A Brief Whizz Through the History of the Bike

By Chris Mills on at

What with the Olympics getting dangerously close, and the Brits having the best Tour de France ever, it's only fitting that we take a quick peek at how these super-lightweight racing machines have developed over the years.

 

The Early Years: Big Wheels and Top Hats

 

The bicycle was a long time in the making, and before the first thing you'd recognise as a bike today, there were a lot of wacky ideas. There had been things that vaguely resembled bikes floating 'round since the late 18th century, but the bike as we know it -- pedals, drivetrain, rubber tyre, seat -- first came into being with the Rover Safety Bicycle in 1885. Invented by J.K. Starley, it was a big leap forward from the penny farthings that preceded it. With rubber tyres, the ride was actually half-decent and no-one’s spines got snapped, and so the first golden age of bicycles was born.

Racing was a big feature of bikes from the get-go – the first bike race was, ironically (given our long history of failing in the Tour de France), won by Englishman James Moore in Paris in 1868, on a wooden bike with iron rims (which is on display in Ely Museum, incidentally). Bike racing was big and popular enough by the end of the century that it was included in the fledgling Olympic Games in 1896.

At the turn of the century, then, bicycles were a big part of life. The races attracted huge crowds – Madison Square Garden, even today one of the biggest stadiums in New York City, was originally built for bike racing. And bikes weren’t just attracting the masses: bike design was one of the fastest-innovating sectors in the 20th Century. Consider that in 1905 there were two buildings housing the US Patent Office – one for every type of product you can think of, and the other just for bikes. That maybe puts Apple’s patent wars into perspective.

 

The Golden Age: Vive La France!

 

Despite all the popularity and the great minds working on it though, the fundamental design of the Rover Safety didn’t change much for the next fifty years. The weight stayed the same – around ten kilos for the top-end racers – and the material used to build the frames stayed as trusty old steel. The core of the racing was, and remains in, Central Europe – France, Spain, Italy and Belgium to be specific, and that’s where most of the new inventions came from. The only really significant invention between 1900 and 1960 came from France, and that’s the derailleur, which allows riders to shift between 20 different gears while they’re riding, something anyone who’s ridden a bike up a hill should be immensely grateful for.

 

BMX: The Kids Strike Back

 

In 1970, bike racing had its first real fragmentation. (See, Android? You’re not alone.) The documentary On Any Sunday was released in the US, and the opening credits show kids on brutal Sting-Ray bikes racing furiously round a dirt-track course, trying to be just a little bit like their motorcross heroes. (The link’s worth looking at, if only for the adorably cute/hilarious imitation motorbike noises all the kids are making.) This led pretty damn quick to BMX racing kicking off in the US. It uses very small bikes with itty-bitty little 20-inch wheels, and started as a purely children’s sport, before developing into the modern sport that features at the Olympics.

 

Mountain Biking: California Dreamin'

 

Until the 1970s, mountain biking didn’t really exist. It was the actions of a group of crazy-ass Californians hurtling down scary mountain paths that really drove the evolution of mountain biking. They met up on weekends to do races called Repacks (because during the seat-of-the-pants descents, the grease in the coaster brakes would burn off and they’d have to repack it with grease), with broken bones and totalled bikes normally the result. This core of bikers went on to build the first custom mountain biking frames, which then drove the big manufacturers to build mountain bikes. They became wildly successful in the '90s, outselling road bikes by 2000. Mountain bikes have grown further and further away from the road bike tree, with things like disc brakes and suspension forks becoming common.

 

Road Biking Goes Aero: Carbon Fibre and Why We Wear Lycra

 

Meanwhile, road bikes were undergoing a revolution courtesy of the Japanese and Americans. Driven by a constant desire to make lighter machines, titanium and carbon fibre started to pop up in frame materials, leading to the first all-carbon bike in 1975. Around the same time, Formula 1 technology began to have an impact in a massive way: aerodynamics. In the 1989 Tour de France, an American, Greg Le Monde, went into the final time trial 50 seconds down on his rival. A time trial is a pure race against the clock – no team of riders, no tactics to speak of, just the rider and the bike. Le Monde made the controversial decision to ride on a pair of “aero-bars” – long handlebars that change the position of the rider on the bike, making him more aerodynamic. He won the time trial by 58 seconds, and won the overall Tour by just 8 seconds – that’s a race that’s run over 23 days and 3500km being won by the tiniest of margins. This victory, by an American of all people, showed the biking world that there might be something to this aerodynamics lark after all. After that, aerodynamics really exploded, with things like teardrop-shaped “aero helmets” becoming common. Aero wasn’t just a high-tech computer thing though: Graham Obree was a slightly wacky Scot who followed in the British tradition of designing something in a shed; he built a radical track bike he used to break the world hour record (how far you can cycle on a track in an hour). It’s kinda cool, and true British underdog style, to beat the big bad names of cycling with a bike built in a shed from old washing machine parts. For the last 20 years, though, racing bikes have been dominated by sleek carbon-fibre machines, built by a handful of big brands with huge R&D budgets.

 

Now and the Future: Electric Gears and Flying Bikes

 

So, where does that leave us with bikes today? In the past few years, bike technology has been advancing pretty damn quick. Carbon fibre’s taken over, with everything from helmets and shoes down to brake levers being made from the stuff. Aerodynamics features in pretty much every high-end road bike today, with the frames themselves being designed to cut through the air as efficiently as possible. Despite all the aero stuff, though, modern road bikes weigh next to nothing (they have to be a minimum of 6.8kg for all the major road races). Track bikes have become even more specialised, with solid wheels and super hi-tech computer-designed frames. Where’s it going next? Electronic shifting is the next big thing, already here on high-end bikes and slowly trickling its way down to us, the poor consumer. Of course, with all the awesome new materials floating 'round the place, bikes will keep getting lighter (cycling’s version of Moore’s Law). But I reckon they’re also going to get more lust-worthy. Bikes had a humble beginning as a means of transport; but now they’re getting to be something that you really want. The McLaren Venge, for example, sounds like a car (and a pretty damn badass one at that). It’s actually a hardcore racing bike, stupidly expenisve, but also fast and with a paint job to die for – cycling’s answer to the supercar. So when you’re watching Chris Hoy or Mark Cavendish crossing the line to victory in a few weeks (I hope), spare a bit of thought for the bikes they’re racing on – they’ve been evolving for well over a century, but they’re still evolving, and the amount of technology crammed into those frames and wheels is just incredible. Shame that only people with a cool £6,000 to burn can buy them, really.

Header image credit: Specialized.; first image credit: The Racing Bicycle; second image credit: About.com; third image credit: dcJohn from Flickr; fourth image credit: Bikeradar; fifth image credit: Race-Pace; sixth image credit: De Rosa