July – November 2004
Often considered the perfect union of man and machine, the bicycle is a classic example of the age-old fascination with human-powered machines.
The story of the bicycle began in late 18th century Europe with the addition of wheels to the traditional hobby horse. Made entirely of wood without pedals, this crude device had short-lived popularity. However, over the next few decades improvements in design led to the development of the velocipede, also called the “boneshaker”. Though it was uncomfortable to ride, this vehicle became wildly popular and soon spread to North America. The era of “velocipedomania” had begun.
The “ordinary” or high-wheeler was developed in England in 1871. This machine was the first to be called a bicycle. Although popular with young men of means, riding this bicycle could be hazardous. Riders precariously perched high above the center of gravity found that maintaining control was difficult on the typically rough, unpaved roads. The phrase, “taking a header”, described the frequent tumbles caused by stones, ruts and other obstacles in the road.
Although not a bicycle for the masses, the ordinary’s technical advancements and the later invention of the pneumatic tire contributed to the development of the “safety” bicycle. Reflecting a growing understanding of cycling dynamics, the safety eventually evolved into the modern bicycle.
Today the bicycle is important not only for its recreational uses but also for its utility. In many parts of the world the bicycle is an essential means of transport, and its use has a significant economic impact.
Youngsters can learn the art of cycling in bicycle rodeos and families can enjoy the cycling experience together. Such “sociable” cycling both soothes the human spirit and contributes to physical health.
Bicycle racing is an important professional sport. From regional racing events, such as the Iowa City Criterium, to the top-level international Tour de France and Giro d’Italia, bicycle racing captivates millions. Emphasizing camaraderie and sight-seeing rather than competition, long-distance rides such as Iowa’s own RAGBRAI* appeal to seasoned cyclists and have steadily grown in popularity.
The bicycle is a celebration of human ingenuity and physicality. It offers the opportunity to travel with moderate speed and grace, while at the same time allowing the rider to enjoy the passing landscape. Because it runs solely on human energy, the ecologically-friendly bicycle is often considered humanity’s best means of mobility. If the wheel is our greatest invention, the bicycle may be the most pleasing application of that invention.
*[The Des Moines] Register’s Annual Great Bike Ride Across Iowa
Prepared by Dean Koster, Brenda Conry, Duncan Stewart and Selina Lin, with assistance from Kristin Baum and Kathy Wachel.