The 6th Edition Your everyday, everything for Eroica Britannia Today 17th Sep. 2021

The Britannia Times

Celebrating 200 Years of the Bicycle

Published on 3rd. January 2018

In 2018, we'll be celebrating 200 years of the bicycle, so let's take a look at the history of the machine we know, love and appreciate today.

It was in 1818 when Karl von Drais patented an early iteration of a bike which looked more like what we now know as a balance bike than a modern-day bicycle. In the year leading up to the patent Drais set out on his first recorded ride of 13km, which he completed in less than an hour and at a weight of 22kg, that’s no mean feat.

The 1820s made way for more wheels with the rise of three and four wheeled bikes and also saw the first introduction of pedals. Despite being even heavier than the draisine, a range of quadracycles were manufactured and sold in the 1850s.

The Michaux is probably the first commercial design developed in the 1860s by its namesake Pierre Michaux. Eventually, a partnership was formed between the Olivier brothers (wealthy entrepreneurs at the time) and a mutual friend George de la Bouglise and they set about mass-producing bikes made from steel rather than their wooden predecessors. A few tweaks to the design saw the Michaux et Cie company dominate the industry.

The rise of what we know as the pennyfarthing occured in the 1870s and was lighter than the draisine given it had a much smaller rear wheel. Along with this invention, spoked wheels were brought into the design by frenchman Eugene Meyer and further developed by the father of the British cycling industry, James Starley. He added ball bearings, rubber tyres and hollow steel frames, which eventually became standard. Flaws in the penny farthing’s design meant that any shortcoming in the road surface or ability of the rider meant they could easily suffer a fall from height resulting in injury - not really encouraging for those wanting to get into cycling! Women were also somewhat excluded from riding through this period given the current fashion and societal norms at the time. Despite the drawbacks of the pennyfarthing, it was extremely popular in Coventry, Oxford, Birmingham and Manchester, not too far from our Peak District roots.

Arguably the greatest change in bicycle design came in the form of the safety bicycle which we now recognise as an important development in the blueprint of today’s bicycles. It opened up the market of utility cycling (commuting and transport) and women were finally able to jump on wheels without the worry of their dresses not being so accommodating. A chain drive and equal sized wheels aren’t unusual with modern bikes, but they didn’t become the norm until the 1880s and the improvements made way to an industry boom in the early 20th century. As popularity rose in the United Kingdom so did manufacturers of bikes some of which are still around today such as Raleigh.

Throughout the decades that followed the important technical developments of the bike, smaller parts like the derailleur continued to be fine-tuned to the needs of cyclists as the sport became more prominent. Bikes became lighter, hub-gearing found its way on to the bike and drop handlebars became more favoured among those who took cycling seriously.

In the 1970s cycling was booming among recreational riders and racing-esque bikes became very popular among those wanting to emulate the professionals at the time. As well as bicycles built for one, there was the development and rise in tandem bikes. The Tandem Club in the UK was founded in 1971 which provided a network for hard-to-find parts, safety and maintenance advice for a relatively new addition to the cycling world. Today of course, we see tandems used fairly frequently not least for use in para-cycling events.

Fast-forward to the 21st century and introduce aerodynamics, computer-aided design and a whole host of other technological developments and the bike suddenly looks nothing like the first draisine. All sorts of electronic gadgets have made their way onto handlebars, groupsets and cranks of bicycles all over the world including apps on phones and watches to keep track of where riders are, who they’re with and which bike they’ve chosen to take out for the day.

In 2018, as is customary for Eroica we’ll be going back to the basics of cables, vintage components and good old-fashioned bicycle riding to celebrate the heritage of this truly wonderful invention.


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