How We Ride: A History of Play on Two Wheels

The Strong | National Museum of Play | Rochester, New York

Photograph of Man and High Wheel Bicycle (1885) by DereichThe Strong National Museum of Play

How We Ride: A History of Play on Two Wheels

Bicycles first put Americans on the move more than a century ago. Those new machines drove a need for speed, and so encouraged racing. They eased travel, and so expanded neighborhood boundaries. Bikes liberated women from constricting fashions. A country ride freed courting couples from prying eyes. Over time, bikes became safer, cushier, cheaper, faster, and more specialized, but they still reward riders with a freewheeling feeling. Drawing from artifacts in the collections of The Strong, this exhibit tours bicycling history.

New Howe Trade Card (1900) by HoweThe Strong National Museum of Play

Breaking Ground

The earliest bicycles appealed to sporting men with the wealth and good health to ride heavy, cumbersome, and awkward vehicles. From the first high wheelers and safety bikes to today’s motorcycle look-alikes and feather-light racers, bicycles have propelled professionals and amateurs to astounding speeds, at high altitudes and low, everywhere around the world.

Reproduction of 1819 Draisine Bicycle (1980) by Alfred BaltusThe Strong National Museum of Play

Foot Power

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.”

Velocipede Bicycle (1869) by UnknownThe Strong National Museum of Play

The Boneshaker

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.

Columbia Light Roadster High Wheel Bicycle (1888) by Pope Manufacturing Co.The Strong National Museum of Play

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.

"Taking a Header" Trade Card (1890) by Francis L. HughesThe Strong National Museum of Play

Taking a Header

The high-wheeled bicycle had one problem: when the front wheel hit a bump or stopped abruptly, the back wheel lifted, and the entire apparatus rotated forward on the front axle. This propelled the rider over the wheel and landed him on his head.

Overman Victor Safety Bike (1889) by Overman Wheel Co.The Strong National Museum of Play

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.

Women's Safety Bike (1910) by Hendee Mfg. Co.The Strong National Museum of Play

Balloon Tires

Adding air-filled tires to the wheels of the safety bike increased the comfort of the ride and made bicycles more suited to children. By the 1920s when adults gave up their bicycles for automobiles, manufacturers sought new customers among children and teenagers.

Schwinn Black Phantom (1950) by Schwinn Bicycle Co.The Strong National Museum of Play

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.

Orange Krate Bicycle (1968) by Schwinn Bicycle Co.The Strong National Museum of Play

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.

Avatar Recumbent Bicyle (1980) by Formax, Inc.The Strong National Museum of Play

Laid Back

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.

Girl's Mountain Bicycle (1985) by Giant Manufacturing Co., Ltd.The Strong National Museum of Play

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.

Giant Stiletto Chopper Bicycle (2004) by Giant Bicycle Inc.The Strong National Museum of Play


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.

Kings County Wheelmen Photograph (1895) by UnknownThe Strong National Museum of Play

Breaking Records

Almost as soon as the bicycle was produced, cyclists began competing on tracks and roads, then on mountains and rugged terrain. Touring races of long distances, such as the well-known Tour de France, thrived in Europe. By the early 21st century, Americans preferred the criterium, a race of fixed circuits that ran for a specified length of time.

Cigarette Card (1900) by George S. Harris & Sons and Goodwin & Co.The Strong National Museum of Play

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.

Photograph of Two Men and Bicycles (1900) by UnknownThe Strong National Museum of Play

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.

Raleigh Grand Prix Simplex 10-Speed Bicycle (1960) by Raleigh Bicycle CompanyThe Strong National Museum of Play

Fitness Biking

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.

Gitaine Men's 10-speed Racing Bike (1985) by GitaneThe Strong National Museum of Play

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.

Trek 2300 Pro (2000) by TrekThe Strong National Museum of Play

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.

Dave Mirra Video Game (2000) by Z-Axis and Sony Computer EntertainmentThe Strong National Museum of Play

Downhill Thrills

Cyclists for whom speed is not enough might try BMX freestyle, or stunt riding on rugged BMX bicycles. Those not experienced or nimble in the sport can share in the thrills by playing video games like Dave Mirra Freestyle BMX and Mat Hoffman’s BMX 2.

Photograph of Rochester Twilight Criterium (2008) by UnknownThe Strong National Museum of Play

Street Crit

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.

Photograph of Woman, Dog, and Bike (1900) by UnknownThe Strong National Museum of Play

Breaking Rules

As bicycles became cheaper to purchase and safer to ride, American women found freedom in cycling. They could travel about town as they wished or journey off to enjoy the countryside—no longer at the mercy of available horses and drivers. Many women of the early 20th century regarded their bicycles as their “freedom machines.”

Carte de Visite (Visiting Card) (1900) by BakerThe Strong National Museum of Play

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.

Advertising Card for Columbia Bicycles (1895) by Gast Lithogrpahy Co. for Columbia BicyclesThe Strong National Museum of Play

Bloomers for Bicycling

New fashions for women including bloomers—baggy trousers cinched at the knees—and dresses and skirts with shorter hems that better accommodated bicycling than the long skirts that inhibited movement and physical activities.

Hendee Bicycle with Skirt Guard (1910) by Hendee Mfg. Co.The Strong National Museum of Play

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.

Stereograph of Women on Bicycle (1900) by T.W. IngersollThe Strong National Museum of Play

Women’s Emancipation

“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.”

Susan B. Anthony
New York World
February 2, 1896

Pepsi-Cola New York City Bicycle Marathon Poster (1975) by Pepsi-ColaThe Strong National Museum of Play

Beyond the Bike

In the 20th century, the bicycle increasingly became a vehicle of leisure activities while making way for trains, planes, and automobiles. But we wouldn’t have the sophisticated transportation systems we rely on today without the bicycle. After all, Henry Ford and Orville and Wilbur Wright all started out as bicycle mechanics.

Credits: Story

How We Ride is produced by The Strong National Museum of Play in Rochester, New York. Learn more at

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The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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