Wednesday, November 12, 2014

Riding Bicycles

 Catholic Priest riding a bicycle in South Dakota, 1944.

Just recently I posted an item on walking.  In that I noted that walking was the default norm for humans in terms of mobility, and the only way we got around for millennia.  I also noted in that animal transportation is about 20,000 years old, give or take 5,000 years, but that, at least for the period of history which contains the history of our own country, walking was still the norm for most of that period in the western world.  Most people didn't own horses, as they lived in cities or towns.

While I've addressed it elsewhere, in the Revolution in Rural Transportation thread, what I should also explore just bit, just as we did with walking, is what became a common means of transportation, but the view of which has evolved in the past century.  This means of transportation was the first real alternative for most people to walking on a daily basis.

And it wasn't the car.

It was the bicycle.

I don't propose to offer a history of the bicycle here.  I'm not going to go back to the first bicycles and take us forward over time, but we should note that the bike really came on after the American Civil War.  There were early predecessors to the bike that existed prior to that time, but it was in the 1860s that the first practical bicycles first came on in the 1860s, for the most part.  The first bikes were what are now sometimes inaccurately called velocipedes, but what were called penny farthings at the time, those being bikes that work a lot like tricycles still do, in that they had no chains and rather a big wheel was simply pedaled.   As they lacked a chain, and hence a gear, the speed at which they could be operated was essentially determined by the size of the front wheel, leading to some of the rather odd looking big wheel bicycles of that era.

Penny farthings on starting line of race.

Penny farthings present certain obvious difficulties to the rider, but none the less they were extremely popular.  None the less,t he problems of mounting and dismounting, combined with regulating the amount of gearing, more or less, via the bit wheel lead the mechanically minded to work on bicycle designs, which lead to the Safety Bicycle. These were soon bicycles driven by a gear and chain, basically the predecessor of the type of bicycle we have have today, but with a single gear.  They were marketed on their safe features, for the simple reason that they really were considerably safer, and easier to use, than the penny farthing. They appeared in the 1880s.

Penny farthing left, Safety Bicycle right.

Bicycles took society in the western world by storm.  Indeed, there was a bicycle "craze", and its no wonder.  Bicycles offered to town dwellers what nothing else did, an alternative to walking you could keep in your house and that you didn't have to feed when you weren't using it. They were relatively cheap and easy to maintain as well. Suddenly, people could cut the time it took to travel a reasonable distance in less than half, easily.  Indeed, I know that is to be true, as when I walk to work it takes me over an hour get there, while it takes me less than half an hour to ride my bike.  The craze started in the 1860s, but the Safety Bicycle came on just in time to really accelerate it, and it continued on in to the 1890s.  The craze saw its expression in song in 1892 with "Bicycle Built For Two", a song popular enough that it's still at least somewhat recalled today.

There is a flower
Within my heart,
Daisy, Daisy!
Planted one day
By a glancing dart,
Planted by Daisy Bell!
Whether she loves me
Or loves me not,
Sometimes it's hard to tell;
Yet I am longing to share the lot -
Of beautiful Daisy Bell!
Daisy, Daisy,
Give me your answer do!
I'm half crazy,
All for the love of you!
It won't be a stylish marriage,
I can't afford a carriage
But you'll look sweet upon the seat
Of a bicycle made for two.
We will go 'tandem'
As man and wife,
Daisy, Daisy!
'Peddling' away
Down the road of life,
I and my Daisy Bell!
When the road's dark
We can both despise
P'licemen and 'lamps' as well;
There are 'bright lights’
In the dazzling eyes
Of beautiful Daisy Bell!
Daisy, Daisy,
Give me your answer do!
I'm half crazy,
All for the love of you!
It won't be a stylish marriage,
I can't afford a carriage
But you'll look sweet upon the seat
Of a bicycle made for two.
I will stand by you
In 'weal' or woe,
["weal" means prosperity] Daisy, Daisy!
You'll be the bell(e)
Which I'll ring you know!
Sweet little Daisy Bell!
You'll take the 'lead'
In each 'trip' we take,
Then if I don't do well,
I will permit you to
Use the brake,
My beautiful Daisy Bell!
And bikes came on into use not only for private citizens, but in official and commerce use as well.  Bicycle deliveries became common for groceries.  Bicycle messengers came into business use, and of course still exist.  Police departments in big cities, which retained mounted patrols, introduced bicycle mounted patrols.  And nearly every western army introduced bicycle infantry, including the U.S. Army, although our experimentation with it was brief.

 U.S. bicycle troops, which existed only exceedingly briefly.  Given the role of the U.S. Army at the time, bicycle troops made next to not sense in comparison to cavalry.

French bicycle troops, World War One.

German bicycle troops during World War One. The Germans also used a lot of bicycles in a patrol role during World War Two, where they basically filed the same role that motorcycles and horses did in other formations.  Bikes increased in importance during World War Two as Germany retreated, as its road system was very extensive and good, thereby reducing the need to rely on horses.

But the ascendancy of the bicycle was itself also brief.  Lasting from the late 1860s until the 1910s or so, the peak of the bicycle era saw the birth of the automobile. At first bikes held on, as cars were extremely expensive and beyond the means of many.  And, indeed, bikes have continued to hang on in those areas where automobiles remain beyond the reach of city dwellers, such as in much of Asia.  But in North America, Henry Ford took the step that would end the ascendancy of the bicycle in 1903, by introducing his Model T, the first care to be purposely made to be affordable by the average man.  After that, year by hear the automobile cut into the domain of the bicycle and the horse.  It didn't displace either immediately, but it began to crowd both out in some roles fairly quickly.

In North America, some bike use as transportation lingered on into the 1940s, and the Army encouraged bicycle use for awhile on base in the United States to conserve fuel. But, by and large, bikes were on their way out by the 1920s, as adult commuter vehicles. In Europe this was less true, as automobiles remained expensive for the average European until after World War Two.  At the same time, bikes went out as police vehicles as cars came in, although the horse managed to continue on.  Military use of bicycles continued, but by World War Two they were very much on the way out with the more mechanized armies, such as the British (which were a significantly more mechanized army by the start of the war than generally imagined).  Some armies, particularly the Germans and Japanese, still relied on large numbers of bicycles, and did throughout the war, but other armies had nearly completely eliminated them by the end of the war.  Only the Swiss retained bicycle troops into the 21st Century in Europe, making bicycle troops much less common than horse mounted troops now, which themselves are not common.

British military bicycle, World War Two.

So, by the 1950s, bikes were mostly the transportation of children and almost regarded as a toy.  The exception seemed to be the people who "toured" with bikes, and college students. Schwinn, which was the major American bicycle manufacturer, didn't call its ten speed bicycle the "Varsity" for nothing.

But for some, they never went away, and they retained them in the old use. And for a few others, sporting bicycles retained a major fascination.

Then, in the 1970s, something began to happen. Sporting bikes began to grow in appeal and even though bicycle racing was a minor sport by any definition it was sufficiently popular that two popular moves, Breaking Away and American Flyers came out about the sport in 1979 and 1985.  In the 1980s high grade racing bikes began to show up in fairly common adult use.  Mountain Bikes, a brand new type of bike made for rugged use, appeared at this time and opened up the trails to bikes in a way that only rugged Swiss bicycle troops had been able to endure before.  And mountain bikes proved so popular that they soon displaced touring bikes nearly entirely and became the bike of choice for thousands of urban and suburban bicyclist.

Now, bikes have sort of regained their intellectual hold as a means of transportation for everyday use, although they aren't anywhere nearly extensively used as they once were.  Cities and towns are accommodating them, however, and in some localities free bicycles are available for use by those in urban areas.

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