The road bikes of today have come a long way from the pedal-free, all-wood draisines and velocipedes of the 1820s. For years only the elite used bikes, but as technology improved and mass production techniques began to take hold, bikes eventually became a widely used form of transportation all over the world. With this widespread use, all sorts of designs for new bikes began to find their way into the marketplace. This included pedal-powered bikes with solid-rubber tires set on various combinations of three wheels, four wheels, large wheels and small wheels.
In 1870 the first all-metal, high-wheel penny-farthing bicycle appeared on the scene. However, sitting four to five feet off the ground and hitting a rock in the road often presented some pretty obvious safety concerns.
In 1888, an Irishman named John Dunlop reinvented the pneumatic tire, making for a much smoother ride. This ultimately led to the death of the high wheel. With air-filled tires and a smaller wheel design, cycling became a practical, fast, safe and comfortable means of transportation for people all over the United States and Europe. Some even say bikes helped the emancipation of women by giving them a dependable means of self-reliant mobility. 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.”
In the early 1900s, biking remained highly popular in various countries throughout Europe. Between 1900 and 1910, however, bicycle use in the United States began to decline as the automobile became the preferred means of transportation. During this same time, bike racing in Europe began to increase in popularity and races such as the Tour de France—which began in 1904—became central to various European cultures. With the invention of the derailleur in France during the early 1900s, bike racing also became faster since single-speed bikes were less popular for racing purposes.
After the invention of the automobile in the United States, bikes were mostly used by children and they came in the form of heavy single-speed cruiser bikes that could be easily adorned with lights, bells and baskets. Bikes finally came back into the US mainstream in the 1960s—when the fitness benefits of cycling became apparent. At this point, many cyclists began to prefer the European-designed bikes because they featured dropped handlebars, derailleur-controlled gearing, narrow saddles and skinny racing tires. Throughout the 1970s and 1980s, the prevalence of biking drastically increased in the United States, leading to the continued popularity seen today.
With the advent of computer design technology in the twenty-first century, along with increased knowledge about aerodynamics, materials science and efficient manufacturing practices, bikes are getting lighter, stronger and, consequently, more expensive. Some advanced carbon fiber racing bikes today can cost over $15,000 and have the technology to match.
Nowadays you can find dozens of different bicycle designs to suit any type of rider. Whether it’s a racing bike, cruiser bike, mountain bike, recumbent bike, or hybrid, there is a bike out there for anyone who wants to get rolling on two wheels. No one knows what the future of cycling has to bring, but one thing is for certain: bikes are here to stay!