The bicycle was originally designed as a mechanical alternative to animal-powered transportation. Early bicycles were simply two wheels connected by a frame: the rider moved forward by pushing their feet along the ground.
Later, a foot-powered crank was attached to the front wheel. However, this design was problematic as it made steering awkward and required a very high center of gravity. The true modern bicycle was a result of the rear-wheel chain drive, which allowed for higher speeds, easier steering, and a safer and more comfortable riding posture. Popularized in the 1880s and 1890s, the chain drive led to a golden age of bicycle use, as the bike was cheaper than a horse, and the automobile was still in its formative stages. The bicycle became associated with the feminist movement of the late 19th century, as it allowed women greater freedom to travel and encouraged the adoption of more practical clothing styles.
During the 20th century, the bicycle found a niche role as a short-distance means of transportation to complement the automobile, and in various sports from bike racing to mountain biking to BMX. In midcentury suburban communities, the bicycle was often seen as a means of transportation for children, who were expected to ride their bikes to school.
More recently, the bicycle has become the focal point of a variety of social reform movements which see the humble bike as a better and more efficient way of getting around than the automobile. Environmental advocates point out that the bicycle is a zero-emission vehicle. Public health advocates mention that biking is a great way to stay fit, and anyone who cares about frugality knows that owning a bike is much cheaper than a car. Also, community organizers and urbanists feel that neighborhoods are more neighborly when people get out of their cars and either bike or walk.
As a result of the increased interest, a wide variety of different kinds of bicycles have become popular.
The standard division of bicycle varieties is between road bikes, which have skinny tires and are faster, and mountain bikes, which are slower but can navigate more difficult terrain. Most bikes have multiple gear ratios for different speeds, but single-speed bikes with only one gear are considered easier to maintain. Even simpler still are fixed-gear bikes, where the pedals do not spin independently of the wheels. These “fixies” are necessarily single-speed and difficult to ride at first but are preferred by those who want a rigorously minimalist vehicle.
Other kinds of bikes are tailored to particular hobbies. BMX bikes are small with fat wheels for greater stability, suited for the tricks and jumps of that sport. Proper racing bikes for competitive cycle racing have to be as lightweight and aerodynamic as possible: high-end models can be extremely expensive to allow for precise tailoring to each rider’s body and riding style. Track cycle racing is performed on indoor velodromes with steeply-banked curves; these shorter races require a somewhat different kind of bike.
Still other kinds of bicycles are designed for special uses. For example, a wide range of cargo bikes exist for carrying larger objects: sometimes the cargo space is in front of the rider and sometimes behind. Tandem bicycles are built for two or more riders. Recumbent bicycles are designed for a horizontal riding posture which some consider more comfortable or efficient. Folding bicycles can be tucked into a convenient package for commuters to carry with them. Other more unusual varieties exist: unicycles with one wheel, “sideways” bikes where the rider faces perpendicular to the direction of travel, and an endless variety of tall bikes, clown bikes, choppers, treadle bikes, penny-farthings and many more. Bicycle enthusiasts are an inventive group, and most forms of bicycles that can be easily imagined have been tried at one time or another.
Questions for Reflection and Discussion
If you can ride a bike, when did you first learn? When was the last time you rode a bike? What do you think it would be like to ride a bike as a regular means of transportation?
If you had to own only one kind of bike, what kind do you think would be most practical for your uses?
Do you think the world would be a better place if more people rode bikes instead of driving cars?
The bicycle has been many things since its creation over a hundred years ago. Whether used by sportsmen, commuters or circus clowns, the bicycle is an efficient and fun way to get from one place to another. Whatever its role in the world, it is certainly an ingenious invention.