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Bicycle is also the trademark of Bicycle Playing Cards.

A bicycle (bike for short) is a land vehicle with two wheels in line. Motorcycles are powered by internal combustion engines and are a form of motor vehicle. Pedal cycles are powered by a seated human rider and are a form of human powered vehicle. This article is about pedal cycles.

Cycling, or riding bicycles, is one of the principal forms of transportation in several parts of the world. It is also a common recreation and popular sport. The bicycle is the most energy-efficient form of locomotion (see Science of Cycling: Human Power: page 1).

Table of contents
1 History
2 Social and historical aspect
3 Bicycles and war
4 Technical aspect
5 Speed
6 Types of cycle
7 Bicycle efficiency
8 Bicycle lighting
9 Conflict with automobiles
10 Bicycle activism
11 Bicycle culture
12 Bicycles & Urban Design
13 Bicycles and health
14 See also
15 External links


Since 1990 the International Cycling History Conference has met every year in a different country, and this assembly of academic and private investigators has finally reconciled the variety of ideas about bicycle history which were mostly wrong and influenced by nationalism.

The ICHC no longer distinguishes between a "first true" bicycle with pedals and any precursors, and regards as the start the two-wheeler principle which requires balancing and is the basis of cycling (and motorcycling). When pedal velocipedes arose there was already a 50-year history of such two-wheeled vehicles. The term "bicycle" arose in France in the late 1860s and replaced the term "velocipede" from the High Bicycle on.

As of today there is no generally accepted evidence that the two-wheeler existed before the year 1817. There are a number of controversial claims of earlier existence. Comte de Sivrac has been said to have developed a two-wheeler in 1791, but it is most likely an error created by an illustration created by historian Baudry de Saunier in 1891. A church window in Stoke Poges that was installed in the 16th or 17th century shows an angel on a device that some argue looks like a bicycle. Medieval iconography however often associates angelic figures with a one-wheeled contraption. A drawing said to be from around 1493 of a bicycle that was attributed to Giacomo Caprotti, a pupil of Leonardo da Vinci, is accepted by most to be a hoax.

The invention of the bicycle has one trackable source. In Germany, Karl von Drais, a civil servant to the Grand Duke of Baden, who had studied mathematics, physics, and architecture at the university of Heidelberg, invented his Laufmaschine (running machine) of 1817 that was called draisine by the press and later velocipede. He did it in response to starvation and dying horses after a crop failure the year before ("eighteen hundred and froze to death," a snow summer due to the volcanic eruption of Tambora).

The requirement of balancing was nearly insurmountable for the average population, with only a few young men being ice skaters at that time. Therefore the velocipede was pushed by the feet against the ground and no attempt was undertaken by Drais nor by mechanics elsewhere to take the feet off safe ground and to put them on pedals (Drais had begun with four-wheeled Fahrmaschinen, i.e. driving machines, with a cranked axle between the rear wheels trodden by one passenger). On his first reported spin from Mannheim on June 12, 1817, he covered 8 miles (13 km) in less than an hour. The wooden draisine weighed 48 pounds (22 kg) or less, had brass bushings within the wheels, a rear-wheel brake and 6 inches (152 mm) trail of the front-wheel for a self-centering castor effect.

Several thousand copies have been built and used worldwide, and this is regarded to be the origin of horseless personal transport. The first cycling races were reported from Ipswich and elsewhere. Yet beginning with the good harvest in autumn 1817, riding velocipedes on side-roads was forbidden worldwide (nicknamed hobby-horses, they couldn't use the rutted carriageway), in Mannheim, Milan, London, New York and even Calcutta. This and the triumph of the upcoming railways plus the fear of balancing stopped further development for 50 years. Mechanics now built pedal- or handle-driven three- or four-wheeled iron velocipedes for stability, but with higher rolling resistance. Willard Sawyer in Dover was a successful manufacturer with exports worldwide.

It was in Paris during the late 1860s that a renaissance of the two-wheeled velocipede, now with pedals on the front wheel, took place: "le velocipede bicycle," as the French said, i.e. the two-wheeled velocipede. This was preceded by a roller skating boom as skating rinks began to open. Those who could survive with rollers on both feet no longer feared on a velocipede to take their feet off safe ground and leave them on the pedals. The origin of the idea is still an open question within the ICHC, the earliest year in Paris agreed upon being 1864 at present. The claims of Ernest Michaux and of the emigré Pierre Lallement, who obtained an US patent in 1866, and the lesser claims of rear-pedaling Alexandre Lefebvre, all have their partisans within the ICHC. On the new macadamized boulevards of Paris it was easy riding, although imitating the coach technology of massive iron frames doubled the weight to nearly 100 pounds (45 kg). Solid rubber tires and the first ball bearings brought further comfort and advantages for the now common races. The number of inventions and patents soared, especially in the US.

One reaction of inventors to the front-pedal velocipede was, "Why not drive the rear wheel?" Several designs were published, even using a chain, or Thomas McCall's velocipede of 1869 with pedal rods throwing cranks on the rear wheel. In a bizarre campaign of the late 1880s corn trader and tricyclist James Johnston predated McCall's rear-pedal velocipede to 1839 and attributed it to a distant relative, Kirkpatrick MacMillan. He also connected this with a newspaper clip reporting an anonymous person's accident on a hand-driven velocipede in Glasgow by hiding the latter detail. This "first true bicycle" claim can now be put to bed and safely ignored, according to the ICHC. And also the Lefebvre claim has to struggle with the belief that rear-pedal velocipedes came after the front-pedal ones.

While on foot-driven velocipedes, women had been seen only in England (where they also could ice-skate themselves), famous women like actress Sarah Bernhardt were now riding in France, and circus performers everywhere. Yet the machines, nicknamed "boneshakers" and as heavy as a motorcycle today, weren't easy to handle, and the booming roller-skating rinks offered a more social pleasure. Thus velocipede riding stagnated even before the onset of the Franco-Prussian war. In New York it was downright forbidden again, in Cologne (Germany) till 1894. Yet one man in Paris found the solution to make larger front wheels for speed without adding too much weight: Eugene Meyer, who is now regarded as the father of the High Bicycle by the ICHC in place of James Starley. Meyer invented the wire-spoke tension wheel in 1869 and built a beautiful High Bicycle with it until the 1880s.

James Starley in Coventry added the tangent spokes and the mounting step to his famous bicycle named "Ariel." He is rightly regarded as the father of the British cycling industry, then leading the world, with Coventry, Birmingham and Manchester being the centers. Ball bearings, solid tires and hollow frames became standard. Depending on the rider's leg length, the front wheel could now have a diameter up to 60 in (1.5 m). These Ordinaries were nicknamed "Penny Farthings" in England (a penny representing the front wheel, and a much smaller coin, the farthing, representing the rear wheel). They were fast, but unsafe. The rider was way up in the air and traveling at a great speed. If he hit a bad spot in the road he could easily be thrown over the front wheel and be seriously injured or even killed. "Taking a header," which was not at all uncommon, was no laughing matter. The dangerous nature of these bicycles meant that cycling was the preserve of adventurous young men. The American "Star" bicycle was an Ordinary turned-around to prevent those headers, but now there was the danger of being thrown backwards when riding uphill. Elderly gentlemen and women preferred the more stable tricycles or quadricycles, e.g. Queen Victoria rode Starley's "Royal Salvo," a true highlight of the gunsmiths' art. In the United States it was Bostonian Alexander Pope who monopolized Ordinaries from 1876 and initiated the good-roads movement.

Attempts to make the bicycle safer and reduce the size of the front-wheel finally led to a radical change of bicycle ergonomics. John Kemp Starley, James' nephew, set the fashion to the world with his "Rovers" from 1885 on (never patented) that featured equally sized wheels and a chain drive to the rear wheel. In the US Pope's safety bicycle was called "Columbia," and he tried again to monopolize the "Columbia Chainless" with a shaft drive. Meanwhile John Boyd Dunlop's re-invention of the pneumatic tire in 1888 had made for a much smoother ride. Chicago's immigrant Adolph Schoeninger with his Western Wheel Works became the "Ford of the Bicycle" (ten years before Henry Ford) and by rigorous use of sheet-metal stamping and mass production made his "Crescent" bicycles affordable for the working people. In rapid succession then the free wheel, coaster brake, hub gearing and finally derailleur systems were invented.

Social and historical aspect

Socially, the bicycle helped to strengthen the gene pool for rural workers. It tripled their courting radius on the one day per week they had off and thus was a factor in reducing rural inbreeding. The two-wheeled, diamond-frame safety bicycle (basically the same one we ride today) gave women unprecedented mobility, and contributed to their emancipation. In the 1890s the craze for cycling amongst women, created a whole new set of fashions such as "bloomers" (a garment which is a cross between a skirt and trousers (pants)). which helped liberate women from the corset, and other restrictive clothing.

In cities, bicycles helped reduce the crowding in inner-city tenements by allowing workers to commute from single-family dwellings in suburbs. They helped reduce people's dependence on horses. They allowed people to travel in the country. They were three times as efficient as walking and three to four times as fast. Moreover, in terms of distance and speed travelled compared to energy consumed, the bicycle is the most efficient machine yet created.

On an historical note, the development of the modern bicycle had two important implications. First, manufacture of the double-diamond-frame safety bicycle required the development of advanced metalworking techniques to produce the frames, and components such as ball bearings, washers and sprockets. These techniques later enabled skilled metalworkers and mechanics to develop the components that were used in early automobiles and aircraft. The best examples were the Wright Brothers, who got their start as bicycle mechanics.

The second major implication of the bicycle was the political organization of bicycle riders and enthusiasts in such groups as the League of American Wheelmen, in order to persuade local and state governments to create a system of well-maintained and mapped paved roads. Both the model of political organization and the roads themselves later facilitated the growth in the use of another type of wheeled vehicle, the automobile.

In some Western societies, after World War II the bicycle was largely relegated to a device for children, particularly in the United States. In some western countries, most notably Northern European ones such as the Netherlands, Germany, and Denmark, bicycle use for transportation remained fairly common. Interest has gradually returned elsewhere, mostly as a fitness activity, hobby, and competitive sport. More and more people are also using it as a short-range transportation tool, particularly in large, densely populated cities where slow vehicle traffic, high registration and parking costs, and environmental concerns have made commuting by automobile less attractive. This trend has been accelerated by the process of "gentrification" of the inner suburbs of many cities. Many cities are now providing cyclist-only lanes on roads, as well as cycle trails, for both commuting and hobbyist cyclists.

The bicycle remains a primary means of personal transportation in many developing countries. The image of Asian cities clogged with bicycles is a common stereotype, though as they become wealthier it is becoming less popular. According to the magazine, The Economist, one of the major reasons for the proliferation of Chinese-made bicycles on foreign markets is the increasing preference of its own citizens for cars and motorcycles.

Other transportation methods attempt to accommodate the local use of bicycles by providing attachment points on busses, trains, etc. To cope with frequent theft, many destinations provide bicycle racks or lockable bicycle mini-garages.

Bicycles and war

The bicycle, unlike the horse, was never suited for use in actual combat. Unlike the massive horse, the bicycle "steed" is light, and cannot sustain the rider's swing of a sword, or the recoil of a gun. The bicycle however can serve as a horse does for "mounted infantry" - in which the troops use the bicycle for transport only, and dismount before fighting.

Late in the 19th century, the United States Army tested the bicycle's suitability for cross-country transport of troops. "Buffalo soldiers" stationed in Montana rode the bicycle across roadless landscapes for hundreds of miles with impressive speed.

In 20th century wars, armies without full mechanization used the bicycle as a logistical support. In the Boer War, for example, both sides used the bicycle for scouting. In the First World War, France and Germany used the bicycle as a supplementary way to move troops.

In the Second World War, Germany used the bicycle as an extensive supplement to mechanized transport. In the invasion of Poland, the mechanized forces of Germany were not sufficient to sustain the blitzkrieg without the secondary, follow-up support of transport by horse and bicycle. Late in the war, as German transportation logistics broke down, some ad hoc units used confiscated bicycles in their retreat from the Netherlands.

Early in the Second World War, Japan used thousands of bicycles stolen from the native population in a campaign against a British colony in Asia. The bicycle allowed quiet and flexible transport of thousands of troops to surprise and confuse the defenders. At the same time it made basically no logistical demands on the Japanese war machine--not for trucks, nor ships to transport them, nor precious petroleum.

Allied use of the bicycle in World Word II was small, but included folding bicycles given to British and American paratroopers, and messengers behind friendly lines.

In the Vietnam War, the communist forces used the bicycle extensively as a cargo carrier along the Ho Chi Minh Trail. Typically loaded with hundreds of kilograms of supplies, the bicycle would actually not be rideable. Rather, a tender would walk alongside the bicycle, pushing it, somewhat like a wheelbarrow. With the cargo too bulky to allow the tender to reach the handlebars, they sometimes attached long bamboo poles for tiller-like steering.

The only country to maintain a division of bicycle troops in the past decades was Switzerland. However, they eliminated the remaining division a few years ago.

There seem to be isolated incidents of the use of the mountain bicycle as a scouting vehicle for U.S. Special Forces in the invasion of Afghanistan and battles against the Taliban.

Technical aspect

All modern bicycles are largely similar, consisting of a number of easily identified parts. The frame is the major part of the bicycle, typically consisting of a large triangle on which the rider's weight is distributed fore and aft, and a smaller triangle at the rear onto which the rear wheel is mounted. The front wheel is attached to the bicycle with a fork, the top of which runs through a bearing system known as the head set on the front of the frame. There the fork is attached to the stem, an adaptor that is in turn attached to the handle bars. Many modern mountain bicycles no longer have a rear triangle, but use a fork-like system on the rear as well, with both forks on suspension systems for a smooth ride over rough ground.

Power is taken from the feet on the pedals, through the cranks which are attached to the bicycle on a bearing system known as the bottom bracket. A gear (typically more than one) attached to the crank known as the chainring drives the chain, which runs to the rear of the bicycle. There a second set of gears, known collectively as the cassette, drives the rear wheel. Depending on the type of cycling the bicycle is designed for, the cassette may be "flat" as on a road bicycle, meaning that the differences from one gear to the next are 1 tooth apart, or much more varied as on a mountain bicycle. The entire system from pedal to rear wheel is known as the drive train, and the gear sets have far too many alternative names; front and rear, driving vs. driven, etc. The device which physically shifts the chain from gear to gear is usually called the 'derailleur\'.

Allowing for changing gears is one of the major advances in cycling. The legs work best at particular rotational speeds, known as cadence, and having a wider selection of gear ratios allows you to keep the pedaling speed closer to that chosen value. This is why road bicycles use gearing that is close-set, in order to allow the rider to keep the cadence well controlled on the smaller set of terrain a road cycle will typically see. The derailleur is a simple devices that puts strain on the chain by pushing it to the side. The sides of the gears themselves are patterned with chain-like indentations that "catch" the chain when it is pushed against them, pulling it up onto its teeth. The system is considerably simpler than earlier gear-changing systems like the three-speed bicycle, but took longer to come to market because it is considerably different than any common gearing system in prior use.

The last major component of a bicycle is the brakes. Since the 1950s almost all brake systems were patterned off of the Campagnolo side-pull system, in which two calipers are squeezed together by a cable running from the brake handles. The brake places even pressure on either side of the wheel by way of a spring in the middle that centers them. The increasing use of larger tires on mountain bicycles presented a problem however, as the wheels were too large to fit inside calipers of moderate size and weight. This was first solved by the introduction of cantilever systems, in which two "half calipers" are attached to each other with a cable, which is in turn attached to the brake cable the rider pulls using the brake lever. This design had several disadvantages however; without careful placement of the connector from the brake cable to the connecting cable, the brakes would put uneven pressure on either side of the wheel, and if the connector loosens completely the cable can drop into the tire tread, thereby causing a quick trip to the hospital when the front wheel instantly stopped turning. A more suitable solution is the v-brake, where the brake cable runs across the top in a way that cannot drop onto the tire, as well as providing considerably more power and being somewhat easier to center.

As of the late 1990s, disc brakes have become commonplace on medium- and high-end off-road bicycles. They are still uncommon on road bicycles, where the additional stopping power and higher weight are less desirable.

Materials used in the construction of bicycles are similar to those in aircraft, the goal in both cases to make a strong and light weight structure. Almost all bicycles before the 1970s used chromaloy (or chromoloy), a fairly typical chrome-steel. Starting in the 1980s aluminum started to become popular, largely as a side-effect of its decline in price, and today it is perhaps the most common material used in mid-range bicycles. At the high end carbon fibre and titanium are available, although very expensive. Each frame material has certain advantages and disadvantages, although for a given frame geometry all bicycles will have nearly identical ride qualities. The primary differences among frame materials are in the areas of durability, aesthetics, reparability, and weight. Because the vertical stiffness of even a very flexible frame is an order of magnitude higher than the stiffness of the tires and saddle, ride comfort is more a factor of saddle choice, frame geometry, tire choice, and bicycle fit.

Although the operation of a bicycle is simple in principle, many of the parts are complex and some people prefer to leave repair and maintenance to professionals. However, many prefer to maintain their own bicycles as much as they can, whether to save money or because they enjoy repairs as part of the hobby of cycling.

For more information on the technical aspects of bicycles, see the following:


Typical speeds for bicycles are 16 to 32 km/h (10 to 20 mph). On a fast racing bicycle, a reasonably fit rider can ride at 50 km/h (30 mph) on flat ground for short periods. The highest speed ever attained on the flat, without riding behind a wind-block, is by Canadian
Sam Whittingham, who in 2001 set a 142.51 km/h (80.55 mph) record on his highly aerodynamic recumbent bicycle. This stands as the record for all human-powered vehicles.

Types of cycle

By number of wheels

By number of riders

By general construction

By gearing

By location and sport

By propulsion

Other types

Bicycle efficiency

The bicycle is the most technically efficient transportation machine ever invented, in terms of the ratio of distance travelled to the calories of energy spent to achieve that distance.

The bicycle is the most efficient cargo transportation machine ever invented, as defined as the ratio of maximum transported cargo weight to total weight.

Bicycle lighting

There are several types of bicycle lights available. In North America, most commuters choose to use high power halogen lights, which operate from a rechargeable battery. In parts of Europe, low power lights that operate from a dynamo are still popular, but are slowly being replaced by safer, higher power, battery operated halogen lights. Front LED lights are useful for being seen, but do not project a good beam for illuminating the road.

For rear lights, LED flashers are popular in North America, but illegal in most other countries. A better choice for a rear lamp, where flashing lamps are legal, is a xenon strobe, because it is less directional.

Many cycle commuters build their own lighting systems with commonly available lamps, batteries, and chargers. One method is to use a generator stored in the hub of the front wheel. This method requires no external batteries or chargers because the power source is always available.

Conflict with automobiles

Urban bicycle transportation and automobile transportation seem to be mutually antagonistic. Between the two, the growth of one form of transportation seems to be related to a decline of the other. Cyclists and automobile drivers make different sorts of demands on urban design. Since urban space and resources are limited, conflict occurs--in politics and on the streets.

Shanghai, a city once famous for its dominant bicycle transportation, banned bicycle travel on its roads in December 2003.

Cycle paths are often found in cities with an auto-free zone, or with vast park systems, but even dedicated paths where motorized vehicles are forbidden often have to be shared with inline skaters, push scooters, skateboard enthusiasts and wayward pedestrians.

Bicycle activism

"Critical Mass" is a worldwide phenomenon of mass bicycle protest rides. Non-hierarchical, with an emphatic lack of formal organization, the participants ride in a highly visible manner to point out and protest the problems of automobile-dominated culture. (There were 500 million automobiles in the world in 2003.) Critical Mass rides began in 1992 in San Francisco and quickly spread around the world.

Bicycle advocacy groups exist in many cities, providing information for cyclists and lobbying for government to consider cyclists while planning transportation infrastructure.

Bicycle culture

There are sub-cultures of bicycle enthusiasts in many cities including racers, bicycle messengers, bicycle transportation activists, bicycle mechanics, peace and justice activists, and various counter-culture groups. Group activities may involve competitive cycling, fun rides, or civil disobedience. Some groups work to promote bicycle transportation (Yellow Bicycle Program), such as fixing up bicycles to give to children, the homeless, or poor people in another country (Bikes Not Bombs).

Bicycle Culture includes arts and crafts, both handmade and mass manufactured. it also includes a literature of books and magazines. H. G. Wells was an early contributor to Bicycle Culture with his novel "Wheels of Chance".

Cities famous for being "bicycle friendly" (such as Amsterdam or Copenhagen) include a general sense of "Bicycle Culture" as part of the urban identity. Bicycle magazines and organizations give yearly awards to cities for being "Bicycle Friendly".

See also

External links