According to historical records, the origin of cycling has its roots in the gardens of the Palais Royal in Paris, France. In 1791, the Comte de Sivrac was spotted riding a rigid two-wheeled contraption called a celerifere. Although entirely dysfunctional and impossible to steer—to change direction, the rider had to physically redirect the front wheel with a drag, lift or jump—the novelty of this new invention sparked interest among the public. By 1793, sporting clubs all over Paris began organizing frequent races along the famed Champs Élysées.
The Evolution of the Bicycle
As with any popular invention, the celerifere went through many iterations before resembling today’s geared and chained bicycle.
- The Draisienne
Invented by the German Baron von Drais, the draisienne entered the Paris cycling scene about two decades after the introduction of the celerifere. This new creation included a steerable front wheel, padded saddle and armrest to help the rider exert a stronger force on the ground. Early cyclists straddled the seat and walked or ran to propel themselves forward, much like today’s balance bikes for young children.
Backroads Pro Tip
After being patented in Paris in 1818, the draisienne took on the name “velocipede.” It kept this name until “bicycle” came into use in 1869.
- The Boneshaker
In 1863, out of the workshop of Pierre Michaux in Paris, pedals and cranks were added to the velocipede’s front wheel. This version of the machine quickly earned the nickname “boneshaker,” due to the notorious shake riders felt while cruising. This was an effect of the impact of the bike’s wooden frame and metal-rimmed wheels on then-ubiquitous cobblestoned streets.
- The Penny-Farthing
Further solving the issues of the previous model, the penny-farthing was developed to address the uncomfortable shake and to improve speed. Essentially the first high-wheeled bicycle, the penny-farthing featured a large front wheel that allowed riders to cover more distance with a single tire rotation. This new model also featured solid rubber tires, a hollow steel frame, spokes and ball bearings.
The True Origin of Cycling, As We Know It Today
Over the course of the 19th century, the addition of steering, pedals, speed, rubber tires and metal frames improved upon the original celerifere design. However, with the invention of the Rover in 1885, by John Kemp Starley, cycling as a pastime, sport and mode of transportation really came to rise.
- The Rover, or Safety Bicycle
The Rover offered riders of the day both safety and speed. By combining and building upon the cycling innovations of the 19th century, Starley created one truly functional machine. In fact, basic bicycle construction has changed very little since.
The biggest improvement the Rover brought to cycling was the addition of the chain and gear. This introduced chain-powered pedaling (built-in leverage for the rider) and eliminated the need for an oversize and unstable front wheel. The result was a bike that closely resembled one you would ride today—right down to the pneumatic inflatable tires of equal size, frame-attached pedals and double-diamond frame.
Many design changes (and centuries) later, the popularity of sport cycling is at an all-time high. Many people agree: there’s no better way to see the world than on two wheels. A Backroads bike tour offers custom-designed high-performance titanium roads bikes, state-of-the-art touring bikes and electric-assist bikes for those who want an extra boost. It’s amazing to think how far humankind has come…and how many places are now accessible on two wheels!