Spring is slowly arriving and for many of us that means it’s time to get out the bicycle. You may have a sturdy mountain bike, a sleek racing bike or a retro style cruiser but whatever, cycling is a very popular pastime with people of all ages today.
Old bicycles are also becoming very collectable. We’ve had quite a few in our store, usually pulled out of basements or barns after years of neglect and in pretty rough shape. We think someone might use them for garden art but we’ve found most are being bought by young people who fix them up and ride them.
Those of us who grew up in the 1950s and 60s remember when bicycles were just for kids. They were a stepping stone from tricycle to car. That didn’t mean they were not important to us; they were supremely important. Having a bicycle meant freedom, you could travel anywhere by road, the parental tether was almost gone. Naturally it was a status symbol, having a “racer” with curved handlebars, handbrakes and gears that made a neat noise when you pedaled backwards was a lot cooler than having a clunky cruiser. Those of us stuck with cruisers made up for it by decorating them with streamers and lights, we made them noisy by sticking baseball cards in the spokes.
Bicycles do inspire passion, and they have for over a hundred years now.
Hard core cyclists, or “gear heads” as they are sometimes called, make up one of the most obsessive, passionate and politically active groups of people on the planet and any one of them will tell you that the bicycle played a key role in the development of modern culture.
It was bicycle clubs that successfully forced governments in North America to develop a paved highway system. It was bicycle maker Albert Pope, not Henry Ford, who introduced mechanization and mass production to the world in 1878. The American feminist Susan B. Anthony said of cycling: “I think it has done more to emancipate women than anything else in the world”.
The first two-wheeled, human powered vehicles (not yet called bicycles) were made in France and Germany in the 1820s. Dubbed the “high horse” they had no pedals, the rider had to propel, and stop, using his feet. They were briefly popular but proved to be impractical.
Pedaled bicycles appeared years later, mostly in Britain but the pedals were attached to the front wheel, which limited the speed. The only way to make it go faster was to enlarge the front wheel, which lead to the bizarre high-wheel or penny-farthing bicycle in the 1870s, with a front wheel up to five feet in diameter. They were popular but expensive, hard to steer and dangerous so were almost exclusively ridden for sport by wealthy, adventurous, young men.
The first modern bicycle as we know it was invented by Englishman John Starley in 1885. Known as “The Safety Bicycle” it featured equal sized wheels, a steerable front wheel and a chain drive to the rear wheel. The final piece of the puzzle was the inflatable tire, which was invented just a few years later.
The original safety bicycle was never patented; hundreds of companies produced their own variations and by 1890 a bicycle craze had started in North America and Europe.
The new invention gave freedom and mobility to just about everyone; men and women, rich and poor and soon millions were on the road. The only problem was that, in North America most roads were dirt, which meant they were often mud, or dust. Federal, provincial and state governments did not get involved with road building projects so there were no paved roads connecting cities or in rural areas. The Good Roads Movement changed that.
Bicycle clubs, called Wheelmen, were established in pretty well every area of North America, their members wrote pamphlets and lobbied politicians to get government to finance road building projects. They were so successful that by 1893 pretty well no politician could even think of getting elected if he didn’t support the Good Roads Movement. The first paved highway in North America, called The Bicycle Railroad, was built in New Jersey in 1892, a year before the first gasoline-powered automobile was built. An estimated 3,000 cyclists used it on the first day.
The bicycle craze didn’t last though; in 1900 mass-produced automobiles came on the market and bicycle sales dropped dramatically. The craze had given rise to hundreds of bicycle manufacturers, most of which went bankrupt or amalgamated into larger companies in order to stay afloat.
In Canada, four of the largest; H. A. Lozier, Massey-Harris, Goold, and Welland Vale Manufacturing joined to form the Canadian Cycle and Motor Company, or CCM, in 1899. With the collapse of the whole industry in 1900, CCM became the dominant bicycle maker in Canada. Their most recognizable model was the Light Delivery bicycle, introduced in 1932. It was actually a very heavy bike, with a large front carrier. Some models even had an attached motor to help get it up steep hills.
Like many bicycle manufacturers, CCM not only made bikes under their own brand, but also made them for department stores who could rebrand them with their own names.
In the United States, the dominant manufacturer took a different approach. The Schwinn Company was founded by German American Ignaz Schwinn in 1895 at the height of the bicycle craze. The company flourished and soon went into the motorcycle business. Their motorcycles were not that successful and when the bicycle boom ended Schwinn survived by ditching motorcycles and buying up failed bicycle companies. After several years of struggling they found real success when they introduced the B-10 E in 1933. Later renamed the Aerocycle, it was designed to look like a motorcycle and was aimed at the youth market. With its balloon tires, chrome headlamp and imitation gas tank it was an immediate hit and now is one of the most sought-after collectable bicycles.
In 1950 Schwinn (now run by son F.W. Schwinn) decided to forgo rebranding. They insisted every cycle they made carry their name and for a while allowed them to be sold in virtually any store that ordered them. Their unique design and banding policy reinforced the Schwinn name, which is why they are still so desirable with collectors, even on this side of the border where they never really had a presence.
The industry took another dramatic turn in the 1970s. Counter-culture youth had begun riding bicycles again, as sort of an anti-car anti-corporate statement. Then European ten-speed racers, with their far more practical derailleur gears, created a whole new sport bike market. For the first time since 1890 most bicycles were being made for adults.
Today there are more bicycles on the road than at any time in history. New technology has made them lighter, stronger, faster and, let’s face it, uglier. Maybe that’s why many young adults are more attracted to those old-style, balloon-tired cruisers of days gone by.