Two Wheels Good

Graham Robb

  • Bicycle: The History by David Herlihy
    Yale, 480 pp, £15.99, August 2006, ISBN 0 300 12047 8

In September 1814, the European powers were meeting at Vienna to carve up the continent after the fall of Napoleon. The delegation from the Grand Duchy of Baden was hoping to consolidate the territorial gains it had made under the French empire and to prove itself worthy of a major role in the new Europe. Duchy officials were alarmed, therefore, when they heard that Baron Karl von Drais, a publicity-seeking eccentric who was employed by the Duchy as a forest master, intended to use the Congress as a showcase for his horseless carriage. He was warned that if he paraded his hare-brained contraption he would ‘greatly risk compromising the honour of the delegation’. Drais ignored this letter and displayed his leg-driven, four-wheeled carriage to an indifferent audience.

Three years later, the baron launched another human-powered vehicle, the Laufmaschine (‘running machine’). It had only two wheels. The rider sat astride a wooden perch and propelled himself by running along the ground. This was the machine that came to be known as the draisine, the velocipede or, in a slightly different form, the hobby-horse. It could travel at 12 mph on a good surface. A velocipede craze spread to France, Britain and a few American cities, but fizzled out after two years because the contraption was seen as a rich man’s toy and a danger to pedestrians.

The invention of the draisine was followed by half a century of apparently futile attempts to make a human-powered vehicle that would move faster than a pedestrian without injuring or exhausting the rider. There were lever-driven tricycles, wheelchairs for energetic invalids and ‘small coaches for children’s gratification’. Most of these vehicles made short journeys to the scrap-heap and the museum.

The Trivector was a gigantic rowing-machine on wheels propelled by three men and six hand cranks. The Rantoone required the simultaneous use of all four limbs. A frightening French tricycle replaced limb-power with a pre-wound spring. The operator of the Velocimano tricycle sat behind a wooden horse, pushing and pulling two levers, which turned the rear axle and, for no obvious mechanical reason, flapped a pair of wings.

Eighty-two years later, two bicycle mechanics in Dayton, Ohio – Wilbur and Orville Wright – attached a wing to a bicycle, raced it through a wind tunnel, measuring the lift and drag, and proved that a mechanical Pegasus was not fundamentally implausible. However, it would take a very optimistic view of human endeavour to see the Velocimano as a forerunner of the aeroplane. According to David Herlihy, ‘the bicycle as we know it was largely a product of the Victorian imagination and the tremendous ingenuity that characterised that age.’ Yet Baron Drais himself showed that ingenuity was not always a blessing. In 1837, the Baron appeared in the streets of Mannheim with a revolutionary carriage in which the passengers sat in front looking forwards, while the driver looked back at the four horses and steered with the help of a rear-view mirror. The advantages of putting the cart before the horse were obvious, at least to Baron Drais: the driver could not overhear the passengers nor incommode them with his smoke, and the passengers, unlike the driver, enjoyed a clear view of the road ahead.

Is it really a testament to ingenuity that it took so long to notice the seemingly obvious fact that legs are more powerful than arms when performing a rotational movement? Even after the invention of the pedal-driven two-wheeler in the mid-1860s, and the discovery that it was better not to pedal and steer the same wheel, the velocipede family was prone to odd regressions. Velocipede manufacturers, like bicycle manufacturers today, had a tendency to reinvent rather than refine. The Crypto-Bantam introduced a gear hub, but it also reintroduced the inefficient front-wheel drive. Thomas Pickering lightened his American Velocipede in 1868 by replacing solid iron bars with hollow tubing, but he also added a new kind of brake. It was operated by pushing down on the saddle, using the handlebars for leverage. This must have seemed straightforward until a rider tried to exert consistent vertical pressure with his bottom while bouncing down a hill.

Herlihy gives a good sense of the bicycle’s messy development by assembling his history from hundreds of British and American popular and scientific journals. This is not a heroic tale of lone visionaries making giant leaps but a comedy of obscure individuals flailing about in sheds until two pieces fit together more or less by chance. It turns out that Pierre Michaux, who made iron parts for carriages in a workshop near the Champs-Elysées, and whose velocipedes ‘with pedals and a brake’ appeared in Paris in 1867, was not the inventor of the bicycle. He was the manufacturing partner of two brothers from Lyon, Aimé and René Olivier. René later claimed that the idea of a pedal-driven two-wheeler came from an unknown workman. At about the same time, a bicycle was developed by a maker of prams and tricycles from Nancy called Pierre Lallement. There is also a faint possibility that the bicycle originated in Scotland, though Herlihy shows this claim to be extremely unreliable.

The point is that the bicycle was a conglomeration of separate inventions rather than a single discovery. This is reflected in the peculiarly specific nature of cycling memorials. There is a memorial to Pierre Michaux in the town of Bar-le-Duc in Lorraine, but there are also memorials to inventors of bicycle parts: the man known as Vélocio, who developed and popularised the gear-shifting dérailleur, has two monuments in France; the Italian inventor of the quick-release hub-skewer is commemorated near the top of a pass in the Dolomites. One of the best-known cycling ‘pilgrimage’ sites in France is the former smithy in the Pyrenean village of Sainte-Marie-de-Campan, where the leader of the 1913 Tour de France repaired the broken frame of his bicycle after carrying it for several miles, thus, according to the marble plaque, ‘fournissant un exemple de volonté sublime’.

Long before the bicycle appeared, however, the velocipede was performing mechanical miracles. All the later innovations – pedals, chain, gears and brakes – were simply enhancements of the original accidental discovery that a human body can balance on two wheels by propelling them forwards (or, in a few cases, backwards). Caricatures of Regency fops falling off their hobby-horses suggest a velocipedal prehistory of suicidal experiment, yet the owner of a ‘facilitator’, an ‘accelerator’ or a ‘fleetfoot’ clearly enjoyed some of the benefits of the later bicycle. Draisines were used in France by apprentices undertaking the traditional journey that is still known as the Tour de France. (In its early years, the race followed the same flat route that was taken by most ‘compagnons du Tour de France’ as they toured the country learning their trade.) In 1858, according to the Builder (London), human-powered ‘miniature carriages’ were enabling workers to commute to their place of work and ‘to live in healthful localities’. In the 1830s, Isambard Kingdom Brunel designed a velocipede that ran on railway tracks and rode it from Paddington to Slough. A certain J.C. Skeffington toured southern England in 1858 for three weeks and, without avoiding the hills, averaged more than 26 miles a day.

Once the moderately priced bicycle appeared, such exploits were commonplace. In the early 1870s, high-wheelers – later known as penny-farthings – were already whizzing up to John o’Groats from London in two weeks. Hundred-mile bike-rides at average speeds of 8-10 mph seem to have been quite routine. Herlihy’s entertaining history is full of similarly impressive figures but he rarely pauses to analyse them and has little to say about the machine that powered the bicycle. It, too, has undergone a long process of development. Given the poorer diets and smaller stature of the early 20th-century population, I had always assumed that when people of my grandparents’ generation reminisced about epic bike rides, they had rounded up their mileage so much that the original trip to the next town had turned into a record-breaking expedition. Yet Herlihy’s figures suggest that, when it was ridden by people who were unspoiled by automation and accustomed to continuous, steady effort, the bicycle really was a more powerful machine than it is today, and that feather-light carbon frames and multiple gears are simply the aids that modern cyclists need to keep up with their ancestors.

The social advantages of the bicycle were also identified at a very early stage. The Paris correspondent of the New York Times, who saw the first Michaux bicycles in 1867, listed the most obvious benefits: ‘great economy of time as well as money’, ‘immense development of muscle and lung’, ‘independence of character’ and the likelihood that women would now adopt ‘the bloomer or some other more convenient costume’. He also pointed out that a person who wanted to move along a street faster than a pedestrian should not have to use ‘a great vehicle, as large almost as a house’. Unlike the horse-drawn carriage, the bicycle was almost silent. It did not crush people to death, nor did it foul the streets with excrement. There were exaggerated complaints about irresponsible velocipedists, but there was also official support for the ‘feedless horse’. Special roads for cyclists were built in France and the United States. Herlihy mentions the bike path that ran from Prospect Park to Coney Island (‘about 10,000 cyclists participated in the inaugural parade’ in 1895), but not the more spectacular aerial cycle path, opened in 1900, that ran at roof-height for more than nine miles between Los Angeles and Pasadena. Cyclists could ride four abreast on a surface of Oregon hardwood, lit by arc lamps every 200 feet. At the halfway point, a bicycle elevator joined the track to a café, a restaurant and a casino. Mechanics with pumps and spare parts were positioned all along the track.

Though Herlihy himself was once a member of the Harvard Cycling Club, which was founded in 1879, he says little about the experience of owning a bike. Punctures are dealt with only in a sentence about Edouard Michelin’s detachable tyre (1891): ‘In the event of a puncture the cyclist could now repair or replace the independent inner tube with the help of a few simple tools and spare materials.’ So much for sore thumb-pads, limpet-like tyres and the despair of countless amateur mechanics. He describes various technical enhancements, but doesn’t discuss the unreliable, energy-sapping machines that can be seen on city streets today. There may be almost a billion bicycles in the world (by Herlihy’s estimate), but many of their owners have yet to discover the pleasures of cycling.

This sunny view of bicycling history makes it easy to imagine those blissful days of well-designed bike paths and empty roads: ‘Regardless of what lies ahead of us, the bicycle’s rich and colourful history projects a future as bright as its past.’ That phrase – ‘regardless of what lies ahead of us’ – should be loaded with irony. The bicycle has the potential to reduce the emission of something far more noxious than horse manure. On this subject, Bicycle: The History is tentative to the point of obfuscation:

A number of bike activists in recent years have called attention to the cycling cause on ecological grounds. But whether more people can be pried away from the steering wheel is unclear. Drivers will cite safety concerns as a prime reason not to cycle. Indeed, many social scientists doubt that there will be any mass migration to the bicycle unless cycling facilities improve greatly and the price of gasoline rises substantially.

In fact, it is clear that some drivers can be ‘pried away from the steering wheel’ and that, as soon as conditions improve even slightly, many of those billion bicycles begin to venture out onto the road. Herlihy blandly welcomes the fact that cycle helmets are now ‘standard equipment’. In countries where helmets have been made compulsory, however, fewer people cycle and, because there is safety in numbers, the roads are more dangerous. Cyclists who wear helmets are more likely to fall on their heads. In any case, as Bicycling News pointed out in 1876, ‘Croppers . . . are not an event of such importance as the over-cautious might suppose.’

Like many histories of cycling, Herlihy’s book contains a photograph of workers leaving the Morris car factory at Cowley on bicycles. They are cycling five or six abreast. Some of them are chatting; one man appears to be reading a book or inspecting his wage slip. The photograph was published in July 1946 in Fortune magazine, which found it ironic that men who produced cars should commute to work on bicycles. The factory now has a vast, unironic car park for workers’ cars.