CYCLINGthe high-wheel era, 1870s and 1880s
the bicycle boom, 1890s
early twentieth century
Cycling emerged as a spectator sport and recreational activity in 1868, shortly after the pioneer firm Michaux of Paris introduced a novel pedal-powered two-wheeled vehicle known as a "vélocipède" (from the Latin for "fast feet"). This basic bicycle, later dubbed a "boneshaker" on account of its harsh ride, was both costly and crude. Its pedals were attached directly to the front hub, its wheels were wooden, and its frame was solid iron. Typically weighing about seventy pounds, it could barely achieve ten miles an hour. Nevertheless, it was an encouraging breakthrough in the ancient quest for a practical "mechanical horse."
Amid general excitement, velocipede racing soon proved a popular attraction. The first well-publicized contests, covering barely a mile, took place in the Parisian suburb of Saint Cloud on 31 May 1868. A year later, bicycle construction had improved appreciably, and outdoor races had become commonplace throughout France. Often linked to popular festivals, programs typically featured colorful jockey attire, women's races, obstacle races, and "slow" races (the winner being the last to cross the finish line without having fallen). The first major city-to-city race took place on 7 November 1869, between Paris and Rouen. The winner, James Moore, covered about eighty miles in the impressive time of ten and one-half hours.
In the same period, recreational cycling began to attract scores of athletic, well-to-do males. As early as January 1868 Albert Laumaillé of Chatêau-Gontier ordered from Michaux an especially robust bicycle with which he intended to tour Brittany. By mid-1869 more than a dozen velocipede clubs operated across France, conducting regular jaunts into the countryside. The trade periodical Le Vélocipède Illustré reported race results and kept enthusiasts abreast of the latest technical developments. About a hundred French firms were producing bicycles by this time, and their collective output is believed to have reached tens of thousands.
Despite the evident technical limitations of the velocipede and its prohibitive cost, many enthusiasts fully expected it to evolve into a practical and affordable vehicle, possibly even supplanting travel by horse. The Société Pratique des Vélocipèdes, founded in Paris in December 1868, offered prizes to mechanics who found ways to improve bicycle construction or lower its cost. The outbreak of the Franco-Prussian War in mid-1870, however, derailed the French bicycle industry before it could realize a "people's nag." Fortunately, several other countries had already adopted the bicycle. The American industry met an early demise, plagued by exorbitant royalty demands stemming from the Lallement patent. Filed in New Haven, Connecticut, by the French mechanic Pierre Lallement, this unique patent defining the basic bicycle was granted on 20 November 1866. Calvin Witty, a carriage and velocipede maker in Brooklyn, acquired the patent in early 1869 and immediately issued steep royalty demands on his competitors, causing considerable consternation in the nascent industry. However, the primitive vehicle found especially fertile territory for development in England. Even as popular interest there faded by the end of 1869, the budding sport had established a devoted community of racers, tourists, and mechanics.
In the early 1870s a new bicycle profile began to take shape in England, having an enlarged front wheel for improved gearing and a correspondingly reduced trailer. By the middle of that decade, the "high bicycle" (sometimes referred to by historians as a high-wheeler or penny farthing) had emerged as the dominant cycle. This trumpeted "modern bicycle" weighed only about forty pounds and could approach twenty miles per hour, thanks to such key innovations as wire wheels, solid rubber tires, and a tubular frame. Its joints also became smoother, with ball bearings coming into general use by 1880. The cyclist sat almost directly over the pedals, allowing application of his or her full force. The large elastic wheel also coped reasonably well with the poor roads of the day, allowing daily journeys in excess of one hundred miles and generally keeping the rider above the road dust.
The daunting new bicycle was nonetheless of limited popular appeal. It was manifestly impractical for everyday errands, and was widely perceived as a purely recreational vehicle for the amusement of affluent and physically fit young men. That market was nonetheless a significant one, and the British bicycle industry, based largely in Coventry, enjoyed prosperity in the late 1870s. Britain hosted dozens of cycling clubs and about one hundred thousand bicycles and tricycles. Cycling also spread throughout continental Europe, North America, and the entire British Empire, despite widespread complaints that "silent steeds" frightened horses and provoked accidents. To ensure access to the roads, and to improve their construction, cyclists formed lobbying groups such as the Bicycle Union in Britain and the League of American Wheelmen in the United States. Other organizations, such as Britain's Cyclists' Touring Club (established in 1878) catered to recreational riders, offering members maps and discounts at hotels and pubs.
Despite the public's misgivings about the high mount on the road, it continued to favor bicycle racing. The sport became especially prominent in Britain, where races on outdoor tracks, typically covering between one and twenty-five miles, regularly drew thousands of spectators. By the mid-1870s the country had produced a number of well-known amateur racers such as Ion Keith-Falconer, a towering Scottish aristocrat who became a noted Arab scholar and Christian missionary. John Keen, a maker in Surbiton, was among the most accomplished professionals. Endurance riding on tracks, covering hundreds of miles over periods of up to six days, also became a popular attraction. Meanwhile, the bicycle continued to prove itself on the road. The press regularly reported cycling exploits such as record-setting rides from Land's End to John O'Groats, the two most distant points in Great Britain. Thomas Stevens's celebrated round-the-world adventure, initiated in 1884, helped to project a romantic image of bicycle touring. Parades featuring club members in uniforms also regaled the public.
The technical success of the high bicycle, and its evident recreational benefits, prompted growing demands among the well-to-do for safer varieties of cycles. By the mid-1880s tricycles had gained a strong following on both sides of the Atlantic, notably among society women. Growing numbers of men, wary of being pitched from the precarious high mount (an indignity popularly known as a "header"), also favored the more stable three-wheeler. Alternative bicycle configurations designed to minimize the risk of injury, such as the British Kangaroo and the American Star, likewise achieved a degree of commercial success. For the most part, however, cycling remained an expensive and elitist pursuit.
The cycling scene changed dramatically in the 1890s, following the introduction of a new-style low mount popularly known as the safety bicycle. As early as 1885 James K. Starley of Coventry, England, presented his Rover bicycle, which used a chain and sprocket to achieve favorable gearing without the need for an oversize driving wheel. At first, few anticipated that this comparatively complicated design would claim a significant market share, much less supplant the conventional high bicycle. But as the new design gradually improved, and more makers began to offer variations, its advantages became increasingly apparent. The timely introduction of the inflatable or pneumatic tire, presented by the Scottish veterinarian John Dunlop in 1888, sealed the fate of the high wheeler, or Ordinary, as it came to be called. The safety bicycle with pneumatic tires proved not only the safer alternative, but also the faster machine. The inviting low-mount also appealed to women, who had been largely excluded from the sport.
By the early 1890s demand for safety bicycles surged on both sides of the Atlantic. Dozens of firms rushed into the trade and soon produced a variety of models and millions of machines. Some reactionaries protested that cycling encouraged immodest dress and even promiscuity among women, as well as reckless riding among men. Others warned that excessive cycling would lead to permanent health problems such as a stooped posture. But the general consensus held that moderate cycling was a healthy and desirable activity for both sexes, regardless of age.
With so many people identifying with the new-style bicycle, cycling as a spectator sport reached new heights of popularity. Thousands flocked to indoor and outdoor rinks known as velodromes to watch celebrated champions such as the American A. A. Zimmerman compete for lucrative prizes. Road racing also excited the popular imagination, especially in Europe. One memorable race in 1893, from Vienna to Berlin, introduced millions of central Europeans to the sport. Road races also proved an effective way for cycle manufacturers to market their products to the broad public. An early example was the 1891 race from Paris to Brest and back, won by the veteran Charles Terront, who showcased the latest Michelin clincher tires.
Although bicycles remained relatively expensive during the boom, costing perhaps several months' worth of wages, the pastime was already cutting across class lines. The sheer prominence of cyclists, the pervasive press coverage of all things cycle-related, and the increasing willingness of dealers to extend credit, as well as the burgeoning secondhand market, all helped to popularize the sport. Moreover, shortly after the boom subsided in 1897 the price of a bicycle plummeted from about seventy-five dollars to twenty-five dollars. Even as the upper classes and the leading bicycle makers began to turn their attention to the emerging automobile, the bicycle was already well established as an article of necessity. It was widely appreciated, especially in Europe, not only as a racing machine but also as a cheap and efficient vehicle for everyday commuting and weekend touring.
Although the American bicycle industry all but collapsed after the boom, its European counterpart readjusted and thrived in the years leading up to World War I, a time when automobiles were still prohibitively expensive. Raleigh Cycle Company of Nottingham, England, became the world's leading bicycle maker and exporter, thanks to ever more efficient production lines. Germany and France were also major producers of bicycles and cycling accessories. Sturdier models with such practical concessions as freewheels, caliper brakes, soft seats, upright handlebars, and fenders helped to sustain a popular demand for utilitarian bicycles. Hub gears, originating in Britain, came on the market about 1903, followed by derailleur systems, developed primarily in France. The availability of multiple gears to handle diverse terrain enhanced the appeal of bicycle touring, especially among the middle classes.
The public, meanwhile, continued to follow competitive cycling. Velodromes continued to flourish in numerous European and American cities, hosting such popular events as the celebrated Six-Day race. Sprinters such as the African American Marshall "Major" Taylor enjoyed international fame. Road racing also became increasingly prevalent in Europe. The year 1903 marks the first Tour de France, sponsored by the journal Vélo-Auto. Originally it was composed of six stages, run day and night. The contest was later confined to daylight hours, but the format was extended to include multiple stages spanning two or three weeks and covering the most diverse terrain. The French public adored homegrown champions such as Lucien Petit-Breton, who in 1908 became the first to win a second title. But the Tour quickly assumed an international flavor as well, with several early champions hailing from Belgium and Luxembourg. Italy was also quick to adopt road racing, launching its own version of the Tour in 1909 called the Giro d'Italia, and establishing its own prewar heroes such as Costante Giradengo, a perennial national champion.
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McGurn, James. On Your Bicycle: An Illustrated History of Cycling. New York, 1987.
Vant, André. L'industrie du cycle dans la région stéphanoise. Lyon, 1993.
David V. Herlihy
Next to the various forms of competitive running, cycling is the most popular sport in the world where the human body provides propulsion power. The bicycle has captured the imagination of great thinkers and the mass of humanity alike for hundreds of years, commencing with the designs of the Renaissance scientist and thinker Leonardo da Vinci (1452–1519).
The first truly functional two-wheeled machines were developed in Europe in the early 1800s, usually built with a large front wheel to overcome the absence of a gearing system to assist with the efficient delivery of power to the wheels.
Bicycle technology grew quickly through the mid-1800s, and the first bicycle race was organized in France in 1868 in response to the rising popularity of cycling. The development of simple gearing systems, which made hill climbing and greater speeds more readily attainable, was followed by the advent of mass-produced bicycles. The twentieth century saw the introduction of rubber inflatable tires and the invention that made multi-geared bicycle systems a reality. Paul de Vivie (1853–1930), known by the evocative name Velocio, invented the first functional derailleur, which refers to the assembly of bicycle chain, sprockets, and supporting mechanism to move the chain between sprockets and therefore create multiple gearing.
Bicycle racing on the roads began in earnest in 1903 with the inaugural Tour de France, an annual event that is contested on a demanding race course that loops through the regions of France. The Tour is the most famous bicycle race in the world, and the desire of cyclists to succeed in the Tour de France and the other European races that followed it spurred further technological developments in cycling. Frames became lighter, as first aluminum (in 1977) and later, carbon fiber composite frames, made the bicycles faster. The gears, handle bars, and other components also became more aerodynamic and efficient.
The birth of the universally popular mountain bike is very difficult to pinpoint; there have long existed bicycle enthusiasts prepared to ride their machines over rough and difficult terrain. In California in the 1970s, there slowly grew a bicycling community that rode some of the uneven trails of the Sierra Mountains on modified, heavy-framed bicycles that could absorb a significant pounding. In the 1980s, the mountain bike became a recognized cycling form, as these machines also became lighter, stronger, and more maneuverable. With the insertion of both front and rear wheel shock absorbers, the mountain bike became a very durable and relatively speedy vehicle. Mountain bike racing itself grew into a world event, with a first inclusion in the Summer Olympics in 1996.
A third form of bicycle racing grew directly from the development of the road-racing bicycles in the early 1900s. The "velodrome" is a specially designed indoor oval circuit, typically 330 yd (300 m) in length, on which bicycle racers compete in a number of different formats. The velodrome became a prominent bicycle-racing venue in the early part of the twentieth century. These contests differed from the road races as they tended to be shorter, sprint races, often conducted as a time trial as opposed to the declaration of the race winner as the first racer past the finish line.
The three types of bicycle racing have been precisely codified into separate disciplines; the tactics and the training associated with each is sufficient to permit each a designation as a separate sport, as opposed to existing as a subset of the sport of cycling. All types of bicycle racing are conducted at various times in most regions of the world; the Olympic Games is the only venue where all three disciplines are contested at one time.
Road racing, of which the Tour de France is the most famous example, is today the preserve of year-round professional athletes. The most notable rivals of the Tour for international prestige are the Giro d'Italia and the Tour of Spain. Each of these races has individual and team components, in which the event is divided into segments referred to as stages; the overall individual champion is the rider who finishes the entire course in the shortest aggregate time.
The winner of the Tour de France is regarded as a true international sports hero, and the race encourages a dynastic quality in its champions; since 1969, Eddie Mercyx (Belgium, five victories), Miguel Indurain (Spain, five victories), Greg Lemond (United States, three victories), and Lance Armstrong (United States, seven victories) are examples of this multi-year superiority.
Road races that are conducted in one-day formats, as opposed to stages, are held either as a mass start, also referred to as an inline road race, or as a time trial. As the name suggests, the mass start involves the racers heading off from the starting line in a pack; the combination of riders attempting to secure a better position, acceleration, and inevitable collisions often results in falls near the start. A time trial is conducted with each rider starting in 1.5-minute intervals. The winner is not the first to cross the finish line, but the rider with the best overall time. Both types of road racing are contested at the Olympics; a Tour de France-style multi-day stage race is not.
The Olympic road-racing distances consist of mass start and time trial types of races. In the case of the mass start, the race is a number of circuits of a city road course; male competitors race between 135 mi and 150 mi (210 km and 240 km); women race between 50 mi and 75 mi (80 km and 126 km). The time trials type of race has more of what cyclists refer to as a sprint element; men race on a course between 28 mi and 34 mi (45 km and 55 km) long; the women race on a course that is between 15 mi and 21 mi (25 km and 35 km) long.
Mountain biking is also a men's and a women's competition at the Olympics. The race course comprises a number of circuits, often with dramatic changes in elevation; falls and crashes are not uncommon.
Track racing is the most varied of the Olympic cycling disciplines; it is common for an Olympic cyclist to race in a number of the distances provided for in velodrome racing. Velodromes are typically composed of a highly polished wooden track, two 180°-banked turns, and two connecting straights. Velodromes may vary in length; the Olympic velodrome at Athens used for the 2004 Games was 800 ft (250 m) long and 22 ft (7 m) wide.
The best-known forms of track racing include the individual and team pursuit racing, the time trial, and the match sprint. In individual and team pursuit racing, the racers start at opposite sides of the track. This form of racing does not permit a standard cycling tactic, known as drafting. Drafting is the technique used in sports (auto racing is a prominent example) in which an opponent in the lead generates a wake in the air that results in a partial vacuum being created in the air behind the opponent. Cyclists will position themselves as close as they can to the rear wheel of the leading athlete to take advantage of the reduced air resistance of the vacuum as well as the minor drag of the air being pulled by the opponent. At an opportune moment, the trailing cyclist will accelerate to "slingshot" themselves past the leader. In a time trial event, the racer competes against the clock. In the match sprint, two racers simultaneously start on the track, with the first 875 yd (800 m) a slow jockeying for position, and the final 218 yd (200 m) a sprint for the finish. Tactics and position on the banked track are of critical importance in this form of racing.
The training programs employed by all cyclists have a number of common features, given that the dynamics of powering a bicycle are essentially the same for a road, mountain, or track bicycle. An important aspect of any cyclist's month-to-month training is a program of stretching and calisthenics, often accompanied by yoga or a Pilates program, to both increase flexibility and to assist with recovery from the rigors of long races. However, sprint racers will often add plyometrics exercises to assist in developing more explosiveness in the quadriceps and calf muscles. Mountain bikers must utilize their upper arm strength to negotiate the obstacles presented by the terrain; these athletes derive a significant benefit from structured weight-training programs. Road racers have found that a weight-training/resistance program directed at the abdomen, lumbar spine, and related muscle structures provides them with strength in the saddle in long daily cycles. All cyclists will develop a training system that will incorporate a form of interval training into the workout structure, in which the intensity of work, both sprinting-based and hill climbing, is performed in repeated segments of varying distance, time, and intensity.
As with many sports, the increase in professional competition and the corresponding financial rewards led to the use of a variety of performance-enhancing substances by cyclists. Prior to the development of reliable drug testing procedures in the late 1980s, a number of Tour de France riders were injured or killed due to heart failure caused by the combination of ingested chemical stimulants and the exertions of the race. Stimulant usage in cycling by way of amphetamines, used to assist riders in battling fatigue and keeping them alert, gave way to more subtle applications, including the naturally occurring ephedra, or ephedrine.
The demands of long-distance cycling had posed an often ultimate test for even the most skilled and fit of road racers. Blood doping, in the form of transfusions of the cyclist's own blood, had been experimented with by various cyclists in the late 1970s, prior to the practice being outlawed. The removal of blood from the body of the athlete, freezer storage of the extracted blood, and the reinfusion of the blood into the body in the week before a competition was a process known to increase red blood cells available to the body for better oxygen transportation during the activity. The physical transfusion carried with it a number of risks, including that of excessive blood clotting that might lead to stroke.
In the 1980s, the hormone produced by the body to stimulate red blood cell production naturally, erythropoietin (EPO), was first synthesized. Additional EPO was naturally generated by an athlete who had red blood cells depleted through injury, or when the athlete was training at an altitude where the body required more red blood cells to combat the lack of oxygen. When EPO could be injected into the body, with the resultant creation of additional red blood cells, a startlingly effective performance enhancement was created. EPO is a certain method for improving oxygen capacity, especially when combined with vigorous training. It was banned as a supplement, along with other plasma-expanding drugs, by various international sport bodies, including the International Olympic Committee, in 1996. Controversies have swirled over the reputations of a number of international cyclists regarding their actual or presumed EPO use. One example was the Phonak cycling team, competitors in many of the leading European races, had four of its members test positive for EPO or related compounds between the 2003 and the 2005 seasons.
From the time of the invention of the first pedal-driven cycle in 1839 to the present day cycling has functioned across Europe as an important form of transport, a leisure pursuit, and a competitive sport.
The first major cycling boom took place in the 1890s and was enabled, as all subsequent developments in cycling have been, by technological advances. While the bicycle, in various forms, had been a common sight, it was the invention of the chain drive in 1874 and the pneumatic tire in 1888 that made cycling safe, relatively comfortable, and efficient. By the time of World War I, bicycles were being mass-produced in Britain, France, and Italy and were a common form of transport for urban and rural dwellers. In the pre-1914 period cycling had also moved into the sporting arena. The first track-racing world championships had been started in 1895, and a year later cycling was included in the list of events for the inaugural Olympic Games in Athens. The most famous race in cycling, the Tour de France, began in 1903. Originating as a means to promote the sporting newspaper L'Auto, the Tour grew so that it was symbolic of the French nation as opposed to a mere cycle race. The model of a major national or regional race gave rise to similar events elsewhere in Europe. The Tour, the Giro d'Italia (1909), and the Vuelta a España (1935) are now considered the Three Grand Tours in cycle racing. To date, only four cyclists (two French, a Belgian, and an Italian) have ever won all the three Grand Tours across the duration of their career, and no cyclist has ever managed to win all three in a single calendar year. In addition to the national tours, a series of one-day races also began in the decades leading to World War I: The Paris–Roubaix (1896), the Tour of Flanders (1913), and the Liège–Bastogne–Liège (1892).
European cyclists have, until recent years, dominated the major cycling-tour events. In one-day events such as the Tour of Flanders, the winners' roll contains only European nationals, and even the Tour de France, a far more globally recognized sporting event, did not feature a non-European winner until 1989 (the American Greg Le Monde). American Lance Armstrong has dominated the race like no one else in history, and in 2005 won the Tour for a record-breaking seventh time.
The Tour de France lies at the heart of European cycling. The race around France, as conceived by the editor of L'Auto, Henri Desgrange (1865–1940), meant that the Tour, from its first running in 1903, captivated the public attention. Symbolically the Tour covers the various regions and landscapes of France and coincides with the start of the school holidays and the celebration of Bastille Day on 14 July. It is a race that manages to combine a national psyche with a sporting event. It has worked, especially in the era of television coverage, as a showcase for the French countryside and its tourist opportunities. Originally the Tour was based around teams that were sponsored by bicycle manufacturers, and the event helped sell the bicycle to an ever-wider audience. Food and drink manufacturers slowly replaced these sponsors, and in 1930 the decision was made to organize national teams. This experiment changed the nature of the Tour, and was abandoned temporarily due to the outbreak of hostilities in 1939. After the war the teams were once more organized around national identity, but these gave way to commercial concerns from the late 1950s.
The Tour has always been a legendary event and is globally known. It is now covered across the globe, and since the 1960s and the advent of television coverage its stars have become heroes beyond the confines of France. It was commonly argued in the 1990s that the Tour was third, as a mass sporting spectacle, behind only the Olympics and the football (soccer) World Cup, in terms of spectator numbers, global media reach, and sponsorship income. In 1998 this image was badly dented when a series of drug scandals dogged the Tour and leading riders and teams came under scrutiny. Many individual riders were banned and teams fined. It was presumed that the Tour would enter a crisis because of the drug issue, and that major sponsors and media outlets would desert the race. In many ways the opposite has proved to be true. While it is clear that the Tour has been badly tainted because of its links with various forms of doping, many supporters and commentators have accepted that the sheer physical efforts required to cycle around France and through two mountain ranges require superhuman, even unnatural, efforts. As a result the Tour remains the preeminent and most identifiable cycle race in the world.
At the organizational level, in the same manner as the origins of the main riders, cycling has also been dominated by Europeans. The strength of the European nations was evident as early as 1900 when the International Cycling Union (UCI) was founded in Paris. The founder members were Belgium, France, Italy, Switzerland, and the United States. Under the auspices of the UCI, the first Road World Championships were staged in 1927, Cyclo-Cross World Championships in 1950, and the inaugural Indoor Cycling World Championships in 1956. The growing commercial opportunities afforded to elite cyclists became evident in 1965, when the UCI reorganized so that it became the umbrella organization for the International Amateur Cycling Federation (FIAC: headquarters in Rome) and the International Professional Cycling Federation (FICP: headquarters in Luxembourg). In 1992 the FIAC/FICP distinction was removed, and the UCI as a single body moved its headquarters to Lausanne. All the eight presidents of the UCI since 1900 have been drawn from the cycling strongholds of Belgium, France, Italy, the Netherlands, Spain, and Switzerland. Despite the traditionally European focus of the UCI, it has embraced change in the world of cycling and has promoted a series of new initiatives, including, in 1993, the first BMX World Championships, and successfully lobbied for the inclusion of mountain biking (1996) and BMX racing (2008) in the Summer Olympic Games.
Bicycles have not only been used in a sporting setting. Since World War I they have been one of the most important and affordable means of transport. Under the advent of mass car ownership, which was dependent on the relative levels of industrialization, modernization, and wealth, the bicycle dominated until the time of World War II. Until that period, European companies including Phillips in Germany, Raleigh in Britain, and Bianchi in Italy dominated cycle manufacture. After 1945 the main focus for bicycle production shifted to the Far East, and countries such as China now dominate the market in total numbers of bicycles built. In the late 1990s, for example, China alone produced 30 million bicycles, compared to the European Union's total of 11.3 million. Within the European Union there is, however, only a limited appetite for imported bicycles from outside Europe. In 1998 Germany was the biggest recorded European manufacturer, producing 5.3 million bicycles, followed by British, French, and Italian companies. In the same year the whole European Union imported 4.4 million bicycles. Bicycle ownership in Europe remains highest in Italy, Germany, and the Netherlands with 26.5, 63, and 16.5 million bicycles in circulation.
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