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The modern bicycle is the result of many years of engineering
and development, an evolution that has taken place gradually,
step by step.
First of all there was the hobbyhorse - or dandy horse
as it was sometimes known. The original hobbyhorse made
its first appearance in France. It consisted of a rough
wooden bar supported on two wooden wheels, with a small
padded saddle. This awkward machine was propelled by the
rider striking the ground with his feet, rather like the
action of the runner. But there was no means of steering
the earliest hobbyhorse as the front wheel was fixed.
The first of the British hobbyhorses was propelled in
exactly the same way as the French machine, but the front
wheel could be swiveled by the handlebar. It was also
fitted with a stomach rest so the rider could lean forward
as he trudged along the road like a muppet. Brakes weren't
a feature of either of these 'bicycles'.
Then someone decided to fit pedals, but these were not
pedals as we know them today. These were fitted to cranks
on the front wheel of the hobbyhorse, but they didn't
prove to be of much use - so the lever driven-bike was
With the lever-driven bike the rider sat in the center
and pumped the pedals up and down with his feet. The pedals
were connected by levers to the back wheel and thus provided
the forward momentum. The lever-driven bike was quite
an improvement on the first hobbyhorse, but it was still
heavy, cumbersome and not very comfortable.
By 1860 more and more interest was being shown in the
development of new types of bicycle and one of the best
was the Velocipede - or 'Boneshaker'. It was propelled
with pedals on the 36-inch front wheel, and was fitted
with a back wheel brake, operated by a string tied to
the handlebars. The wooden wheels were wrapped with an
iron band to protect them, but as you can imagine this
meant that grip was almost nonexistent and neither was
any cushioning from the bumps.
Despite the failings of the boneshaker, three determined
cyclists rode from London to Brighton (about 50 miles)
in just one day on these primitive machines. It was a
monstrous task when you also consider how poor the roads
were back then - they were little more than rough tracks.
In the same year a boneshaker won the first ever bicycle
Over the next few decades all sorts of new bikes and developments
began to appear. One of these was the 3-wheeled Velocipede,
built by a London blacksmith. The rider sat on a forward
saddle to propel the odd machine with the front pedals,
while two passengers were carried on the rear seat - sitting
back to back. Only one 3-wheeled Velocipede was built,
and it wasn't comfortable.
The Penny Farthing was the next major development. It
was named after two British old-money coins, the penny
and the farthing, which were considerably different in
size - as were the wheels of this striking-looking bicycle.
The rider sat high up above the front wheel and pedal-propelled
it. This was also the first bike to be fitted with rubber
tires - although they were solid rubber.
With the arrival of the Penny Farthing bicycle racing
started to become more and more popular. In 1873 an English
cyclist set a world record when he rode at 14 and a quarter
miles in just one hour. Another cyclist rode and incredible
214 miles in 24 hours. Amazingly both these feats were
accomplished on a penny farthing. Using the same rickety
machine, even Lance Armstrong would probably struggle
to match those numbers.
To climb aboard a penny farthing the rider used a mounting
stool, while the bike was held still by someone else.
Even with a helping hand, getting a penny farthing up
to speed was a tricky business. And it was a long way
if when things started to go wrong.
Soon the popularity of the penny farthing started to fade
as the first of the chain-driven bicycles started to appear.
These soon got the name of 'safety bicycles'. Although
nowadays we'd just say they were bicycles as they're the
first machines to look more or less like the modern bike.
With the safety bicycle wheels became more uniform in
size, handlebars, sprung saddles and more effective brakes
were also introduced. Cranks were fitted between the two
wheels and connected to the rear wheels by means of a
chain. Even mudguards were fitted.
At first these machines were fitted with solid rubber
tires, then cushion tires, and then in 1888 the pneumatic
tire appeared. Soon speed and distance records were being
smashed right and left. In 1890 M. A. Holbein, one of
the real pioneers of cycle racing, covered 336 miles in
24 hours on a safety bicycle.
But even the safety cycle was not quite perfect. In a
100 mile race, several of the riders crashed out due to
breaking forks and springs. The leading rider's frame
actually snapped in the middle of the race. Fortunately
for him a nearby blacksmith was able to repair it in 15
minutes, and he managed to climb back up the rankings
to finish second.
All sorts of other bikes made their appearance from time
to time, including the "Kangaroo", which had
smaller wheels and a lengthened frame. Tandems were invented
too. On one of these the two cyclists rode side by side.
On another they each had a saddle over one wheel - rather
like two unicycles attached by a single frame.
Gears were invented, as were sprung forks, wire brakes,
lights, alloy frames, and racing bikes with slender tires.
Now the bicycle has become an engineering masterpiece
vastly different from the old hobby horse.
The most recent development in bicycles is the addition
of electric motors to provide some extra power on the
hills. Also composite carbon frames and even lighter alloys
have helped reduce the weight of the modern bicycles by
a significant amount.