The bicycle, and its evolution, is an important part of history. Whether considering it as a sport, a business, a necessary means of transportation, as leverage in the fight for women’s equality and suffrage, as art, or as a hobby —the bicycle enjoys a special place in time.
Bicycling & the 19th Century
The origins of bicycling in America can be traced to innovative designs from both France and the United Kingdom. The earliest confirmation of a two-wheeled invention powered by a person is credited to German inventor Baron Karl Von Drais. First demonstrated in Paris in August 1817, the Draisienne, also known as the Laufmaschine or swiftwalker, consisted of a wooden beam sitting between two wooden wheels with a seat and steering apparatus.It was intended to be ridden on flat surfaces – gardens, in particular – and was not practical for riding on other surfaces. Riders propelled the Draisienne by pushing their feet against the ground and gliding along.People continued to tinker with the design and by 1865, a two-wheeled machine with pedals attached to the front wheel, debuted. The addition of a pedal crank meant that riders could achieve greater speeds. The device was known as the Velocipede and made entirely of wood. It was commonly called the boneshaker, because riding a wooden bike over cobblestone roads was extremely uncomfortable! The velocipede was mass-produced by the Parisian firm of Michaux and Company, run by father and son duo Pierre and Ernest Michaux. Like the Draisienne, the velocipede was a popular fad for the wealthy. Velodromes, with indoor cycling tracks, appeared in larger cities where riders gathered.When Pierre Lallement, who worked with the Michaux family, left Paris in July 1865 and traveled to the US; he took a bicycle with him. He secured a patent to make a bicycle in America about one year later, but was not successful in his efforts to market the device. (David V. Herlihy, Bicycle: The History, Yale University Press,2005, p.102) The Hanlon Brothers, a successful acrobatic troupe, applied for the second patent. Their venture was successful and they incorporated the velocipede into their act. By the late 1860s, the velocipede craze was sweeping down the East Coast and into the rest of the country. Some companies imported French models while others manufactured their own version of the velocipede. Races were held in Boston, Philadelphia, New York and San Francisco. Americans were becoming obsessed – so much so that American artist Winslow Homer painted the New Year arriving on a bicycle for 1869.Although the bicycle provided much amusement to the population, many people were beginning to realize that cycling offered other benefits. Yale College student Louis Rinaldo Ehrich wrote of his efforts to learn to ride the velocipede in the spring of 1869. He recorded taking long rides with different friends and enjoying the scenery. In May 1869, he wrote defensively, “Call it foolish, childish, what you will… I believe velocipede riding is a pleasant,invigorating exercise.” (Herlihy, 120)Women, too, saw the bicycle as a means of escape from the home. During this time, women’s clothing was very tight and restricting, but medical experts were already calling for women to spend time outdoors and exercise. The French magazine La Vie Parisienne predicted that women would alter their clothing style – even if it meant wearing shorter skirts – to allow them to ride bicycles. (Herlihy, 138)
The High Wheel Bicycle, which debuted in Britain in 1871, was the first human-powered, two-wheeled apparatus to be called a bicycle. The invention is attributed to English engineer James Starley and was made of metal with hard rubber tires. The pedals were attached directly to the front wheel, which was also the big wheel. “Solid rubber tires and the long spokes of the large front wheel provided a much smoother ride than its predecessor.The front wheels became larger and larger as makers realized that the larger the wheel, the farther you could travel with one rotation of the pedals.” (www.pedalinghistory.com/PHhistory.html) Designed for speed and not safety, riding the high wheel was not without risk. Any obstacle in the roadway – even something like a small stone – caused the entire vehicle to rotate “forward on its front axle,and the rider, with his legs trapped under the handlebars, was dropped unceremoniously on his head.” (www.pedalinghistory.com/PHhistory.html) Mounting and dismounting proved difficult, and somewhat dangerous, in the beginning. This led to the addition of a small step above the rear wheel, which helped with both efforts.
he 1876 Philadelphia Exposition featured displays of high wheel bicycles. These expositions, or world fairs, were famous for their exhibitions of the latest and greatest inventions from all over the world. The exhibit inspired American manufacturer Albert A. Pope to import bicycles from Britain and also to begin making bicycles at his own firm, Pope Manufacturing Company. In 1878, Pope introduced the Columbia high wheel bicycle with a 60” high front wheel and sold it for $125. (www.columbiamfginc.com/columbia_history.html) Pope was the leading producer of bicycles in America by 1896.While Pope made a fortune off the cycling industry, he was also one of its staunchest advocates. He helped launch the country’s first bicycle education, lobby and advocacy group, the Wheelmen of America. The group worked to lobby the federal government to improve roads and to work with local and state government to pass bicycle friendly laws. The organization still exists today.The early high wheels were marketed to young men from the middle and upper classes. High wheel bicycles,which eventually came to be known as Ordinarys, were extremely popular despite the initial expense. Harvard College formed its own bicycle club in 1879, and soon other American schools followed.Modifications were made to the high wheel design over time that improved the cycle’s performance and safety, resulting in the eventual development of the High Wheel Tricycle, the High Wheel Safety and the Pneumatic tired(air-filled) Safety. The High Wheel Safety featured a small front wheel, which helped reduce the problem of tipping forward when encountering objects or ruts in the road. However, it was the Pneumatic-Tired Safety bicycle that revolutionized the bicycle industry. In 1888, in the process of trying to give his son a more comfortable ride on his tricycle, Irish veterinarian John Boyd Dunlop created the first air-filled tubes wrapped around the frame of a bicycle wheel. One year later, Irish racing cyclist Willie Hume won four races using Dunlop tires. The pneumatic tire not only provided a smoother ride, it also allowed the bicycle to travel at greater speeds. This resulted in the end o fusing solid rubber bicycle tires.The first American made three-wheel appeared in 1883 and quickly became popular with women and older men. It was safer than the standard high wheel bicycles. Riders could enjoy the scenery and carry more belongings with them while traveling. The tricycle was much easier for women to ride,better accommodating the restrictive clothing that women wore during this time. The Sporting Journal of Chicago asked local ladies why they liked to ride the tricycle; several remarked they liked to ride for their health, while one lady enjoyed riding alone because it gave her “a certain feeling of independence.”(Herlihy, 228)
In 1885, John Kemp Starley, nephew of English engineer James Starley, invented the Rover Safety Bicycle. The Rover featured equal-sized wheels, a steerable front wheel,an adjustable seat and a chain and sprocket to power the rear wheel. Many referred to them as bicyclettes (little bicycles) because of their small frame. Although initially suspicious of anything but the high wheel bicycles, the British and then the Americans learned to love the new Rover style. By 1887, British-made Rover Safety bicycles were imported to New York. Within a year, American manufacturers began to turn out their own versions.
With the addition of pneumatic-filled tires, the bicyclette, which eventually came to be known as a bicycle, replaced the high wheel in popularity. Women, in particular,loved the new model. It was easier to ride and was more adventurous than the high wheel tricycle. Women’s bicycling clubs began forming in the US; the first women’s club was organized in Washington, DC in 1888. That same year, several of the DC ladies rode in the League of American Wheelmen parade in Baltimore—the first time women appeared on bicycles at the annual meet. (Herlihy, 244) Manufacturing companies worked to meet the demand, adding women’s models to their catalogs. Clothing designers worked to keep up with the demand for modest and appropriate ladies cycling attire, with combinations of jackets and shorter skirts or jackets and bloomers. The bicycle movement helped fuel the Women’s Rational Dress Reform, which advocated more practical, less constrictive and lighter-weight clothing for women. The freedom of mobility and independence was perhaps the bicycle’s best gift to women at this time.In 1896, American social reformer and suffragette Susan B. Anthony said: “Let me tell you what I think of bicycling. I think it has done more to emancipate women than anything else in the world. It gives women a feeling of freedom and self-reliance. I stand and rejoice every time I see a woman ride by on a wheel...the picture of free, untrammeled womanhood.” (Nellie Bly,“Champion Of Her Sex,” New York World, February 2, 1896)
The 1880s and 1890s were truly the heyday of the bicycle in America. As manufacturers increased their production, the price of bicycles dropped. Bicycles had become a standard form of transportation for many people in all walks of society. Bicycle stores, repair shops, clubs, and races were commonplace. An advertisement from C.G. &H.S. Townsley in the April 21, 1889, issue of the Arkansas Gazette, offered tricycles and velocipedes for sale.
Bicycling & the 20th Century
In the early 20th century, the bicycle trend changed. Cycling remained a common form of transportation as well as a sport and hobby in both Europe and the United Kingdom. In America, however, the automobile replaced the bicycle in popularity with American adults. Over the first part of the 20th century, US bicycle marketing changed considerably. A number of companies, like Sears Roebuck and Montgomery Ward, introduced children’s bicycle lines following World War I. By the onset of World War II, most American made bicycles were designed for children.The bicycle saw widespread military use during the 20th century. Bicycles were used in World War I by Australia, France, Germany, Italy and Great Britain. Japan utilized thousands of bicycle troops during the 1937 invasion of China. Many countries used bicycles for military use during World War II; these countries include, but are not limited to Finland, Germany, Great Britain, Poland, Sweden, the Soviet Union and the US. In fact, Albert Pope’s Columbia Bicycle Company made military bicycles for US armed forces during World War II.
1956, Little Rock became home to a plant that produced the iconic American bicycle known as the Roadmaster. The Roadmaster bicycle was first introduced in 1936 and was originally manufactured by the Cleveland Welding Company. It had balloon tires, a heavy frame and was built to withstand the riding of rigorous young boys.The company stopped production during World War II, but resumed bicycle manufacturing as soon as the war ended.American Machine & Foundry Company (AMF) purchased the Cleveland Welding Company in 1953, and three years later, moved their bicycle manufacturing plant to a brand new facility in Little Rock to avoid dealing with the labor unions. The plant planned to make 3,000 bicycles every 24 hours once operational. The plant manufactured the majority of the frame and wheel components on site. (American Bicyclist and Motor Cyclist, June 1956) The AMF Plantoperated in Little Rock until the company moved plant operations to Olney, Illinois.The quality of the Roadmaster line gradually deteriorated following the company’s move to Olney. They neverrecovered. AMF Roadmaster track bicycles were featured in the 1979 American film, Breaking Away, but the product placement did not help. Even in the film, the lead character chose another bicycle (an Italian-made Masi) as his favorite to win the Little 500 Bicycle Race.
The 1950s saw American demand rise for lighter-weight bicycles. US manufacturing companies made bicycles like the popular lightweight British and European models. In the next decade, Americans again demanded European bicycles—the 10-speed model with derailleur gears. (Herlihy, 363) American bicycle company Schwinn introduced its popular Sting-Ray model in 1963; the bike was a hit with kids, featuring high handlebars and a low banana seat.
During the 1970s, the bicycle industry saw its biggest boom in the US in nearly 100 years. Americans bought 40 million bicycles (both adult and child models) from 1972 to 1974. By the late 1970s, American bicycle companies were looking to develop lighter-weight frames. Bike frames made of titanium and aluminum appeared in the 1980s, while bikes with carbon-fiber frames debuted in the early 1990s.The bicycle boom of the 1970s also revived interest in the awareness of bicycle safety, road safety and a need for improved and new cycling paths.
Bicycling & the 21st Century
Americans have embraced bicycling as a sport and a hobby. It is a lifestyle choice and a component of the modern-day green movement to save the planet by reducing the use of fossil fuels. Advocacy groups have had a major impact on bicycling as well, raising awareness about the sport in general and connecting it to recreational,safety and conservation issues. Increasingly, bicycles are being used in law enforcement. They are fast; they providegood visibility; and they allow access to spots inaccessible with cars. The Little Rock Police Department has used bicycles since the early 1990s. Cycling clubs, sponsoring numerous events like tours, races and theme rides, are popular with cyclists of all ages today.
Bicycling as Sport
As bicycles evolved, so have the types of related activities and hobbies. Bicycle racing has been around almost since the beginning of the craft. Newspapers avidly covered the events, posting information about the riders and their results, ultimately drawing large crowds to the races. The first recorded bicycle race took place on May 31,1868 at the Parc de Saint-Cloud in Paris. Bicycle racing quickly grew in popularity. In 1869, the very first Paris-to-Rouen road race was held; it took Englishman James Moore 10.5 hours to complete the 80-mile race. More than 100 velocipedists entered the race, but only one-third finished.Bicycle racing encouraged innovation and improvements to the velocipedes, as makers and riders shifted from wooden wheels to rubber wheels, and eventually to an “all-metal wheel built with tensioned spokes” during the 1870 racing season. (Herlihy, 141)Cycling was included in the 1896 Summer Olympics (the first modern Olympic Games) in Athens, Greece. Six cycling events took place at those first games, including one road race and the newly popular track cycling. Road cycling continues to be a part of the Summer Olympic Games to this day. The women’s road race was added at the1984 Los Angeles games, while the women’s track sprint was added at the 1988 games in Seoul.The very first Tour de France was held in 1903; the organizer, Henri Desgrange, hoped the race would encourage circulation of his newspaper, L’Auto. Individual riders (not teams) traveled over a six-stage, 1,500 mile unpaved course, without helmets. More than one hundred years later, the Tour de France is going strong. The first non-European to win the Tour de France was American Greg LeMond, who went on to win three Tour titles. A number of documentaries and movies have been made about the Tour de France, including Sylvain Chomet’s critically acclaimed The Triplets of Belleville (2003), where a Tour competitor is kidnapped and must be rescued by his grandmother.
Road cycling in Arkansas has been popular for many decades – whether riders are enjoying the state’s beautiful scenery, are participating in a non-competitive bike tour, or are competing in a road race. Many riders visit to participate in one of the state’s numerous non-competitive bike tours, like the Big Dam Bridge 100 or The Eurekan 20/58/100.Over the years, Arkansas has had a number of bicycle clubs and race teams. Some of the teams dating to the 1970s include the Arkansas Bicycle Club, the Arkansas Velo Company (now CARVE), The Burger Barn, the Fayetteville Wheelman, Boston Mountain Cycling and the Dickson Street Cycling Club. The state has a Major Taylor Bicycle Club, named after the first African American bicycle racer in the US. Arkansas now hosts more than 30 competitive road races annually, like the Joe Martin Stage Race, originally known as the Fayetteville Spring Classic. Martin was instrumental in bringing modern racing to Arkansas with the opening of a Fayetteville-based bike shop in the late 1970s. The race, renamed in his honor following his death, is part of the USA Cycling National Race Calendar for amateur and elite riders.Other famous racing cyclists from Arkansas include Brice Jones, who raced for the Health Net and Jelly Belly Pro Cycling teams; Buster Brown, owner of a Fort Smith bicycle shop and winner of two Master’s Nationals Championships; and Scott Warren with Orbea in Little Rock, who served as one of Lance Armstrong’s early triathlon coaches and founded the state’s first custom bike company Javelin in 1994.Mountain biking is the sport of riding a bicycle off road and over rough terrain. The origins of this sport date to the late 19th century. In the 1890s, the US Army decided to test a military grade bicycle for use with their troops.Two rigorous cross-country expeditions occurred, led by the 25th Infantry Bicycle Corp, and made up of eight African American enlisted men. The specialty bicycles used were made by the A.G. Spalding Company and “were furnished with steel rims, tandem spokes, extra-heavy side-forks and crowns, gear cases, luggage carriers, frame cases, brakes,and Christy saddles. They were geared to 68 inches and weighed 32 pounds. The average weight of the bicycles,packed, was about 59 pounds.” (www.fortmissoulamuseum.org/blackbicyclecorps.php) The 25th Infantry took their first trip in 1896, riding from Fort Missoula (Montana) to Yellowstone National Park and back. Their second trip was a 41-day, 1,900 mile journey from Fort Missoula to St. Louis, Missouri, in mid-1897.Several important developments in mountain biking history took place in the early 1950s. In France, a group of riders in The Velo Cross Club Parisien (VCCP) modified their bikes for off-road racing. An English group, known as the Rough Stuff Fellowship, was created to pursue off-road riding. In 1953, American John Finely created the “Woodsie Bike,” using a Schwinn Diamond frame, balloon tires, flat handle bars, derailleur gears and cantilever brakes. The tire style, flat handle bars, derailleur gears and cantilever brakes are still used on contemporary mountain bikes. In the early 1970s, the Cupertino Riders raced heavy duty bikes in Southern California. American bicycle designer Joe Breeze created the first actual mountain bike, known as Breezer #1, in 1977.Today, mountain bikes are made from aluminum, steel, titanium and even carbon fiber. They typically feature fat tires, strong wheels, heavy duty brakes, suspension in one or both wheels and gears to handle shifting on rough,steep terrain.Mountain bike racing is a staple at the Summer X Games. It became an official Olympic sport at the 1996 Summer games in Atlanta. Official mountain bike races began taking place in the 1980s.
Arkansas State Parks decided to embrace the sport and the riders by hosting their first annual mountain bike race in 1989 at Devil’s Den State Park (Winslow.) That race is now part of the Arkansas Mountain Bike Championship Series. The state boasts an extensive mountain bike trail system in state parks, local parks, national forests, and recreation areas.
Bicycle Motocross, or BMX, is a sport that began in the early 1970s in southern California with its roots in motorcycle racing.On Any Sunday is a 1971 documentary about motorcycle racing,featuring video of young kids racing modified Schwinn Stingray Bicycles on dirt trails. The movie helped increased awareness of BMX and following this, manufacturers began to design bikes specifically for BMX racing. These bikes are typically made of steel or aluminum, can travel atgreat speeds, and can easily navigate the dirt tracks. Arkansas’s very first BMX track was built in the late 1970s; today, there are at least three public tracks in the state, located in Central and Northwest Arkansas. BMX racing has grown so popular over the years that it quickly became a staple at the Summer X Games and premiered at the Olympic Summer Games in 2008.