Revolution on two wheels

31st January 2003 at 00:00
Gerald Haigh looks at the liberating effects of getting somewhere under your own steam...

The story of the bicycle is as much about freedom as it is about technology. By 1890, ownership of a bike in Europe and America meant freedom to live away from the shadow of the factory, to get far into the countryside at weekends, to escape from parental oversight (sometimes with members of the opposite sex), to meet new people and see new places. It's even been suggested that the bicycle made us all cleverer because with its aid boys and girls could more easily meet and marry partners from outside their immediate area, thus widening the genetic background of their descendants.

The bicycle matured from toy to serious transport during the 19th century.

In the first 20 years there was the Hobby Horse - a contraption of wood with a leather saddle, propelled by pushing on the ground with the feet. In 1840 Kirkpatrick Macmillan of Scotland added a system of rods and cranks that meant it could be pedalled along. Then, in the 1860s, came the more practical Velocipede, which had pedals attached to the front wheel.

Developed in France (where a bike is still a "velo"), the Velocipede was improved in Coventry by James Starley, a mechanical experimenter who at the time was running a successful sewing machine factory. No one person can really be labelled as the "inventor" of the bicycle, but Starley made it into a marketable product and is thought of as the founder of the trade. He developed the Velocipede (often called, for obvious reasons, the Boneshaker) into the Ordinary - what we now call the Pennyfarthing, because it had a big front wheel that would travel a reasonable distance with each turn of the pedals, and a small rear wheel to save weight.

Other kinds of machine were made - notably the adult tricycle, which had a slightly more upper class air than did the bicycle and could be managed by women in skirts (its image was helped by the fact that Queen Victoria had one, but no one seems to know whether she ever rode it). The Ordinary, though, as the name implies, was the standard machine right into the 1880s.

Athletic bicyclists were soon using it for racing and record breaking. In 1870 Starley with his partner Hillman demonstrated the qualities of their Ariel Ordinary by riding from Coventry to London (about 100 miles) within a day - quite a feat on the rough roads of the time.

Real mass popularity, though, arrived with the development of the Safety bicycle in the late 1880s (it was called the Safety because the Ordinary was frankly dangerous). The leading Safety was the Rover from the factory of John K Starley, nephew of James, in Coventry. (The name Rover was passed on through generations of vehicles and lives on today in the Rover car.) The Safety had all the key characteristics of a modern bicycle - sloping front forks, smaller wheels of equal size, chain drive from pedals to rear wheel, a diamond-shaped frame. Here was a machine that didn't necessarily require the courage and athleticism called for by the high wheeler and thus could be ridden to work, or for pleasure, by anyone, of either sex. With the addition of John Boyd Dunlop's pneumatic tyre, which appeared in 1888, the bicycle had finally come of age as a means of transport for ordinary people.

In the Victorian and Edwardian years cycling was hugely popular - by 1895 there were 30 cycle manufacturers in Coventry - and the Museum of British Road Transport has many contemporary photographs showing large and happy gatherings of club cyclists. These were, typically, skilled and relatively affluent workers with the means to buy bikes and the weekend and holiday time to ride them.

Starley's basic "Safety" design has proved remarkably resilient - a near perfect technological solution to the problem of making a simple and efficient human-powered vehicle. So while there's been real progress - lighter and stronger metal alloys, better gears, brakes and tyres - more radical changes have been slow to catch on. The recumbent bicycle, where the rider sits low, with pedals in front, has its advocates but it's never really made big inroads on the market.

In the UK, cycling as mass transport declined as car ownership increased after the Second World War. Now, the UK cycle industry has all but vanished, and the bike has become a leisure and fashion item - only 2 per cent of journeys are made by bike. Attempts by governments to reverse this trend in response to fears about pollution and petrol shortages have not had much effect.

Cycling is now centred on China where the bicycle is the normal mode of transport, something transport reformers would like to implement everywhere else. It's estimated that of 1,500 million bicycles in the world, nearly 500 million are in China.

However, it is also true that China, aided by western business, is aspiring to widespread car ownership. Business forecasts in Beijing say that car sales in China will double to 2.5 million by 2010. The desire for car ownership looks likely to overcome all environmental considerations.


Vegetarian cycling and athletic club

Recycle sends used bikes from UK to Africa

US organisation making load carrying extensions for bikes

The Museum of British Road Transport in Coventry

Promoting affordable cycling in Africa

Governing body for cycling long distance road records

Government factsheet on trends in cycle use in UK

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