Bicycles Have Evolved. Have We?


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My first bicycle was not, in fact, a bicycle. I rode it in 1968, when I was two years old and as tubby as a bear cub. It had four wheels, not two, and no pedals: strictly speaking, it was a scooter. But Playskool called it a Tyke Bike, so I say it qualifies, and aside from the matte-black, aluminum-alloy number that I’ve got now, which is called (by the manufacturer dead seriously, and by me aspirationally) the Bad Boy, the Tyke Bike may be the swankiest bicycle I’ve ever ridden. According to the box, Playskool’s scooter—red and blue and white, with a yellow, leopard-spotted wooden seat, chrome handlebars, and black, white-walled wheels—offered “smart high style” for the “preschool jet set,” as if a little girl in a diaper and a romper were about to scoot along the jetway to board a T.W.A. flight bound for Zurich.

Before being handed down to me, my Tyke Bike, like most of the bicycles in my life, had belonged to my brother, Jack, and to both of my sisters, and, earlier still, to cousins or neighbors or some other family from Our Lady of Good Counsel, whose annual parish sale was where we always got our best stuff, bless the Virgin Mary. By the time I got the Tyke Bike, the paint was scuffed, the leopard spots had worn off, and the white plastic handlebar grips had been yanked off and lost, most likely buried in the back yard by the slobber-jawed neighborhood St. Bernard, a Christmas-present puppy whose name was Jingles and who was eventually run over by a car, like so many dogs on our street, which is another reason more people should ride bikes. I didn’t mind about the missing handlebar grips. I tucked a stuffed bear into my red wagon, tied its rope to my seat post, and scooted down the sidewalk, dragging the wagon behind me, my first bike hack. Far from being a jet-setter, I have always been an unhurried bicyclist, something between deliberate and fretful. Jack, a speed demon and a danger mouse, but above all a gentleman, would wait for me at every telephone pole. Jack and Jill went up the hill, everyone would call out, as we wheeled past. Pbfftttttt, we’d raspberry back.

My current bicycle, the Cannondale Bad Boy, is said to be cloaked in “urban armor,” looks as though it could fight in a regime-changing war, and is built for “traffic-slaying performance.” I like the idea of being redoubtable on a roundabout, Mad Max on a mews, but, in truth, I have never slain any traffic. I have never slain anything. I once knew an old Polish man who called all drivers one of three things—“Cowboy!” “Old Woman!” “Teen-ager!”—which he’d shout out, raging, behind the steering wheel of his station wagon, in a heavily accented growl. I am, and have always been, Old Woman.

The Bad Boy is the only bike I’ve ever bought new. I paid an embarrassing amount of money for it in 2001, to celebrate getting tenure and maybe with the idea that I was finally going to be a badass, that all I needed was this James Dean mean-streets city bike. But, the minute I got it home, I started hacking it, girling it out. I bolted a radio to the handlebars and listened to the news on my ride to work every day—I heard the war on terror unfold on that bicycle—until my friend Bruce told me I’d be exactly seventy-four per cent happier if I listened to music instead. WERS. College radio. Indigo Girls. Dixie Chicks. He was right. For a long time, I had a baby seat strapped onto a rack in the back, molded gray plastic with a blue foam cushion seat and a nylon seat belt. Babies, not to say bad boys, would fall asleep back there, their nodding heads tipped over by the great weight of baby helmets covered in the spikes of a stegosaurus, poking into my back. I steered around potholes, ever so slowly, so as not to jolt them awake. Old Woman.

Bicycles are the workhorses of the world’s transportation system. More people get places by bicycle than by any other means, unless you count walking, which is also good for you, and for the planet, but you can travel four times faster on a bicycle than on foot, using only a fifth the exertion. People all over the world, and especially outside Western Europe and North America, get to school and work, transport goods, cart passengers, and even plow fields with bicycles. In many places, there isn’t any other choice. Bikes are cheap, and easy to fix when they break, especially if you can keep track of your Allen keys and your tire levers. Mine are on the breakfast table, because, at the moment, I have a bike stand in the kitchen. For every car on earth, there are two bikes, one for every four people. (I refuse to count stationary bikes, including Pelotons, since they go nowhere.) “We live on a bicycle planet,” Jody Rosen writes in “Two Wheels Good: The History and Mystery of the Bicycle” (Crown), a set of quirky and kaleidoscopic stories. But roads and parking lots and entire cities are still being built for cars, even though they’re wrecking the world. Or, as bicycle advocates would have it, riffing on Orwell’s “Animal Farm,” two wheels good, four wheels bad. Two wheels are better than two wings. In a contest of humans against all other animals in the efficiency of locomotion, humans on foot are about as ungainly, or gainly, as sheep. Condors come in first. But humans on bicycles beat even birds.

A few years back, the bicentennial of the bicycle wheeled past at breakneck, bike-messenger speed. In 1817, Baron Karl von Drais, the Master of the Woods and Forests to the Duke of Baden, invented a contraption called the Laufmaschine, or running machine. A climate crisis had led to a great dying off of livestock, including horses, especially in Germany. Drais meant for the Laufmaschine to be a substitute for the horse. It had a wooden frame, a leather saddle, two in-line wheels, and no pedals; you sort of scooted around on it, and a full-grown man could pick up pretty good speed. (“On descent it equals a horse at full speed,” Drais wrote.) In England, Laufmaschinen were called “swiftwalkers.” My Tyke Bike was a kind of Laufmaschine. I added the wagon, though.

In the history of the bicycle, ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny. Lately, posh toddlers, the newest preschool jet set, roll around on modern swiftwalkers, marketed as “wooden balance bikes.” If you bike all your life, there’s a fair chance you’ll bike the whole history of bicycles. When I was three, I started riding a red metal tricycle, another hand-me-down from my brother. It had a chrome fender in the front, a red running board in the back, and, most crucial, pedals. The cranking of pedals converts downward motion into forward motion, with multiplying force. No one’s quite sure who came up with this idea—most historians place their bets on a French carriage-maker, in 1855—but putting a crank on the axle of the front wheel, with pedals on either side of the hub, changed everything about bicycles, including their name: most people called the ones with pedals “velocipedes,” which is, roughly, Latin for “fast feet.” People expected velocipedes to replace horses. “We think the bicycle an animal, which will, in a great measure, supersede the horse,” one American wrote in 1869. “It does not cost as much; it will not eat, kick, bite, get sick, or die.”

My next bike, the red-and-yellow Big Wheel, had a lot in common with a velocipede known as the penny-farthing, which was invented in the eighteen-seventies. The penny-farthing, like the Big Wheel, had a much bigger wheel in front because, so long as the pedals cranked the front wheel, the bigger the wheel, the faster you could ride. “An ever saddled horse which eats nothing,” a Boston penny-farthing manufacturer promised, boasting speeds of a mile in under three minutes. “The Big Wheels are rolling,” the television ads of my childhood announced, “with the speed you need to win!” Big Wheels came, and they went; they were made of plastic, and mine fell apart during a figure-eight race around a parking lot against the kids next door, when I skidded off course and crashed into a telephone pole. Penny-farthings were dangerous, too: riders pitched right over the top. (The Big Wheel débuted in 1969, and a fiftieth-anniversary edition came out in 2019. “It’s just a really cheap piece of crap,” a reviewer at reported.)

My first two-wheeled bicycle was a Schwinn, hyacinth-purple. My father, who seems to have spent most spring weekends raising and lowering bicycle seats, retrofitted it for me by bolting back on the rickety pair of training wheels that we kept on a shelf in the garage. Aside from the training wheels, everything on that purple Schwinn had been invented by the end of the eighteen-eighties: two wheels of about the same size, pneumatic tires, and pedals that drive the rear wheel by way of a chain and sprockets. This type of bike, in the eighteen-eighties, was marketed as a “safety.” Unlike earlier models, it was surprisingly risk-free, mainly because, even without foot brakes, you could stop the bike by taking your feet off the pedals and skidding to a halt. That, as my mother liked to point out, was how I ruined all my sneakers.

The safety was the prototype of every modern bicycle. Most everything added to the bicycle since is just tinkering around the edges. During the bike craze of the eighteen-nineties, bicycles became an emblem of modernity; they were the epitome, as Paul Smethurst argued in “The Bicycle: Towards a Global History” (2015), of “the cult of speed, a lightness of being, a desire for existential freedom and a celebration of the future.” That’s how it felt to me, too, when I first pedalled away from home, without my training wheels, all on my own. My favorite bike ever, though, was my next bike, my sister’s Sears knockoff of the Schwinn Sting-Ray. It had a green banana seat with glitter in the vinyl, monkey handlebars, and a sissy bar, which I had always understood to be the place where little sisters were supposed to sit. I added rainbow-colored covers to the spokes and rode to school, the library, the candy store, hitching my bike to posts with a combination lock attached to a cable as thin as yarn. No one ever stole it.

To ride a bike, Rosen points out, is to come as close to flying by your own power as humans ever will. No part of you touches the ground. You ride on air. Not for nothing were Orville and Wilbur Wright bicycle manufacturers when they first achieved flight, in Kitty Hawk, in 1903. Historically, that kind of freedom has been especially meaningful to girls and women. Bicycling, Susan B. Anthony said in 1896, “has done more to emancipate women than anything else in the world.” I’ve always had a sneaking feeling that, somehow, I owe it to feminism to pedal hard, weave through traffic, crave speed, curse at cars. A guy in my neighborhood wears a T-shirt that reads “Cyclopath.” In my mind’s eye, I’m that guy. Instead, I stop at yellow lights and smile at strangers, gushing with good will, giddy just to be out there.

Bicycles and bicyclists veer to the political left. Environmentalists ride bicycles. American suffragists rode bicycles. So did English socialists, who called the bicycle “the people’s nag.” Animal-welfare activists, who opposed the whipping of horses, favored bicycles. In 1896, the American preacher who coined the expression “What Would Jesus Do?” had this to say about bicycles: “I think Jesus might ride a wheel if He were in our place, in order to save His own strength and the beast of burden.” But bicycles have also been used in warfare on six continents, and were favored by colonial officials during the age of empire. After the League of American Wheelmen started the Good Roads Movement, in 1880, the asphalt that paved the roads for bicyclists was mined in Trinidad, and the rubber for tires came from the Belgian Congo and the Amazon basin.

For a while, starting in the eighteen-nineties, the bicycle seemed likely to finally beat out the horse. Aside from not needing to be fed and not dying, bicycles are also quieter and cleaner than horses, something I thought a lot about as a kid, because I had a job mucking out stables. But then along came the automobile. “There are some who claim the automobile will replace the bicycle, but this is rank nonsense,” a Maine magazine reported in 1899. “Those who have become attached to their bicycles—there are several millions of bicycle riders—will not easily give up the pleasure of skimming along the country like a bird . . . for the more doubtful delight of riding in the cumbersome, ill-smelling automobile.”

In 1899, 1.2 million bicycles were sold in the United States. Henry Ford’s Model T made its début in 1908. The next year, only a hundred and sixty thousand bicycles were sold in the U.S. In the absence of bike lanes, cyclists in all states but one have to follow the rules of something known as the Uniform Vehicle Code, first adopted in 1926. Like jaywalking, a crime invented by the automobile industry to criminalize being a pedestrian, the U.V.C. treats bicycles as cars that go too slow. “It shall be unlawful for any person unnecessarily to drive at such a slow speed as to impede or block the normal and reasonable movement of traffic,” the U.V.C. decreed in 1930. E. B. White was among those who protested, calling for “a network of permanent bicycle paths.” (Many paths were built under the direction of Robert Moses.) “A great many people have now reached forty years of age in this country, despite all the handicaps,” White wrote in this magazine in 1933, when he was thirty-four, “and they are the ones who specially enjoy bicycling, the men being somewhat elated on discovering that they can still ride no hands.” In 1944, in what became known as the Far to the Right law, the U.V.C. stated that “any person operating a bicycle upon a roadway shall ride as near to the right side of the roadway as practicable,” which could mean being driven off the road.

By the nineteen-fifties, when the League of American Wheelmen disbanded and bicycles were excluded from many roads (including all of the new federal highway system), bikes had been reinvented as toys, child’s play. Grownups drove cars; kids rode bikes. Girls were supposed to ride girls’ bikes, although when, at age twelve, I inherited a girl’s three-speed Raleigh, I decided I hated girls’ bikes. Twelve was when I first started to see clearly the price you had to pay for being a girl, the vulnerability, and right about then I got more scared of cars, too. A boy in my sixth-grade class was killed riding his bike home from school. I covered the frame of that feckless three-speed Raleigh with black duct tape, to make it meaner. It’s bad enough being powerless, because of being a kid and, on top of it all, a girl; it’s worse when the adults are riding around in cages made of three tons of metal. It felt then, and still feels now, like being a bird flying in a sky filled with airplanes: the deafening roar of their engines, their impossible speed, the cruelty of steel, the inescapable menace, the looming sense of catastrophe, your own little wings flapping in silence while theirs slice thunderously. Black duct tape is no defense, and no disguise, but it was all I could find in the kitchen drawer.

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