The Booms, Busts, and Rebirths of Bicycle Culture

The steady increase in bicycle usage seen since the turn of the millennium is not a new circumstance. In fact, we are in the midst of (at least) the third major bicycle boom.

Cycling’s initial explosion in popularity dates to the last decades of the nineteenth century with the transition of the now iconic high-wheeled bicycle to the more familiar chain-driven “safety” bicycle. As James MacDonald, the eccentric collector featured in “The Spokesman,” points out, it was the safety bicycle that garnered the first large massing of two-wheeled enthusiasts. With the chain driven safety bicycle, a nearly two-decade epoch of unrivaled bicycle enthusiasm was born.

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Interrupted by the vast American obsession with the automobile, cycling in the twentieth century never reached the intense popularity it possessed in the previous century. However, today, one hundred and twenty years after the initial boom, more and more people ride a wide variety of bicycles for pleasure, utility, and sport. Consciously or not, modern cyclists are hashing out a new era of cycling mania that rivals the original nineteenth century boom.

Let’s walk it back.

From the bicycle’s initial inception in 1816, it took nearly seventy-five years of experimentation, failure, and innovation before it became an object for the masses. In 1817, Karl von Drais, a German baron employed as a forest master, unveiled the first incarnation of a human powered two-wheeled machine. Consisting of two iron wheels connected by a wooden plank with a crude steering mechanism, Drais’s machine became known first as the Draisine and later as the velocipede — Latin for “fast foot.” Without pedals, the rider sat on the wooden plank between the two wheels, made a running motion with their feet, and lifted their legs to coast. The velocipede never really gained much traction outside of elite social circles. It remained merely a pleasure hobby for aristocrats and dandies as it was expensive to make and rather inefficient on early nineteenth century dirt roads. Despite this early bicycle model garnering only a relatively small following, the seed to further develop a human powered two-wheeled machine was planted.

A velocipede from the early nineteenth century. Note the lack of pedals. This model features wooden wheels, likely manufactured by a carriage maker or wheelwright. Photograph by the author.

A velocipede from the early nineteenth century. Note the lack of pedals. This model features wooden wheels, likely manufactured by a carriage maker or wheelwright. Photograph by the author.

By the 1860s, bicycle building had spread all over Europe and mechanics, blacksmiths, and carriage makers everywhere worked to build a more efficient machine. Although the debate over who first attached pedals to the velocipede is still raging, it is certain that the French lay claim to the first large scale manufacturing of the first pedaled bicycle. Produced first by Pierre Lellement and later, on a grander magnitude, by Pierre Michaux, the new style of bicycle had a set of rotating pedals attached to the hub of the front wheel — essentially like a modern tricycle. This new form of bicycle was nicknamed the “boneshaker” style because of the rough riding experience that resulted from the typically iron frame that shook the riders bones. Moreover, as mid-nineteenth century roads consisted of little more than packed dirt that turned to mud when it rained, cyclists on boneshakers were limited in when and where they could ride. It took new innovations and improvements for the cycling craze to hit the United States.

Following Lellement and Michaux’s addition of pedals, the next revolutionary addition to bicycles and cycling culture came in the 1870s and saw an increase in the size of the front wheel. The new style of bicycle, appropriately called the “highwheel,” hoisted riders up to four feet off the ground. The massive front wheel allowed cyclists to cover rougher grounds more efficiently. Tested out on racetracks, long distance competitions, and even cross-country tours, the highwheel brought bicycle enthusiasm across the Atlantic to the United States. By the 1880s, nearly every city and countless small towns were home to numerous social bicycle clubs, most of which were local outfits of the national League of American Wheelmen. Cycling culture in the highwheel era was largely seen as a masculine pursuit of recreation and competition. Considered dangerous by many, it was mostly young, middle- and upper-class white men who rode bicycles. Cycling was not, however, a boy’s club for long.

Three young men from southern Maine posing with their highwheel bicycles. C. 1885. From the collections of the Androscoggin Historical Society.

Three young men from southern Maine posing with their highwheel bicycles. C. 1885. From the collections of the Androscoggin Historical Society.

The end of the 1880s and early 1890s saw the development of a drive chain system, pneumatic tires, and the reintroduction of two same sized wheels broke the guys-only image of cycling. Poignantly called the “safety” bicycle because it brought riders to a safer distance from the ground, this new bicycle was embraced by a wider audience of men and women. Old and young rode safety bicycles for utility, leisure, and recreation, So much so that an unprecedented number of filings, all having to do with bicycles, exploded into national patent offices. Safety bicycles were manufactured by the hundreds of thousands. It was nearly impossible to skip through local and national newspapers in the 1890s without seeing at least one bicycle related article or advertisement.

A man from Dexter, Maine on his safety bicycle. Note the same-size wheels, chain drive, and lack of brakes. C. 1895. Collection of the Androscoggin Historical Society.

A man from Dexter, Maine on his safety bicycle. Note the same-size wheels, chain drive, and lack of brakes. C. 1895. Collection of the Androscoggin Historical Society.

New models and brands came out at an astonishing rate, which made second-hand bicycles available for an even broader class spectrum of riders. At the height of the Jim Crow Era, African Americans still asserted their right to ride. Famously, Marshall “Major” Taylor, a black professional racer from Worcester, Mass., repeatedly set world speed records on the professional racing circuit several times over.

Theodore Roosevelt, in the decade before his presidency, avidly rode his bicycle as one of the many expressions of his virile masculinity. In 1896 when Thomas B. Reed, Speaker of the House of Representatives, was asked what the most pressing issue Americans faced, he replied, “how to dodge a bicycle.” And in France, world-renowned actress Sarah Bernhardt endorsed her own clothing line specifically designated for female cyclists. In the last decade of the nineteenth century, bicycles were under the feet and between the legs of people all over Europe and the United States.

"A group of Portland wheelwomen," in Maine Outings, August 1895. Women from Portland, Maine pose with their safety bicycles for an outdoor magazine from the summer of 1895.

“A group of Portland wheelwomen,” in Maine Outings, August 1895. Women from Portland, Maine pose with their safety bicycles for an outdoor magazine from the summer of 1895.

Sadly, cycling’s nineteenth century flash of popularity died out in the United States with the World Wars, leaving bicycles to be considered merely a child’s toy. The craze continued on in Europe, fueled by massive events like the Tour de France, which combined French nationalism with international competition.

In the United States, widespread enthusiasm towards the bicycle did not re-emerge until the 1970s when cycling was reconsidered as a practical and environmentally friendly utility. Amid the international oil crisis of the mid-70s, the mass manufacturing of affordable road bikes began to take off again. Eager to stretch past the child demographic, U.S. companies began to actively advertise to young adults. Manufacturers like Schwinn produced the affordable “Varsity” model aimed at a college-aged consumer and rider. A quick Craigslist search in any major city or college town will reveal dozens of Schwinn Varsity models still for sale for the commuting twenty-something rider. Additionally, more high-end U.S. manufactures emerged. One example is Trek, which manufactured their bicycles in Waterloo Wisconsin from 1976 to 1986 before their exponential growth surpassed their ability to exclusively produce bicycles in the United States.

By the 1990s and early 2000s, cycling began to take a look backwards. Mountain biking and BMX gained popularity, taking cycling on a purposely-daring trajectory. This new form of cycling pushed the culture to its physical limits, with riders flying down mountains at high speeds on bikes loaded with suspension to launch them off ramps into the air. Just as the highwheel riders of the 1880s were considered daring participants in a physically dangerous activity, mountain and BMX bikers of the 1990s exhibit a similar ethos. More recently, the massive explosion in popularity of single speed freewheels and fixed gear bicycles also harkens back to cycling’s nineteenth century roots. The first safety bicycles were indeed fixed gear bicycles, and were manufactured without additional gears through the 1890s. Although the modern interest in single speeds is likely brought on by sheer simplicity, it’s not difficult to make nineteenth century comparisons. Bike booms require simply made and accessible machines.

In urban America today, more and more people commute by bicycle to work or school. The connections to the nineteenth century level of popularity are striking. While you may not see bicycle ads in every newspaper, no new public park is built without a bike path and no new road is paved in any city or town without a bike lane. Cycling clubs are thriving on both local and national levels and groups like America Bikes lobby for cyclist rights all over the country. In “The Spokesman,” James MacDonald calls bicycles immortal. He’s right. Since the 1890s, bicycles have maintained a similar shape, components, and multifaceted purposes of utility and pleasure. Despite the booms and busts of the industry, both the physical machines and the intergenerational joy that comes from pedaling, balancing, and riding atop two wheels remain alive and well.