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Me and my bicycle


by Jonathan van Bilsen


I have been riding a bicycle regularly for the past 30 years and quite enjoy it. The other day, I began to wonder how long this mode of transportation has been around, and after some digging, I was quite surprised at its origin.

It all started with the invention of the 'running machine' in the early 19th century. This was a simple two-wheeled vehicle propelled by the rider's feet pushing off the ground. It was invented by Karl Drais, a German baron, in 1817.

Mr. Drais's invention was the first step toward the modern bicycle. However, it was not until the 1860s bicycles, as we know them today, began to take shape. In 1861, a French metalworker, named Ernest Michaux, added pedals to the front wheel of a Draisine, creating a bicycle propelled by pedalling instead of pushing off the ground. This invention became known as the 'velocipede.'

The velocipede gained popularity quickly, and by the 1870s, bicycle clubs were forming all over Europe and North America. However, the early bicycles were heavy and uncomfortable, with solid rubber tires which made for a bumpy ride.

In the late 19th century, significant improvements were made to the design of bicycles. In 1885, John Kemp Starley, an English inventor, introduced the 'safety bicycle.' This new design featured two wheels of the same size, a chain drive connecting the pedals to the rear wheel, and pneumatic tires filled with air for a smoother ride. The safety bicycle was much safer and more comfortable than earlier models, so it quickly became the standard design for bicycles.

The invention of the safety bicycle sparked a cycling craze, in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Bicycles became a popular form of transportation, allowing people to travel farther and faster than ever before. They also became a symbol of freedom and independence, especially for women, who embraced cycling to break free from traditional gender roles.

In addition to transportation, bicycles became popular for recreation and sport. Cycling races, like the Tour de France, were established, attracting competitors and spectators worldwide. Bicycle technology continued to advance, with innovations, such as multi-speed gears, lightweight materials, and aerodynamic designs, pushing the limits of speed and performance.

During the 20th century, bicycles remained a popular mode of transportation, especially in countries where cars were less common or expensive. In many parts of the world, bicycles are still a primary means of getting around, offering an affordable, environmentally friendly and healthy way to travel.

Having been born in the Netherlands, bicycles are near and dear to me, and I was shocked, there are more than 850,000 of these two-wheelers in Amsterdam alone which is more than the total population of the city. Who knew?

Jonathan van Bilsen is a television host, award-winning photographer, published author, columnist and keynote speaker. Watch his show, 'Jonathan van Bilsen's photosNtravel', on RogersTV, the Standard Website or YouTube.

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