The first bikes are believed to have emerged from the forests of central Germany in 1816 when Baron Karl von Drais came up with a wooden, two-wheeled vehicle with handlebars. Since it had no pedals, riders would push it with their feet. It was patented in Germany in 1818 and subsequent models were called Draisiennes. In the 1820’s, a better marketing man, Denis Johnson, devised the “dandy horse,” which had slightly larger wheels and became more popular.
Then, blessed by the 1861 creation of the bicycle pedal, the first official bike race took place in either 1868 or 1869 over several (2 or 13) kilometers in France. The winner, James Moore, rode a “boneshaker” which featured a large front wheel and a low-slung seat that required riding at an awkwardly severe angle. Unfortunately, the next major bicycle design didn’t offer much improvement. The “penny farthing” of the 1870’s had an enormous front wheel and a small back wheel, which meant stopping offered a good chance of falling backwards and going downhill over cobblestones led to the term, “taking a header.”
Aside from providing a physical challenge (even worse for women in long dresses), the bicycle also holds a sacred place in American history. In 1878, Albert Pope manufactured the first bicycles in America and his production methods were said to pave the way for Henry Ford. And in 1892, Wilbur and Orville Wright formed the Wright Cycle Company to sell and repair bicycles. They eventually manufactured their own brand, but quit the business to pursue aviation full time. The mechanical acumen they honed from working with bicycles proved useful when they took flight nine years after setting up shop.
Finally, in 1885, vehicles known as safety bicycles were manufactured in Coventry, England, featuring same-sized wheels and a chain connecting the pedals with the rear wheels – a close cousin of today’s bike. Around this time, a bicycle craze began to hit the U.S. and England with the formations of bicycle clubs, tandem bikes, and adventurous rides across the country.
By 1896, cycling was included in the first modern Olympics, and in 1903, Maurice Garin won the first Tour de France, which covered 1,450 miles in six stages. These road racing traditions continue today. Cycling was not contested in 1904, but has been part of every other Olympics. Mountain biking was added to the Olympic program at the 1996 Atlanta Games. The most recent addition was BMX at the 2008 Beijing Games.