The machine in question had heavy iron wheels with thick, radial, rod-like spokes. It had no tires, no bearings, no gearing, no suspension, a wooden saddle and narrow wooden pedals fixed to the front axle.

When you consider the cut-off time for the 106-km Argus Cycle Tour is seven hours, the winning time at Rouen of 10 hours is quite remarkable. Not long afterwards, a velocipede beat a horse-drawn carriage from London to Brighton, and the rest is all rubber, gears and ball bearings.

It was English inventor James Starley who figured that, if one revolution of the pedals equalled one revolution of the fixed front wheel, then the larger the front wheel the further one revolution would take him. Enter the high ordinary, or penny farthing. Within in no time, there were track racing and touring models available. Cycling clubs appeared all over the place, in Europe, North America, Asia and even Africa, buzzing about on these machines and setting all kinds of records: like riding 400km in one day – imagine that.

The 1869 Paris Show witnessed the arrival of a revolutionary machine, featuring a tubular steel frame and tensioned, spoked wheels. Within a few years simple gears and freewheeling axels running on greased ball bearings made an appearance. Thomas Stevens even cycled around the world, on a penny farthing, with steamship passage connecting the land bits, in three years, back in 1884-7!

It was Starley, however, who had arguably the most game-changing revelation of the age when he conceived of a drive chain going from a mid-situated pedal gear around a rear wheel cog. This was the safety bicycle that looked very much what we ride today. His Rover bicycle of 1885 would be a bestseller retro cruiser if re-introduced today.

But it was Scotsman veterinarian John Dunlop who saved our dignity. In 1887 Dunlop developed an inflatable rubber tire for his son’s two-wheeler and the days of bone shaking were over.

I could go on about subsequent and upcoming developments in suspension, new materials and gear ratios, but as you see space is running out on me. So you’ll have to wait till next month to hear what the fortune-teller told me about the shape-shifting year to come. Happy happy.

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