The bicycle – plaything of the rich and famous, workhorse of the working classes

Bikes have come a long way from their regal German beginnings in 1817. The draisine, laufmaschine (‘running machine’) or ‘dandy horse’, was an invention of Baron


By Wilhelm Siegrist (1797-1843?) – Drais’ 3-page printed description of 1817 (in public libraries), Public Domain,

Karl Drais, a pretty clever and curious German gent. He’s credited as the forefather of mechanised personal transport, so we owe him one. Walking is, after all, hard work and less fun.

Bikes were initially the plaything of the moneyed classes, before becoming a workhorse of the working classes. Fausto ‘Il Campionissimo’ Coppi, one of the greats of cycle racing around the second world war, began as a delivery boy for a butcher in Novi Ligure, Italy. Flying round the roads with umpteen kilo’s of cured ham and other assorted meats, in combination with his job as an errand boy, pounding up and down stairs, combined to spark the strength and determination to become one of the most prolific race winners of his time. The struggles of humble beginnings have produced many champions over the years, adding to the romance of the big bike races like the Tour De France, Giro Italia and Vuelta Espana.

Although time, technology and methods of training have moved on quite considerably, struggle and the acceptance of suffering are still a big part of what makes bike racing such an enigmatic sport to follow or take part in Of course, cycling isn’t just about racing.


Alexi Sayle having a laugh on an e-bike. Credit Daily Telegraph, photo: ANDREW CROWLEY

As a mode of transport, it’s been revolutionary, enabling and liberating. The Dutch are often seen as having brought city cycling, its benefits and how best to do it to the attention of the world. So much so that a part of Walthamstow in East London has minimised motorised traffic in and around the village, with the resulting development entitled ‘mini-Holland’. It also reminds us that cycling isn’t just the preserve of the lycra clad racer or MAMILs (Middle Aged Men In Lycra); Alexi Sayle, comedian and keen cyclist, made clear that it’s ok to be a PUFFIN too (Pathetic, Unfit, Fat Fellow in Nappies)! 🙂 [credit: Alexi Sayles Imaginary Sandwich Shop, BBC Radio 4]

These are two extremes; there is an awful lot of middle ground – which helps fuel its growth as an every(wo)man pursuit. Kids, families, racers, amblers, the laid back recumbents, the upright pennyfarthing, the even more eccentric unicycle, mountain bikes, road bikes, trikes, time trial bikes, downhill bikes, mini-bikes, enduro bikes, cargo bikes, e-bikes (electric assisted cycles), folding bikes, the list goes on and on…

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Very British… Penny Farthing race, London Nocturne 2010, Smithfield Market.

So if you haven’t given it a go, or want to try another type of cycling, why not take the plunge? Looking for more inspiration? Visit the links page – there are local and national resources to get you started and keep the fun coming.

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