The first bicycle was the Draisine, invented by German Baron Von Drais in 1817 although there is unproven speculation that students of Leonardo da Vinci conceptualised prototypes as far back as 1500 AD. Drais’ ‘velocepede’ bicycle was made of wood, brass and iron, and riders stood astride the contraption and propelled it with their feet on the ground, but it was able to cover 13km in less than an hour. Several thousands of the subsequent ‘hobby horses’ were produced and sold in Western Europe and the United States, but accidents threatened their appeal, and more stable three and four wheelers became popular instead.
In the 1830s, however, crank power was harnessed and, in 1842, the first bicycle-related offence was registered when a rider hit a pedestrian. In the 1860s, pedals were attached to the ‘bone shakers’ with the addition of solid rubber tyres and ball bearings. The 1870s saw the development of high wheeled bicycles, Penny Farthings, but they were difficult to mount and steer, and by the 1890s, were replaced by the ‘safety bicycle’, no longer a fad or a plaything for daring young men, but a form of everyday transport. Soon bicycles had chain drives, pneumatic tyres and the diamond frame known today, and with derailleurs and variable speeds – the democratisation of transport was underway.
But it wasn’t all a free ride. While bicycles were relatively affordable and offered a new kind of actual social mobility to women in particular, conservative social commentators warned against ‘bicycle face’ – “usually flushed, but sometimes pale, … with lips more or less drawn, … the beginnings of dark shadows under the eyes, and always an expression of weariness”. Bicycles for women could lead to “goiter, appendicitis and internal inflammation”. Even worse, it could lead to loosening of morals, as well as making women more confident in their physical and social abilities.
Bicycles have lasted the distance, however, and remain more popular today than ever especially with the specialisation of bikes for different purposes, including commuting, mountain biking, trick-displays, and with electric bikes and recreational cycle trails around the country, riding is for everyone. But riding can still be fraught – tell people you ride a bike on the open road and they warn you of the dangers from other road users. “It’s not safe, the road is too narrow, there’s no place on the road for cyclists.” On Facebook, cyclists get called road kill and told to ride only on cycleways, which are otherwise “always empty and never used”. We’re called bludgers for not paying petrol or road user taxes, even though most of us are tax and ratepayers and also own a car.
Bike riding helps reduce congestion, creates public health benefits wider afield, makes you look and feel good, stimulates the economy, burns fat – not oil doesn’t produce polluting emissions or noise and is an incredibly efficient form of transport.