A brief history of cycling

Turn the clock back more than two centuries and you’re getting close to the advent of the bicycle. It is possible that a Frenchman developed a wooden prototype bicycle as early as 1790, although it is generally accepted that the bicycle was the invention of Baron von Drais, from neighbouring Germany.

The first fifty years of cycling – some key dates

  • 1816 – The Draisine is born, the first bicycle to benefit from steering
  • 1839 – Scotsman Kirkpatrick MacMillan creates a bicycle allowing propulsion that is no longer a matter of pushing off with ones feet! It works a little like a pedalo.
  • 1861 – Frenchmen Ernest and Pierre Michaux create the first crank-and-pedal bicycle.
  • 1870 – Starley invents the Penny Farthing – the first bicycle to use gears.
  • 1874 – Designer James Starley invents the spoked bicycle wheel.
  • 1879 – The first chain-driven bicycle is invented.

Other significant moments include the manufacture of the first pneumatic inner-tube, developed by an Irishman named Dunlop, and perfected by the Michelin brothers in the late 19th century. The use of air-filled tyres reduced the weight of the bicycle and made it easier to reach higher speeds. Whereas the bicycle initially served utilitarian purposes only, both as a means of transport and a labour saving device, the craze for bicycle racing soon spread, and cycling as a sport was born.

Initially the sport of cycling was an extension of acrobatics. The skill of balancing and actually propelling oneself on this new contraption was enough to wow the crowds. As technology progressed, so did the sport and racing became the most popular event. Clubs for cyclists and those involved in bicycle manufacture were formed and the first organised races took place. Although road and track racing are almost as old as the bicycle itself, newer disciplines such as mountain biking and BMX are more recent developments. These sports emerged largely as a result of technological innovation and the influence of other, more modern sports such as motocross, skateboarding and surfing. Today, over a billion bicycles worldwide have been produced with a plethora of designs concocted to cater to the needs of different cyclists. See the section on different cycling disciplines to learn how bike morphology and technology varies between them and has influenced the development of the sport.

History of Road Cycling

Records suggest that the first road race took place in May 1868. The event was held in France, but was in fact won by an Englishman named Moore. This was a race of 1.2km and most early road races were held over similarly short distances.

There was a tendency for early road cycling to take place in and around cities. The urban emphasis was largely due to the nature of the cycle industry. Races were seen as an opportunity to showcase new bicycle technology – a practice which still continues today – and proximity to the buying public was thus essential. Road cycling was as much about promotion and showmanship as sporting competition in the 1860s.

Class issues were an early feature of road cycling, with expensive machines and rules excluding bicycle mechanics from amateur competition and effectively ruling out participation by the working classes. Point-to-point open road rides tended to be upper class affairs.

However, by the 1890s, point-to-point rides were very popular with the general public, and a growing body of competitive, amateur road cyclists provided plenty of opportunities for marketeers to set up some early brand endorsements of particular bicycles and tyres. Large crowds and publicity in the media had turned road cycling into something of a national obsession in England at the turn of the century.

History of BMX

The 1960s saw the increasing popularity of motocross, and spurred the creation of a non-motorized version of the sport. This is how BMX came about, with youngsters seeking the excitement and energy of motocross, but restricted both by the cost of the equipment and age limitations on driving. The sport became immediately and enduringly popular in California and, by the early 1970s, BMX had become sufficiently mainstream for a US governing body to be founded. By 1978, BMX had spread to Europe and, in 1980, the first BMX track in the UK was opened in Redditch.

The International BMX Federation was founded in 1981, with the first World Championships held the following year. Having begun as an informal sport sitting somewhere between motocross and cycling, BMX gradually became more formalised and was fully integrated into the International Cycling Union (UCI) in 1993. By 2007, there were 75 national BMX federations with UCI recognition.

BMX freestyle, meanwhile, developed as an independent branch during the 1970’s. Drawing on skateboarding, riders on 20-inch bicycles began to develop tricks and stunts in convenient empty spaces – swimming pools, empty reservoirs, storage pits and the like. Such experimentation began in the mid-70’s, particularly in the southern Californian cities of San Diego and Santa Monica. The terrain was a water-free substitute for the waves encountered by surfers at sea, but the principle of carving a wave remained. The precise beginnings of each aspect of BMX are hard to pin down, with major milestones occurring in the late 1970s. The first bicycle aerial out of a ‘vert bowl’, in which the rider and bike become airborne above the level of the riding bowl, happened in 1977, and flatland freestyle tricks emerged at a similar time. The first freestyle show was staged in 1980 by the Bicycle Motocross Action Trick Team.

History of Mountain Biking

Mountain Biking

Mountain Biking

Though it began as a minority sport in the southern US as late as the 1970s, Mountain Biking is nowadays a major sport on the world scene. The concept of riding bicycles off-road was not exactly novel (bicycles have been ridden on all kinds of terrain since their invention), but the development in the 1970s of a new type of bike which performed optimally on rough terrain spawned mountain biking as a sport in its own right. Rapid-shift gears, drum brakes and the late development of suspension helped push the boundaries of the sport. In 1977, the first company specialising in mountain bikes was formed and, by 1982, mass-produced MTBs were available worldwide.

As the sport developed, two distinct disciplines emerged – cross country and downhill. In 1983, a governing body was established to oversee both forms of MTB racing – the National Off-Road Bicycle Association (NORBA). Seven years later, in 1990, the International Mountain Bicycling Association held the first world championships.

History of Cyclo-Cross

Cyclo-Cross is particularly popular in the autumn and winter months, a fact explained by one of the most widely accepted accounts of its foundation. In the early 20th century, Daniel Gousseau, a young private in the French army (who went on to become head of the French Cycling Union) would accompany his superior on horse rides. Gousseau rode a bicycle rather than a horse, and his enthusiasm for the outings was such that he soon persuaded a large number of acquaintances to accompany him. The country rides, which cut through farmland and over fences, walls and ditches, became competitive and races were soon organised, culminating in the first French National Championship in 1902.

Road cyclists came to see Cyclo-Cross as a means of keeping fit in the off-season, and saw the merits of a discipline which helped improve on-road handling as well as building stamina. The sport really took off from 1910, when the winner of the Tour de France recommended Cyclo-Cross as a training regime.

History of Track Cycling

Track Cycling

Track Cycling

Track Cycling has been around for a long time. Included as an event in the inaugural modern Olympic Games of 1896, track cycling has understandably undergone some change in 110 years. As early as 1870, track races attracted crowds of 2000 people. The main early centres for track racing were Birmingham, Sheffield, Liverpool, Manchester and London.

From the 1870s, when cycling was very much in its infancy, wooden indoor tracks were laid which resemble those of modern velodromes, consisting of two straights and slightly banked turns. The appeal of indoor track racing was that spectators could be more easily controlled than at outdoor events, and hence an entrance fee could be charged, making track racing a lucrative sport for the organiser. Indoor tracks also enabled year-round cycling, with winter often making it unsuitable for outdoor racing.

The most noticeable changes in a century of track cycling have concerned the bicycles themselves, engineered to be lighter and more aerodynamic to allow track cyclists to achieve ever-faster times.

History of Cycle Speedway

Motorcycle speedway was introduced in the 1920s, and involved racing around a flat oval track. This was the blueprint for cycle speedway, which emerged a couple of decades later, with 1945 widely accepted as the official birth year of the sport. The large open areas created by the destruction of the Second World War, especially post-Blitz London, proved ideal as rough-and-ready Speedway circuits. Within a year of its emergence, Speedway was popular throughout the UK, and most large towns and cities had a flourishing Speedway scene, with clubs and leagues springing up nationwide.

Speedway cyclists, like motorcyclists, rode machines without brakes or gears, but the concept of sliding bicycles through the turns was not transferred from the motorised version of the sport. In essence, Cycle Speedway has changed little since the 1940s, but there have been major advances in bicycle technology which have made the sport more competitive.

The impact of technological innovation

The bicycle may have remained in essence unchanged for well over a century – a two-wheeled mechanism with pedals, gears and brakes – but today’s elite bikes are a world away from the velocipedes of the 19th century. Cycling is definitely a sport in which technology matters. Here are just three of the the innovations that have, quite literally, revolutionised the sport.

The first full-suspension bicycle was created by Paul Turner in 1987 in the USA. Designers drew on motorcycle technology to develop suspension for bicycles. It was seen as a means of reducing vibration and the potential for injury when travelling on uneven terrain. Front suspension cuts down on the jarring of hands and arms when the rider bounces over an obstacle, greatly improving comfort and control. In the early 1990’s full suspension bicycles appeared on the market. These were more manoeuvrable and responsive, and allowed mountain bikers to push the limits of the sport without such a high risk of injury.

Originally used in the aerospace industry, carbon-fibre was introduced to cycling by the manufacturer Trek. Incredibly stiff and strong but yet also light, the material is ideal for cycling disciplines which require speed. In 2004, Trek produced a carbon fibre bicycle engineered with the aid of processes used in space technology. The strength-to-weight ratio of this bike, which weighed only 950g, was at least partly responsible for Lance Armstrong’s victory in the Tour de France held that year.

Aerodynamic design
Aerodynamism in cycling? Unlikely though it sounds, huge advances in the field of aerodynamic optimisation in the 1990s correlated directly with an increase in the performance of track cyclists. In the mid-80s, an Italian rider had covered the spokes on his bicycle to create the first disc wheel, a concept which is today a standard design element of track bicycles. A monocoque frame design emerged in the 1990s which abandoned the familiar triangular tubing of a normal racing bike, instead creating a frame from a single piece of carbon-fibre, linking the head and seat tubes. The one hour track record was broken three times in the space of two years using monocoque bikes, and the International Cycling Union stepped in to outlaw the use of monocoque bicycles for this event, concerned that technology, and the aerodynamics of new generation bicycles in particular, was having too strong an influence on the sport.