Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

The bicycentennial: Our 200-year obsession with two-wheeled transit

Impounded bicycles in Shanghai (Photo: Johannes Eisele/AFP/Getty Images)

“The bicyclists are doing much to destroy the Sabbath, and at the same time are injuring their own bodies and souls.”
The Indiana Weekly Messenger, October 16, 1895

“Cycle tracks will abound in Utopia…”
—H.G. Wells, A Modern Utopia

The earliest species of the family velocipede, the clumsy proto-bicycles, were called dandy horses, boneshakers, and worse. They were painful to ride, hard to steer, and considering the nature of life in the 19th century, their existence made little sense. So why is it that successive generations were so drawn to this goofy concept of a rider balanced on two wheels that they eventually refined it into the elegant, pedal-cranked, chain-driven thing that we know as a bike? Did we domesticate the bicycle, or did it simply domesticate itself?


As far as is known, it was the Baron Von Drais, a minor noble and civil servant of the Grand Duchy Of Baden, who was the first to think of a two-wheeled mode of transit. The idea came to him during the unseasonable volcanic winter of 1816, also known as the Year Without A Summer, when the after-effects of the eruption of Mount Tambora in what were then the Dutch East Indies dropped global temperatures, disrupted the monsoon season in India and China, shrouded the eastern United States in a reddish sulfate fog, and brought cold and famine to Europe. It was under these same circumstances that Mary Shelley wrote Frankenstein and Lord Byron began his unfinished vampire story (which his personal physician, Dr. John Polidori, turned into The Vampyre) while cooped up in the Villa Diodati on Lake Geneva.

Meanwhile, further up the continent in Mannheim, the Baron Von Drais was trying to figure out how people could get around in a world where long-range overland travel was still a horse-drawn business, but where the price of oats was skyrocketing because of crop shortages. He dubbed his solution the Laufmaschine (“running machine”), though it was popularly known as a draisine. That was the nice name for it, anyway. In modern terms, the first of the proto-bicycles was a grown-up-sized balance bike or a sit-down kick scooter. It was very heavy and made of wood, and had no brakes and a seat that no modern person would willingly subject themselves to. On June 12, 1817, Von Drais took the world’s first documented ride on a two-wheeled, human-powered vehicle steered by a handlebar. He rode from Mannheim to an inn just outside of town and back.

A lithograph advertising a bicycle camp hosted by the Springfield Bicycle Club of Springfield, Massachusetts, 1883. (Image: Library Of Congress)

The draisine, which enjoyed a brief vogue in 1818, would be just one fad in an era full of them, and it would take until the 1860s for someone to think of adding a pedal crank to the design. Thus was born the velocipede, which was just as likely to injure the rider as the draisine was to run over a pedestrian. Still, it was a big enough deal to kick off the first true bicycle craze, which guaranteed that a big chunk of bike history would be clouded by competing patent claims, nationalist hooey, outright hoaxing, and all of those other things that made life in the 19th century so interesting. The Baron Von Drais—who, among other things, also invented the meat grinder—would end up a victim of the times. A democrat and anti-monarchist, he ultimately renounced his title to become Karl Drais, and after supporting the failed Baden Revolution of 1848, he died in poverty.


Here’s an interesting fact: In his final years in a poor neighborhood of Mannheim, the former aristocrat was a neighbor of the young Karl Benz, of Daimler-Benz and Mercedes-Benz fame, who is said to have first envisioned a horseless carriage powered by an internal combustion engine while riding a velocipede. The result, the Benz Patent-Motorwagen, was first shown to the public in Mannheim in 1886, and it resembled a motorized trike more than a modern automobile. The year before, only 60 miles away, Gottlieb Daimler and Wilhelm Maybach had completed the Reitwagen, the world’s first gasoline-powered motorcycle, which resembled a Jules-Verne-ified draisine. The Wright brothers, too, were bicycle mechanics, who figured out that a heavier-than-air flying machine could be controlled by banking the way a bicyclist makes a turn. This was accomplished by bending the edges of the muslin-wrapped wings in different directions, a solution Wilbur Wright stumbled upon while handling a box of inner tubes.

I have to think that this is more than a string of coincidences and that there is in fact something about bicycles. Here in Chicago, I ride one every day, which means that I owe some debt of gratitude to Karl Drais—it’s a mid-1980s-model cigarette-ash Schwinn World Sport with one of those seats that feels like your ass is gripping the business end of a shoe tree. It’s a pragmatic choice: I’m an impatient guy and prefer shaving through hot afternoon traffic on a couple of 27-inch wheels to those daily trust-fall exercises you have to enact with your fellow Chicagoans on a lurching, over-packed bus. I’ve had many bikes over the years, a couple stolen, one twisted like a pretzel by a student driver who parallel-parked straight into a bike rack, another bent in a collision with a car (my fault; I didn’t signal) in which I was briefly airborne and then landed on my feet without a scratch, dumbfounded by what had just happened and high on adrenalin. A bike is just a machine, and if you can’t get it fixed, you buy a new one. But you never relate to a machine the way you do to a bike.

Bicycles in Shanghai, 1900 (Image: Culture Club/Getty Images)

One thing that made the bicycle stand apart from all those other radical new forms of transportation that the 19th century wrought upon the world was that it was always intended to be simple. This is the likely reason that its evolution was so slow; almost 70 years elapsed between the invention of the draisine and the introduction of John Kemp Starley’s Rover safety bicycle, the design ancestor of most modern bikes. In between came all sorts of over-engineered dead ends: pedal-less treadle bikes that cranked like primitive elliptical machines; penny-farthing bikes with a 60-inch monster wheel, a trailing baby wheel, and no gears; mutant trikes with two wheels on one side and one big one on the other. The 19th century was so crammed with awful proto- and pseudo-bicycles that it really makes you appreciate the dream that they tried to fulfill and failed. Even in its imperfect primeval forms, the thing that was not yet called a bike was individual and individualist—maybe even more so, as before the invention of the adjustable seat, they had to be custom-fitted.


Here was a vehicle that relied only on you, a vehicle that was also a form of exercise, and it spread from Germany as a rough contemporary of the physical culture movement, which introduced the middle and upper classes of the Western world to the concept of working out. During the greatest of the bicycle crazes, which came in the 1890s, it even inspired quaint early pangs of bio-mechanical body horror, as newspapers and medical journals on both sides of the Atlantic were briefly swept up in a debate about the dangers of “bicycle face,” a condition known to modern cyclists as “being sweaty, perhaps slightly winded.” The minor bicycle face panic was sexist, like so many of the anxieties about bodies and biology that cultures insist on voicing out loud. The introduction of the step-through safety bicycle frame, which made it possible to hop on and off a bike in a long skirt, had turned two-wheeled contraptions into a feminist must-have, and suddenly, doctors and proto-pundits far and wide had all kinds of interesting opinions about the physical and spiritual strain that riding a bicycle might put on a woman’s body.

Funny how that happens. It should probably come as no surprise, either, that the great American bicycling clubs of the time—including the most important one, the League Of American Wheelmen—excluded non-white cyclists from membership. Really, it was about what bikes represented on the streets and country roads of Europe and America: independence, which was seen as a hobby only by those who already had it. Even the draisine was surprisingly efficient, averaging as much as 9 miles an hour under ideal conditions—slow by the standards of the modern world, which has built up a tolerance for speed the same way one builds up a tolerance to any stimulant, but swift by the standards of a time that still measured everything by the 60-mile-per-day average of horse and carriage. Yet the underlying principles of a bike are the opposite of just about every other form of transportation.

Students leaving school in Saigon, 1991 (Photo: Andrew Holbrooke/Corbis via Getty Images)

Plenty of ink has been spilled on the subject of modernity, mechanized transit, and detachment, but there is just as much to be said about the psychogeography of cycling. You don’t experience a road surface, landscape, or cityscape the way you do on a bicycle on anything else, including your own two feet. It’s the way a bike cuts the street, that prayer-wheel action of pedaling on a very smooth and flat road, the tiny Pavlovian high rung by the tat-tat-tat-tat whir of coasting—and how a bike makes you not only hyper-conscious of cracks and humps in the blacktop, but also puts you in a constant and sometimes tense physical relationship with them, always having to pick whether to straighten out or ride it out when you approach a rough patch. Cranking uphill, you feel like you’re wringing the incline through your muscles. This is as close as you are likely to get to feeling that a machine is really part of your body.


Again, it’s not a coincidence that Alan Turing, the cryptanalyst and computer and artificial intelligence theorist, had something of an obsession with the defective gearing of the bike that he rode daily to and from the secret code-breaking center at Bletchley Park during World War II. Turing’s statistical cryptanalysis of his own bicycle used the frequency with which his bike chain popped off to crack the problem like a code; it came down to a single crooked tooth on the chain ring and one lightly bent link on the chain. The story is usually told as an example of Turing’s eccentric genius. But to me, it’s just more evidence that there’s something about bicycles.

The bike is a popular and often obvious metaphor; you see it in everything from the Italian neorealist classic Bicycle Thieves to the popular late 19th-century song “Daisy Bell (Bicycle Built For Two),” widely known today as the creepy little ditty that HAL 9000 sings in 2001: A Space Odyssey. But that isn’t its true cultural legacy. No, it’s in the subsumed velomania that rides through Samuel Beckett’s explorations of meaninglessness and Thomas Hardy’s descriptions of landscapes. It’s that interest in authentic experience that’s associated with Ernest Hemingway, who opined that a bike was the only way to get to know a countryside, because you had to sweat up the hills. It’s there in the worldview of the French existentialists, who were united by a passion for bicycling that was in turn linked to the role that bikes had played in the underground cultural life of the French Resistance. And, of course, it’s in the way the bike made itself a ubiquitous character in that part of the history of science and mathematics that deals with the early 20th century. Marie Curie, Erwin Schrödinger, Niels Bohr, Enrico Fermi, David Hilbert—they were all bike fiends.

A man rides a bicycle past billboards erected around a real estate building site in Shanghai, 2010. (Photo: Philippe Lopez/AFP/Getty Images)

The most common way of relating to a bicycle is as a quasi-meditative routine—the pedals and the route, different cycles, one contained within the other. If you ride a bike to work or school, this is probably all too familiar. Such is the existential paradox of the bike: It’s a vehicle based on a trancelike repetitive motion that also forces you into a constant awareness of its mechanics, your surroundings, and your posture and balance. It’s a point of view, a way of relating to your own body and to objects in space through a machine. Or at least it can seem that way, because anyone who spends way too much time balancing on two wheels will tell you that you really get your best thinking done when you’re the only bike in sight. Otherwise, you end up worrying about the bike behind you and the bike in front of you; on a busy street, a bike’s relationship to other bikes can be uncomfortably intimate.


Let me here posit my unifying cultural theory of bicycles. I’ve yet to find a writer from China or India with the same personally opinionated relationship to bikes that you find, for example, in Jean-Paul Sartre’s Being And Nothingness. I don’t think that’s an accident. R.K. Narayan, whose novels and stories about the fictional Indian town of Malgudi probably feature more references to bicycles than all of the works of the Western velomaniac canon combined, prided himself on walking everywhere and advised young writers to get rid of their bikes and do the same. There is something about bicycles. It’s that old familiar story of how every way of getting around becomes a way of looking at the world: It’s only different when it is. Otherwise, it’s just convenient. And fun, especially when you’re coasting downhill.

Share This Story

Get our newsletter