Bike races: not just for the 20th and 21th centuries

People are always talking about the Tour de France or Tour de Italy when races are discussed. These challenging races are possibly the most famous and prestigious races in the world of professional (and even amateur cycling), and there are some of the only cycling races that are followed by people who really don’t care too much about the sport as a rule. The first Tour de France ever races was held in France, unsparingly, in the year 1903, which makes it one of the oldest cycling races. In 1903, however, the bicycle was no longer a new invention, even though its formed had changed dramatically for some fifty or sixty years previously. Just because the Tour de France is one of the oldest races, that doesn’t make the first. There were many races run in the 1800s on bikes that modern riders would be hard-pressed to recognise.

What we consider the first incarnation of the bike could have changed our idea of the bike completely. Known as velocipedes, these are the ancestors of modern bicycles but were not bikes as we know them nowadays. With two wheel, one in front of the other, and a metal or wooden frame and just a hint of a saddle we can see recognise the modern form though they weren’t quite the same. The pedals and chains of a modern bike were not found on the velocipede and the riders used his or her feet to hit the ground to propel the proto-bikes. Pedals were introduced as early as the 1860s though the chain came later The pedals were directly attached to a large front wheel.

Modern cyclists will almost certainly know, it’s easier to get a higher speed using larger wheels. These early machines were already rather dangerous, without suspension or brakes or any of the trapping one could expect on a modern bike. But the desire to go faster and faster grew and grew and along with it the size of the front wheel. Eventually this led to the creation of what became known as the penny-farthing. Although most people today find the odd and funny in appearance their popularity soared and nowhere more so than in the UK, their homeland, and also the US where they adopted with great joy.

These penny-farthings were not safe and crashes could sometimes be fatal. This prompted early inventors to develop what was eventually called the ‘safety bike’. This is the first bike that we can easily recognise as a modern bike.

It was the chain more than anything else that turned this bikes in to proto-bikes as we might call them from out point of view today. This crucial invention allowed the riders feet to be farther away from the spokes of the wheels, eliminating the issue of the riders’ clothes catching in thewheel. Beyond that critical development, riders’ feet were nearer the ground which helped riders stop in a hurry if that was needed.

The first safety bicycles were created 1889, some thirty years after the invention of the earliest bikes but that was the point they became practical forms of transport and not only a novelty. And from there we got the Tour de France and then copycat races the world over.