Innovations in Cycling
The Very First Bicycle
Let’s start at the beginning shall we – and we mean the very beginning. Well, not as far back as the wheel (which was invented in Mesopotamia around 3500 BC and was not for transportation, but rather a potter’s wheel). We’re looking at the very first bicycle. The term was coined in France in the 1860s, but the very first evidence of a bicycle type machine was in Germany in 1817. The first means of transportation with two wheels arranged consecutively was the German draisine. It was a two-wheeled vehicle that was propelled by the rider pushing along the ground with their feet, either by walking or running. The front wheel and handlebar was also hinged to allow for steering. It may seem basic now, but this simple innovation led to the modern bicycle, which slowly equipped with chains, pedals, gears, and brakes over time.
Ah brakes, where would we be without you? If the design of the draisine is anything to go by, braking was once a process of using your feet alone to slow down or stop your bike. Not very convenient if you want to stop suddenly. Once bicycles were designed to get more speed, they also had to look at more effective ways of stopping. One of the first designs was a metal lever that pressed a wooden pad against the rear wheel. Brake innovation came about with the introduction of cable operated brakes. These brakes transmit mechanical force or energy by the movement of an inner cable, allowing for easier front and rear braking.
The first bicycles started out as a wooden structure, so really anything would be an improvement. But it was the lightweight, thin-wall frame tubing that revolutionised the speed and usability of the bicycle. The lightweight metal tube frames became popular around the 1930s, and in that year’s Tour de France, cyclist’s speeds increased more than at any other time in history. There are variations on the thin-wall frames now, with carbon and other materials being widely used, but it was this first innovation with metal to manipulate frame thickness and lightness that changed the way we ride.
Bicycle tires are now air-filled, but once they were just wooden wheels surrounded by tires made of iron. This earned them their name as “Boneshakers”, as they were very uncomfortable to ride, literally shaking riders to the bone. The pneumatic tyre was patented in Scotland by Robert William Thomson in 1845, some 43 years before John Dunlop's re-invention. It essentially means a tire inflated with air, but this innovation in bike gear meant that riders could cycle with more comfort and at much greater speeds.
Cycling Clothing and Safety
Just like the early bicycles, cycle clothing was once very heavy and cumbersome, and most of the initial cycle clothing was made of wool, making it scratchy, heavy, and water retentive. An Italian tailor named Armando Castelli was the first person to introduce silk jerseys in the 40s, which were much lighter and more breathable. Then in the 70’s came Lycra, a fabric that combined polyester with elastic and made the rider more aerodynamic.
So, we now had speed, but what about safety? We are so used to seeing high-visibility bike gear and cycling accessories now, but the concept first came to the UK in 1964 for experimental use on Scotland’s railway tracks, with vests used to give track workers more visibility. It was a success, and from there high-visibility material trickled down into cycling accessories and clothing. For a long time, reflective panels were used to catch the eye, but it was clear that for rider’s safety, they needed to be as reflective as possible.
The idea behind Proviz, for example, rested on the lack of highly innovative, light-emitting and reflective cycling products. Their material was unique to the market; made from 100% reflective material so that the cyclist were highly visible at night and could be seen from every angle. This all-round reflectiveness in cycle clothing and cycling accessories is at the forefront of cycling safety, and the innovation is helping to reduce cycling injury and death. We have come a long way from the heavy woollen cycle clothing of the early riders, we are now riding safely, efficiently, and with speed, and looking pretty good while doing it.