The Strong | National Museum of Play | Rochester, New York
Using the technology available at the time, German Karl von Drais developed his mechanical horse in 1817. The heavy draisine, a saddle suspended on two carriage wheels propelled by the rider’s pushing off the ground, worked well enough on smooth roadways and flat terrain. Never popular, it seemed to a Philadelphia observer “a mere apology for a decent man to take a race by himself.”
To most users, the draisine seemed so flawed that its only value rested in the improvements it inspired. Europeans marveled at the velocipede, introduced in 1865, which added foot pedals for rotary crank propulsion to von Drais’s old hobbyhorse. Cushioning the velocipede’s metal wheels with rubber, however, did not much improve the ride. Many riders recognized the vehicle by its more descriptive name: boneshaker.
Not So “Ordinary”
In the late 1860s, engineers increased velocipede speed and efficiency by greatly enlarging the front drive-wheel. A single push propelled the bicycle farther. Racers favored this new design (called an “ordinary”) but casual riders hated climbing on and off. This style quickly lost popularity when the “safety” bicycle appeared around the mid-1880s.
A Safer Bike
By 1900 the “safety” bike with two wheels of the same size and chain-drive propulsion replaced the high-wheeled ordinary. Affordable, safe, and fast, safety bicycles triggered cycling’s greatest era of popularity among men and women and encouraged a good roads movement throughout the country—years before there were many cars to use them.
Schwinn Black Phantom
Some enthusiasts have called the classic Black Phantom the ’57 Chevy of the bike set. Offered by Schwinn from 1949 to 1959, the Black Phantom’s heavy chrome, big fenders, and two-tone colors delivered for baby boomers what Detroit offered their parents in the latest car models. Kids with Black Phantoms had not just wheels—but attitude too.
Wheelie Bike, Banana Bike
In the 1960s, kids in the suburbs craved the sporty two wheelers with butterfly handlebars, a banana seat, and sissy bar. They loved “choppers” not just for their looks but because they could do wheelies, leave a patch of tire rubber, and fishtail to a stop. In 1968, Schwinn rolled out its String-Ray Krate line in vibrant apple red, lemon yellow, and bright orange.
First designed in the late 1800s, the recumbent bicycle was actually banned from competing in races sanctioned by International Cycling Union in 1934 when a recumbent rider beat the world champion racing on a conventional bicycle. The recumbent gained respectability again in the 1980s as cyclists came to appreciate its ergonomic design that distributes the rider’s weight over a large seat and backrest.
Mud, Sweat, and Gears
Bicyclists who campaigned for good roads in the early 1890s might appreciate the irony of mountain bikes, BMX bikes, and similar vehicles designed specifically for riding off road —and the more challenging the route, the better. Bicycles built for rugged terrain appeared in the 1970s and 1980s and spawned new kinds of races over rough landscapes and competitions for stunt cycling.
Choppers highlight Southern California’s penchant for customized transportation. The region’s mid-20th-century hotrods and chopper motorcycles inspired first the String-Ray bikes for baby boomers in the 1960s and the chopper bicycles that boomers and others made in early 21st century. Chopper bicycles have become so popular they are no longer chopped at all, but come from the factory already low stung and laid back.
Head over Heels for Bike Racing
Early races became faster and more exciting in the 1870s when cyclists began using the high-wheeled ordinary. But those bicycles also raised the chances of tumbling off a bike on a bumpy roadway. When American champions like W. A. Rowe raced downhill, they set their legs over the handlebars to break their fall if they encountered obstacles.
A Craze for the 1890s
The development of the safety bicycle brought on a national craze for travel on two wheels. Cycling and amateur racing grew in popularity, and by 1898 the League of American Wheelmen boasted more than 100,000 members. The wheelmen pictured here learned to enjoy cycling on the hills of San Francisco.
By the late 1970s, Americans—especially baby boomers and their children—developed consciousness about good health and exercise. The bicycle enjoyed a revival, and most of the bikes sold in the 1980s sported aerodynamic design, light materials, and sophisticated gearing systems. Not all Americans were racing their bicycles, but they were getting themselves in shape.
The World-Class American on a French Bicycle
In the 1980s, bicycles made by the French company Gitane did much to advance the cause of cycling in the United States. Gitane wooed its American customers by sponsoring Greg LeMond, the first U.S. contestant to win the grueling Tour de France. He rode to victory in 1986, 1989, and 1990 and became a vocal opponent of the use of performance enhancing drugs in professional cycling.
Beat the Clock
Individual time trial competitions pit one cyclist against the clock on flat or rolling terrain, or on specially built tracks. Long endurance races such as the Tour de France often include a time trial component. Time trial races require especially lightweight, aerodynamic designs including disc wheels and modified handlebars that assist the rider in clocking his or her fastest speed.
The criterium is the most popular racing format in the United States. A criterium or crit is a cycle race consisting of several laps around a closed raceway. The length of crits is determined by a specified race time or a number of laps around the course. Each time it has been held since 2004, Rochester, New York’s Twilight Criterium has brought thousands of professional and amateur cyclists to the city’s downtown streets.
Casting off Constrictions
At the turn of the 20th century, some American women viewed the long and billowy skirts and restrictive clothing they wore as symbolic of the many social, political, and economic restrictions they faced. One of the bicycle’s most obvious effects on modern women was in their casting off the confining dresses that inhibited cycling and many other activities.
Safe for Long Dresses
This safety bicycle made around 1910 by the Hendee Manufacturing Company of Springfield, Massachusetts, enabled women to ride comfortably without entangling their skirts. Women on bicycles, however, caused concern for some Americans. Many feared cycling would cause unladylike behavior (as in independence) and lax morals. Women could travel beyond the surveillance of fathers and husbands who might defend their womanly virtues.
How We Ride is produced by The Strong National Museum of Play in Rochester, New York. Learn more at www.museumofplay.org.