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Bicycle History

In 1696, Dr. Elie Richard's design for a human powered carriage was published in France. It showed how a person could pedal about with no more than his (or his servant's) own efforts. The pedaling motion was more akin to a StairMaster and the large contraption had four wheels. But the gearing could be said to be a precursor to the modern freewheel where the gears engage when thrust is delivered via the pedal and the gears slip freely when there is no power so that the rider would not have to pedal constantly.


The bicycle did not find its way to the public eye until Marie Antoinette is said to have witnessed a demonstration of a two wheeled contraption in 1790. No pedals, no brakes, and a real saddle in place of a bike seat, it was called a velocifere (Latin for fast carry). Steering would not evolve until around 1816 in Germany (where Ignaz Schwinn would one day be born). Weighing in at fifty pounds (and lacking effective brakes), the contraption was slightly more efficient than walking. Still, the “bike” helped French postmen deliver the mail in the country side.


It would seem that in building a human-powered vehicle that only had two wheels, the modern bicycle would not be far behind. However, there was actually quite a distance between the two as a rider of the newly invented velocifere was meant to have a foot on the ground at all times as compensation for the lack of a third or forth wheel. It is the opinion of this historian that the bicycle was made possible, not because the velocifere or later, the velocipede were invented, but because in riding downhill on only two wheels it was quickly discovered that no more than two wheels were necessary for balance. But with the idea of feet touching the ground as the main source of propulsion, it would still be some time before the “cycle” portion of the two wheeled human-powered vehicle would come into being.


In 1813, Karl Von Drais built a four-wheeled vehicle in Germany . It was powered by its 1 to 4 riders, but Drais' patent application was rejected and the public remained nonplused. In 1817, Drais built the Draisine, also called the velocipede (Latin for fast foot). This foot powered contraption contained but two wheels. Drais had left the pedal mechanism behind and the velocipede was “operated” in much the way that Fred Flintstone's car engine was really just him running with his feet on the road. The velocipede was no heavier than the velocifere, but offered dramatically improved performance with the addition of a pivoting pole that allowed the rider to turn the front wheel.


Scottish blacksmith Kirkpatrick MacMillan began selling something with pedals and rods (instead of a chain) in 1839 that could be seen as the birth of the modern bicycle. The velocipede was incarnated in the 1850s when Ernest Michaux put pedals on the front wheel in France . The added machinery could bring the weight up to as much as 150 pounds and the velocipede's popularity waned into obscurity by the 1870s.


Eventually the pedaled front wheel developed into the Penny Farthing (or high wheeler), so called because of the massive size of its front wheel (the English Penny) and its miniscule rear wheel (the British Farthing), this latest craze taking place in merry old England . The diamond shaped “safety bicycle” was on its way, but in the mean time the Penny Farthing was using higher quality steel and pushing innovation in components.


The massive front wheel of the Penny Farthings, sometimes as large as 5 feet across, made it difficult to keep round. James Starley adapted the age old radial spoke and hub wheel and gave us the tangential system where the spokes don't all head for the center point of the wheel, but for points just off from the center. This meant that forward pressure on the pedals would actually tighten the spokes and maintain a trued wheel.


The first “American” bicycle went into production in 1878 to a Colonel Albert A. Pope. He is said to have seen a bicycle exhibition during Philadelphia 's Centennial celebrations in 1876. Two years later, he had converted his Boston based shoe manufacturing plant to make high-wheelers and Pope began peddling what would become the Columbia Bicycle for $313 a pop (more than $5000 in today's dollars). The Pope Manufacturing Company was mass producing bicycles assembly-line fashion, decades before Ford's Model-T came on line.


Like a true business man, Pope set out to make the market more friendly for his product. He bought out or sued velocipede patent holders. He urged the government to protect him from foreign competition. He fought to change laws that limited the rights of cyclists. He was an advocate for street improvements. He commissioned the American Bicycler handbook. Pope sponsored races. He established cycling schools, clubs, and the League of American Wheelmen (with several others).


Others wanted to make the world friendlier for the bicycle as well. An important organization, the League of American Wheelmen was formed in 1880 to promote cycling in general, but specifically spent most of its resources lobbying for better roads. The sheer size of the Wheelmen (100,000 plus) gave it plenty of authority over the sport. It was the de facto governing body for race sanctioning and other cycling standards of the time.


Meanwhile, James Starley was pushing the English cycling market forward throughout the 1870s and 80s. In 1884 Starley's nephew, John Starley, created an entirely new kind of ride that would dominate the industry until…well, until now. John's “Safety Bicycle,” so named because it was less prone to toppling over forward than the massive high wheelers, had a diamond frame and a chain operated drive train that powered the rear wheel. Starley called it the Rover. Continued innovation brought the weight down over time and when the diamond frame came along, the bicycle was practical transportation.


Colonel Pope and others spent the next few decades making the world friendly for the bicycle. They were largely successful, but they also managed to lay the groundwork for what could have been a nail in the bicycle coffin. Creating a bicycle friendly America , paved the way (and the roads) for an automobile friendly America .


The Gay 90s became host to the first American bicycle boom and the World's Fair of 1893 made Chicago the bicycle capital of America . In the last quarter of the 1800s the bicycle was considered the common man's horse. Bicycle racing became a spectator sport in the 1890s; indeed, racer sponsorship was arguably the best way to promote your companies cycling wares. In 1898 Charlie Miller put over 2000 miles on his two-wheeler during a six day endurance race on an indoor wooden track at Madison Square Garden . Marshall Taylor made $10,000 in 1901 racing around Europe . And in 1903, the Tour de France was born. By the end of the 1800s the U.S. patent office had moved its more than 7,500 bicycle patents to their own section. Bicycle patents accounted for an estimated 2/3 of patent volume during the 1890s.


The bicycle was, in many ways, the beginning of the women's liberation movement as well. It allowed her to travel further than she was used to and it gave her some independence. Some women took to wearing bloomers as these were more conducive to “wheeling.” It was scandalous to the more conservative of the time.


At the turn of the century in America , bicycle manufacturing was a $60 million per year industry with somewhere between 1 million and 2 million bikes coming off the assembly lines every twelve months. Henry Ford is often credited with perfecting the assembly line, but Colonel Pope was said to be mass producing bicycles at the rate of one every minute at the close of the 1890s bicycle boom. Mass production brought the price down to as little as $40. By 1900, the cheapest models were selling for $20. In 1902 the best racing bikes were priced around $150. The Fair department store was selling as many as 1,000 bicycles a day.


An astounding ten percent of newspaper and magazine advertising was purchased to expose America to the latest cycling product. Other industries began to suffer. The horse industry took a hit. Non-bicycle retailers saw their customers bike past their shop windows. Barber shop business declined. But consumers were not just spending their money on bicycles, they were riding them too. Taverns saw profits drop noticeably. Theaters were empty throughout the spring. Piano sales dropped fifty percent. Cycling was entertainment.


By 1890 the first century of bicycle innovation was complete. In fact, after 100 years of innovation, the bicycle itself was nearly complete. We've added derailleurs, improved the metals, specialized into mountain bikes and road bikes, but the basic diamond frame concept is still the dominant technology. We are still using Starley's chain run drive train. The saddle and handlebars are still in the same place. Air filled tires are all the cushion most bikes have. The last century or so has been rather dull as far as bicycle innovation is concerned.


The 1890s American bicycle boom brought thousands of companies into the industry. Quality varied wildly from manufacturer to manufacturer. There were plenty of conmen shilling poor product (or no product at all) at high prices. The market quickly became saturated, bored, and tired of the abuse. Col. Pope, A.G. Spalding, and others attempted to address the overproduction issues by forming the American Bicycle Company, also called the Bicycle Trust. The Trust was set up to control production and began recruiting bicycle manufacturers, but the company never became large enough to stem the flow. The boom waned and the weaker or less serious players died or moved on.


Unfortunately for bicycle manufacturers, the same innovations that made cycling practical also made the automobile affordable. The car borrowed the chain drive and differential gears. The manufacturing capabilities were easily transferred to the automobile which took advantage of improved steels and rubbers as well as improvements in machinery, engineering, production lines, and distribution. The 20 th century's first decade saw the automobile drop in price so as to make it increasingly accessible to the growing middle class. The public demanded four wheels for the roads that had been improved for two. The bicycle market declined dramatically. The American industry turned out just 250,000 bikes in 1905 and would average just more than 300,000 units per year for the next 25 years. Then things got worse. U.S. bicycle sales hit 285,000 units in the early years of the Great Depression. By 1932, only 194,000 units were sold.


Bicycle manufacturers, buoyed by continued improvements in manufacturing, were able to bring costs and prices down so as to stay in business. As parents got behind the wheel, bicycle companies began putting kids behind the handlebars. This shift saved the American bicycle industry and children were largely the focus of the bicycle manufacturer for the next several DECADES. But children did not demand performance in the way that their parents had. Cost cutting became the rule, rather than innovation. Bicycles became toys sold at department stores.


Department stores had other concerns than bicycle innovation and simply continued to seek lower costs. Manufacturers had to capitulate or risk losing their vendors. Most bikes carried the name of the retailer rather than the manufacturer. Furthermore, major components suppliers benefited from near monopolies and had little incentive to spend money to improve a profitable product. Bicycle manufacturers in America became little more than the middleman between suppliers and retailers.


In 1929, Schwinn was a motorcycle company known for quality. And they also made bicycles. By 1931 the Depression had forced Schwinn to close its motorcycle factory and the company found itself with an idle R&D department used to engineering top of the line motorbikes. As the bicycle industry crumbled under the weight of the Great Depression Arnold, Schwinn & Company made a bold decision. They built a better bike, and they did it without the help of their suppliers and at the risk of losing access to dealers. Schwinn added 40 bicycle patents to its collection during the depression.


One of Schwinn's most important innovations for the American Bicycle came from Germany . Frank W. Schwinn witnessed “balloon tires” in action on the cobblestone streets of German towns where bicycles were still used as adult transportation rather than as children's toys. Frank W. successfully played suppliers off of one another in order to get someone (Firestone) to make rims that would fit a wider tire. And he had to order enough tires (10,000) to make it worth Fisk Rubber's time to make a custom tire. The Schwinn CEO was determined.


Schwinn released the first balloon tire bikes in 1933, a tire that could roll over broken glass without a scratch. In 1934, the Schwinn Aero Cycle—designed after an airplane fuselage—had a tougher frame and cost double what the competition was charging. The department stores, where most bicycle sales took place, wanted nothing to do with the high-end ride. Schwinn got the Chicago Cycle Supply Company to distribute the new bicycle and told them not to sell to the chain stores. In 1932, the industry sold 194,000 bicycles in the U.S. In 1935, Schwinn sold 100,000 units by itself. And by the 1940s, Schwinn's production had reached almost 350,000 units annually.


To say that Schwinn's innovations transformed the American bicycle industry might be overstating the facts. To not say it, would attract the ire of many bicycle historians. From 1934 onward, all eyes were on Schwinn and most manufacturers attempted to quickly follow whatever Schwinn did. To say that Frank W. was looking ahead would certainly have been an understatement. Frank seemed to know the future. He saw that the independents were selling bikes because they loved bikes. When Schwinn put out a better product, he gave the salesmen something they would be excited to talk about. The department store clerks would never push the quality and durability features in the same way.


With Schwinn's move away from department store sellers, the company demonstrated its significant clout and the industry got its first glimpse of what would become Schwinn's Authorized Dealer program, a system that would firmly plant Schwinn on top of the bicycle world for decades. Still, in America the automobile would outsell the bicycle from then on…except for a short but significant blip in the early 1970s.


In 1963, Schwinn released the legendary Sting-Ray. This bike sold like no other Schwinn before it. Every kid had to have one. And just like kids of the 1930s, they took their rides into the dust and dirt, grass and mud. The tires were perfect for skid-outs. The 20 inch wheels were perfect for wheelies and other stunts. Other manufacturers copied the Schwinn “high-rise” bike and these models accounted for half of all the bikes sold in the mid 60s. Perhaps more importantly, in paved the way for the BMX bike of the 1970s and then the mountain bike of the 80s.


In 1970 almost 7 million bicycles were sold in the U.S. In 1973 Americans bought more than twice that number. The difference was the European-style ten-speed. After decades of watching children tear around the neighborhood, American adults, for some reason, decided to get back on two wheels. Maybe it was the fitness craze sweeping the country. Perhaps it was that Sting-Ray riders had grown up. Or maybe it was the rising price of gasoline and the popular environmental movement of the time. In any event, road bikes were built to carry a person across pavement with ease and speed. This made the bicycle practical as transportation once again. In 1973, Americans consumed 15 million bicycles (1 million more bicycles than cars). Before the 70s the average shop sold 1 adult bicycle for every 20 customers through their doors. During the boom, more than half of bike sales were to adult riders.


The American bicycle boom also served to introduce America to the world. Schwinn, the dominant American brand, could not keep up with demand. Schwinn's fiercely loyal Authorized Dealers were forced to find bikes wherever they could get them. Schwinn itself turned to foreign factories to help meet the volumes necessary to quench America 's insatiable thirst. And if it was good enough for Schwinn, it was good enough for the American consumer. Foreign brands poured in—Peugeot, Raleigh, Bianchi. In fact, foreign racing bikes seemed to sell better than anything else during the early 1970s.


The boom fathered new brands as well. The Centurion was born when Raleigh canceled a program to import Japanese made bicycles and slap the Raleigh name on them. Mitchell Weiner was stuck with 2,000 10-speeds. He created the Centurion label and made a tidy little profit. Weiner continued to make good bikes at lower costs than Schwinn that offered bike shops more profit. Trek filled the high-end niche long neglected by Schwinn. Founded in Wisconsin , Trek simply used the latest manufacturing technologies and quickly rose to the top.


The Schwinn Sting-Ray of the 1960s helped pave the way for the BMX bike of the 70s, and the BMX became the mountain bike of the 80s.


According to lore, the mountain bike was born on Mount Tamalpais just north of the Golden Gate Bridge in Marin County , California . In the 1970s, Gary Fisher, Joe Breeze, Charlie Kelly, and Tom Ritchey were part of a group of guys scavenging for the heaviest, most durable old frames they could find. The balloon tires of the 30s and 40s actually worked best. The 1938 Schwinn Excelsior was a favorite. It had a sturdy old frame and the 2 1/8 inch balloon tires held up surprisingly well. The old bikes were supped up and rebuilt to make the terrifying trip down the trails of Mount Tam. They called it “klunking” after the old “ballooners” they dug up. Often, the bikes didn't make it.


The old coaster brake bikes worked well enough for the careen down the mountain. The serious riders destroyed their creations on weekends and rebuilt them all week. But dragging 50 pounds of old-school steel back up the trails of the 2,500 ft peak was a chore. Legend has it that Russ Mahon of the Cupertino Riders—a loose band of perhaps a dozen early clunkers in California —put the first derailleur on his old fat tire. Just a few gears allowed him to ride to the top of the trails rather than push and pull his way up. He was instantly the envy of the entire subculture. Gary Fisher did likewise with his bike. He reportedly stripped an old Schwinn Tandem of its drum brake and put it on his clunker. With the drum brake in place, Fisher could now add a derailleur and gears. It wouldn't be long before Tom Ritchey was making the new design for Fisher to sell.


Local bike shops began stocking the obscure drum brake. They also started carrying motorcycle brake levers and a stronger gauge cable to handle the abuse. Real money was being spent on this growing sport. In 1977, Joe Breeze began making frames from scratch for himself and his friends. He pushed the wheels apart a bit to give the bike more stability. He used chrome-moly steel and nickel plated it like the BMX bikes of the day. A heavy ride at 38 pounds, Breeze bikes were still a dozen pounds lighter than the clunkers and stronger too. He completed ten frames in the first year. Breeze made more and more “friends” as his frames became more well known. By the mid 80s he was contracting with other frame builders and was still doing so by the middle of the 90s.


Breeze met frame builder Tom Ritchey who thought he could improve Breeze's design. Ritchey's version came in at 28 pounds and he sold one of the first frames to Gary Fisher. Ritchey built a few more and called Fisher to help him sell the new bikes. Fisher and friend Charlie Kelly immediately started a company called MountainBikes. They were the best equipment for the sport and Fisher was the best marketing machine to sell them. His talent was well known on Mount Tam and Ritchey's new frames made him that much better. Northern California took notice. None of the major manufacturers did. The young upstarts just kept right on going.


Enter Michael Sinyard, a bike enthusiast to be sure, but the first real businessman to arrive on the mountain bike scene. In college Sinyard had refurbished old bikes and resold them. In 1974 he ordered $1,300 worth of new bicycle parts from Italian manufacturers Regina and Cinelli and resold the parts to local bike shops out of his mobile home just as Trek's Bevil Hogg had started doing with French parts a few years earlier. In 1976 Sinyard's Specialized Bicycle Components began selling 1 1/8 inch road bike tires. The narrowest wheels available, the high pressure tires caught on and made the Specialized name a real brand in the hardcore cycling arena in the U.S.


In 1980, Fisher and Ritchey sold 160 MountainBikes and owned a commanding 85% of the market. But Sinyard was grossing $3 million a year and he used his new found success to enter the burgeoning mountain bike world. In 1980, he ordered four bicycles from Fisher and Ritchey's MountainBikes, a huge order for the tiny company. Sinyard copied them outright. In 1981, Fisher discovered the Specialized Stumpjumper at the Specialized headquarters. With no patents, no trademarks, and little familiarity with the business world, there was almost nothing Fisher and Ritchey could do. In February, 1982, Specialized sold 500 Stumpjumpers in 20 days. This was during a time when Schwinn was still throwing banquets for dealers that sold 1,000 Schwinns in a year! Power had shifted.


Still, adult road bikes accounted for 2/3 of all bicycles sold during this time. The major manufacturers still considered mountain biking part of a fringe subculture. Schwinn, for its part, was still trying to get into the BMX game that had begun a decade earlier during the 1970s American bicycle boom. The young mountain bike companies were afforded plenty of room to stretch their legs.


The Japanese bicycle component manufacturers Shimano and SunTour had paid a little better attention. Both offered complete component groups for mountain bikes by 1982, most copied straight from the garages of the Marin county inventors. Gary Fisher, partner Charlie Kelly, and Tom Ritchey were growing frustrated as they watched others ride to success on MountainBike's hard work. They took it out on each other. Fisher and Kelley split in June of 1983. Fisher immediately took aim at Ritchey who turned around and sued Fisher for money he was owed. Fisher found a new frame supplier and started Gary Fisher Bicycle Company. He sold his name and company to Anlen Bicycle Company at the height of the mountain bike craze in the late 1980s and made a fortune, but as the industry cooled, the Gary Fisher name was again put on the market and Trek picked it up cheap. Gary Fisher the man was hired on to head up the division of the same name at Trek. More inventor than business man, Fisher had done alright for himself.


But Tom Ritchey was the clear winner of the originators of the mountain bike clan. By the mid 1990s, Ritchey's company was grossing $15 million while Ritchey himself happily continued design work out of his garage.


On the other hand, Michael Sinyard was not one of the first clunkers in Marin County . Specialized was grossing $170 million by the mid 90s (more than the legendary Schwinn). The company's official corporate motto was, “innovate or die.” Sinyard and his designers reportedly took the bikes out on a 25-mile trail around the Morgan Hill headquarters for lunch every day! As a result, Sinyard had the best designs and the highest quality products. The Stumpjumper continued to be the end-all-be-all of the mountain bike world. The midrange Rockhopper also sold well to enthusiasts. And if you couldn't afford the Rockhopper, well at least the Hardrock carried the Specialized name.


The mountain bike evolved through the extreme antics of hippies in Northern California . But it went mainstream because of the work of the BMX before and because it was a practical alternative to the road bike with its bent over posture and rock hard narrow tires. A mountain bike, though slower on city streets, was a more comfortable ride because the handlebars allowed the rider to sit upright and the wide tires cushioned the bumps in the pavement. To the casual rider, this made a lot of sense. Mountain bike sales accounted for more than 2/3 of all adult bike sales at their peak in the early 1990s. They were the SUV of cycling.


More coming soon…



No Hands, The Rise and Fall of the Schwinn Bicycle Company, An American Institution by Judith Crown and Glenn Coleman, 1996

Schwinn Bicycles, by Jay Pridmore Jim Hurd, 1996

The Noblest Invention, An Illustrated History of the Bicycle, by The Editors of Bicycling Magazine, 2003
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