With the Tour de Yorkshire coming to Barnsley on the 3rd May, in this edition we thought it a good idea to take a look at a brief history of the Bicycle.
As with many popular products, the beginnings always give rise to speculation and there are unverified claims that the first two wheel bicycle was drawn as early as 1500 AD by a student of Leonard De Vinci.
A second and unverified claim was that a two wheeled ‘célérifère was presented in Paris in1792. This was allegedly a wooden framed contraption that had two wheels but no steering or pedals, with the rider sitting on a seat and propelling himself with his feet pushing on the floor. Steering relied on the rider leaning one way or the other.
The undisputed claim for a practically used bicycle, however, belongs to a German Civil Servant, Baron Karl von Drais who invented the Laufmaschine or ‘Running Machine’ in 1817. Weighing in at a 22kgs (48Lbs) it was nicknamed ‘the hobbyhorse’ or ‘Dandy Horse’ and we know this as he patented it a year later.
Very different to current bikes, the ‘hobby-horse’ was made entirely of wood, the wheels were iron shod with brass bushings in the wheel bearings but it did come with brakes, a seat and was steerable. The downside was that it had to be propelled by walking or ‘gliding’ but its popularity was such that several thousand were built, mainly for use in Western Europe and North America.
The design was quickly picked up by other entrepreneurs both, here and overseas, and during the summer of 1819, the British “hobby-horse” became the ultimate fashion accessory in London with many of the ‘dandies’ or ‘posers’ choosing it as their vehicle of choice . Unfortunately they proved to be extremely dangerous and a number of towns and cities banned them simply because of the high number of accidents caused, whilst others would impose a fine of up to two pounds if a rider was found riding them on a pavement (or sidewalk). The fad reportedly ended within the year as riders wore out their boots surprisingly quickly.
The first mechanically propelled two-wheel bike is believed to have been built by a Scottish blacksmith, Kirkpatrick Macmillan in 1839. According to his nephew, MacMillan produced a rear-wheel driven bike that used mounted ‘treadles’ that connected to a rear crank, not dissimilar to the transmission of a steam engine. But it wasn’t until the 1860’s that we get the ‘Boneshaker’ where the pedals and cranks were fitted to the front wheel.
The first really popular and commercially successful design was French and appeared in 1863. Still using wood for the frame, it came with metal tyres and got its ‘boneshaker’ name from the very uncomfortable ride of the cobblestone streets. Having the pedals on the front wheel, however, was a much more simple design to that of MacMillans’, using the more conventional rotary crank with the pedals mounted to the front wheel hub. This simplified action also meant that riders were able to cycle at much greater speeds but the ‘rotation speed’ with the small wheel on the front created problems with stability and comfort and so from this we got the Penny Farthing with the much larger front wheel (the Penny) and small rear wheel (the Farthing). The bigger ‘driving’ wheel enabled the rider to travel further with a single rotation of the pedals but it was still a problem using the same wheel for propulsion as steering. The introduction of a new metal frame significantly reduced the weight of the bike and made it easier to be mass produced. By the 1870’s rubber tyres fitted to the wheel rims which helped the ride become much more comfortable.
Arguably the most dramatic change in the history of the bicycle happened in 1879 with the introduction of the rear wheel drive. Although the early designs continued with the huge front wheel and small rear wheel, this quickly evolved into the first successful ‘Safety Bicycle’ in 1885, created by John Kemp Starley. His bike had equal sized wheels to the front and rear, front steering, the pedals were moved to a more central position and the rear wheel was now driven by a chain looped over a sprocket for the pedals and a sprocket attached to the wheel. These changes also encouraged a change in ‘buying attitude’ as it was no longer perceived to be a ‘toy’ for the young and sporty men of the day, but a sensible means of transport for all.  Meanwhile, John Dunlop’s reinvention of the pneumatic (Inflated) bicycle tire in 1888 and the change from cobbled roads to tarmac made for an even smoother ride on both the roads as well as the rough terrain.
The chain drive improved comfort and speed and allowed for smooth, relaxed and injury free pedalling and with this easier pedalling so the rider became more able and competent, focusing on the general handling of the unit.
Bicycles continued to evolve to suit the different needs of the users. Derailleur gears developed in France between 1900 and 1910 among cyclotourists, and was improved over time but it was only in the 1930s did European racing organisations finally allow racers to use mechanical gear changers. Up until then all racing cyclist were forced to use a two-speed bicycle. Not a fast means of changing gears by any stretch of the imagination as the rear wheel simply had a different sized sprocket fixed to either side of the wheel hub. To change gear, the rider had to stop, remove the wheel, turn it around and then remount it with the new sprocket on the opposite side of the bike. Needless to say, once bike racers were allowed to use the new mechanical derailleur gears without stopping, race times dropped rapidly.
Surprisingly, it wasn’t until the 1960’s that racing bicycles, with their dropped handle bars, narrow tires, numerous ‘gears’ and a lighter frame, became popular in Europe. Suddenly the standard recreational bike declined noticeably in the 70’s and so manufacturers concentrated on light weight, affordable, derailleur geared sports bikes that differed only slightly to the true racers – making them more affordable for the general public.
As with every product, manufacturers always looked for competitive advantage and in the 1980s, U.K. cyclists began to shift from road-only bicycles to the more rugged, all-terrain bikes. And so it was that in 1981, the first mass-produced Mountain bike appeared. It was an immediate success, its popularity enhanced by the novelty of ‘off road’ cycling and the increasing desire of urban dwellers to escape their surroundings and head off into the countryside via mountain biking and other extreme sports.
These Mountain Bike are sturdier with solid frames, wider tyres with large treads to improve traction in the mud. They have a more upright seating position for shifting body weight and improved visibility and increasingly, the use of front and rear suspension and wider padded seats designs smoothed out the ruts and bumps of the rough terrain and the gearing is designed more for torque and power than for speed. They appeared in the 1996 Olympics for the first time and by 2000, mountain bike sales had outstripped that of racing, sport/racer, and touring bicycles.
Today, cycling is more popular than ever with a staggering 42% or 25 Million people over the age of five, owning or having access to a bicycle in the UK alone. The largest group of users fall between the age of 40 and 49 years old it is a pastime equally enjoyed by young and old alike. It is big business and cyclists contributed a ‘gross cycling product’ of £3bn to the British economy in 2010 and around 3.6 Million cycles are still sold in the UK each and every year.