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The history of bicycles Superbike - home

The invention of the bicycle was motivated by a desire to develop a form of personal transport. The bicycle paved the way for the car, but has remained a popular form of transport and leisure activity.

The bicycle is a universally accepted form of personal transport. Bicycle ownership world wide is extensive; 43% of the Australian population own bikes, 49% in Japan and 80% in the Netherlands. These figures perhaps reflect the consideration given to cyclists — through paths, cycleways, and laws which make cycling a safe and appealing experience. In Asia, bicycles and other pedal-powered machines, such as rickshaws, trishaws, becaks and pedicabs, are often the main form of personal transport and transportation of goods.

Cycloped. Photo: Lisa Branson

The first example of a bicycle was the draisienne or hobbyhorse developed in 1818 by Baron von Drais (Germany). It relied on foot propulsion instead of pedals. The draisienne proved that a person could keep balance while the bike was in motion.

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Draisienne or hobbyhorse
Draisienne or hobbyhorse

Scottish blacksmith Kirkpatrick Macmillan created a treadle-driven bicycle in 1839. He used this bicycle as transport, sometimes travelling up to 70 km.

It was not until 1863 that Parisian Pierre Michaux, while repairing a draisienne, realised that by fitting cranks to the front wheel pedals could be used. He set up a business with his son and called this machine the velocipede. It became a popular form of transport for short journeys. Velocipedes continued to be built until 1870. The velocipede was further modified in England. James Starley produced an improved version of the velocipede by 1868.


While evidence suggests that there may have been a few hobbyhorses in Australia in the 1840s, it was the velocipede which really began to interest Australians in cycling. The first of these machines was introduced into Melbourne in 1868 and, in the following July, Australia's first bicycle race was held at the Melbourne Cricket Ground.

In 1870 James Starley, with William Hillman (England), developed the ariel, officially known as the ordinary bicycle, nicknamed the penny-farthing. The very large front wheel allowed an increase in the distance covered per turn of the pedal. The penny-farthing became an immediate success in Australia. Clubs were formed in each colony and by 1884 there were thirty. Like the football and soccer clubs of today, each had its registered colours, and members were expected to wear uniform whenever they went cycling in a group.

Penny-farthing or Ariel

Modifications to parts of the bicycle

The wheel in the early penny-farthings had wooden spokes. Starley and Hillman experimented with wire. The earliest wire spoke wheels were easily buckled as the spokes radiated from the hub to the rim. Starley designed the tangentially spoked wheel to avoid buckling and twisting. Improvements in materials technology have enabled much higher spoke tensions to be obtained, thus further reducing the likelihood of buckling.
the tangentially spoked wheel

Tubular frames
Starley was also concerned about the weight of the bicycle. The frame was solid metal. Through much experimentation he found that hollow metal circular tubes offered strength with reduced weight. Tubular framed penny-farthings were produced by 1877.

Ball bearings
Another development in 1877 was ball bearings. One of the problems of the wheel-bearing in the penny-farthing was the friction caused by the wheel hub turning on the axle. The metal-to-metal contact resulted in the surface wearing out. Ball bearings prevent friction and are used in many machines. In today's bicycles, ball bearings are found in:

  • the steering column
  • the pedal crank shaft
  • the pedals
  • the wheel hubs.

Further developments
While penny-farthings were very popular they were also quite dangerous. The next major development was the bicyclette by Henry Lawson in 1879 in England. The two wheels were more similar in size. The bicyclette featured:

  • pedals
  • sprocket wheels
  • a chain.

The bicyclette was not a commercial success because of its complexity. James Starley's nephew produced the Rover or 'safety' bicycle in 1885 (England). This design resulted in a huge increase in bicycle riding. Millions of people, men and women, took to the roads.

Rover safety bicycle
Rover safety bicycle

See Bicycle engineering highlights for further developments, such as the bush roller chain and the pneumatic tyre.

Changing gears
The last major engineering hurdle for the bicycle was how to reduce the effort needed to ride a bike uphill or against a strong wind. The results were:

  • the derailleur gear-change system (1899)
  • the Sturmey-Archer hub three-speed gear (1902).

Both are still used today.

Other developments
Developments from this point included:

  • new materials, such as aluminium, alloys and plastic
  • lighting generated in the wheel hubs
  • drum brakes
  • caliper brakes: centre pull, side pull and hydraulic.

In 1959, British designer Alex Moulton developed a small-wheel cycle where the wheels were separately sprung improving suspension. The Moulton was designed with small wheels to allow space above the rear wheel to carry items in a tray. It was the first major bicycle re-design in years.

Moulton bicycle
Moulton bicycle

A decade later, in 1971, the Bicycle Motor Cross (BMX) was developed in the USA, using a chrome molybdenum frame. The BMX allowed riders to manoeuvre their bikes at speed over rough terrain. BMX created a renewed interest in bike riding which has resulted in further developments in bicycles for mountain bike riding.

Monocoque frames
Track and road cycling as sports have continued to attract interest and research and development. Developments now are influenced by technical rulings of the Union Cycliste Internationale (UCI) which have seen the development of monocoque frames, in particular:

  • the Zipp 2001 Multisport (Zipp Speed Weaponry, USA)
  • the LotusSport carbon-fibre, aerodynamic by Mike Burrows for Lotus Engineering
  • the AIS/RMIT Superbike.

Track cycling
Kirkpatrick Macmillan won the first pedal bicycle race in 1842. Track cycling was included at the first modern Olympic games in 1896. The events were gruelling. The programme has been modified and now track cyclists compete in sprint and endurance races, individual and team events, time trials, first-over-the-line finishes and pursuits. Women's events were not scheduled at the Olympics until 1988, when the 1000 m sprint event was run. At the 2000 Games there were women's sprints, time trials and pursuit events.

Road racing
The first Olympic road race in 1896 was held on the marathon course, from Athens to Marathon. Riders completed two laps, a total of 87 kilometres. Almost one hundred years later, in 1984, women were able to participate in the road race.

Mountain bike racing
The first cycling race was the road race followed by track racing and mountain biking or 'clunking'. Mountain biking dates back to 1953 and was developed in the United States. The first competitions were held in the 70s. The most well known was the Repack Downhill, but it wasn't until 1996 that it was an Olympic event.

A Californian college student was the first to strip back his regular bicycle to create an early version of the mountain bike. He removed the:

  • chainguard
  • horn
  • tank
  • racks

and installed:

  • multiple gears
  • caliper brakes
  • straighter handlebars.

This was just the beginning of further developments that would lead to the now popular titanium bikes.

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