I still recall the day I got my very first outdoor toy. I was five years old and it was a sweltering hot Christmas day in Waenhuiskrans (a little town along the southern coast of South Africa). My fathered wheeled the bicycle into the living room where we were opening our other toys and games and I immediately fell head over heels in love. It was a little BMX with luminescent pink and yellow streamers ? right up my alley. Peddling around the courtyard to shouted encouragement from my parents, I couldn?t have been happier.
The bicycle as we know it today did not exist 200 years ago. Looking back at the inventions of the time they seem little more that vintage toys. Necessity, in this case, once again proved to be the mother of invention. Baron van Drais invented the ?Walking Machine? in 1817. A lumbering wooden contraption, it was only practical for use on well-maintained pathways. It boasted two wheels of the same size, the front one being steerable, and was propelled along by straddling it and pushing against the ground ? resulting in a sort of gliding motion.
Its design was so underwhelming that the next variation upon the theme only came about in 1865. The Velocipede (?Fast Foot?) also had same-sized wheels but included a peddling mechanism on the front wheel. Its wheels were made of metal and this combination of wood and metal on the cobbled walkways of the time gave rise to its colloquial name - the Boneshaker.
The Penny-farthing / High Wheel had its heyday during the 1880?s. The peddling apparatus was still mounted directly on the front wheel, but the wheel had grown in size quite a bit once makers realized that the distance you can travel with a single rotation of the pedals become greater the larger you make the wheel. By this time metal technology had also gotten to a point where there were metals strong enough to facilitate the making of small, light parts. The bicycle?s high centre of gravity made it difficult to handle though and ladies and their corsetry were restricted to the High Wheel Tricycle ? a bulky rendition of the children?s toy.
Further along we meet up with the Hard Tired Safety ? a return to the original same-size wheel design that included a nifty new chain and sprocket that made gear ratios possible. The hard tires made for a very awkward ride though, and an enterprising veterinarian of the time strove to give his young son a smoother ride. Mr. Dunlop (sound familiar?) succeeded most well and along came the first Pneumatic-Tired Safety Bicycle. Far from being a simple children?s toy, these bicycles gained immense popularity amongst the ladies by the turn of the century. The bicycle craze killed the bustle and the corset,instituted "common-sense dressing" for women and increased their mobility measurably. Susan B Anthony, figure head of the Suffragette movement in America stated during a New York World interview that "the bicycle has done more for the emancipation of women than anything else in the world." Great stuff!
The rest is history. The basic configuration of a typical bicycle has changed little since the first chain-driven model was developed. Details have been fine-tuned and new design technology plus improved materials have made all sorts of exciting things possible, but in essence the look of the bicycle has stayed pretty much the same.
Bicycles are used the world over as an affordable, eco-friendly means of transport. It is a popular children?s toy, a healthy form of recreation and even gets used by the military and police. Next time you hop on your bicycle to pop down to the shops or set out for a brisk mountain biking adventure take a moment to think about all the cycling pioneers that went before us. Then strap on your helmet, look both ways and remember your hand signals ? Safety First.