The Most Civilised Conveyance
The 19th century velocipedes were heavy, slow and expensive before an English engineer James Starley developed the high bicycle or penny farthing which overcame the difficulties of gearing and weight. Although these 'high bicycles' were dangerous and unstable they were eagerly taken up by fashionable young men who formed cycle clubs and took to the open road with gusto.
In the 1880's the safety bike arrived, it was very similar to the bikes of today, with a chain drive and smaller wheels anyone who could afford it could easily ride. The women who defied the dress codes of the day to ride in culottes or bloomers contributed to the emerging movement for women's suffrage and liberation.
Artists, musicians and writers found inspiration on two wheels and the socialist Clarion Cycle Club cycled to spread their message. Then, in World War One, cycle battalions went to France with bikes adapted to carry kit and rifles to the front. Between the wars mass production delivered bikes cheap enough for everyone and fuelled by the outdoor and fitness movements cycling entered into a golden age, the working classes now had the freedom of the open road.
After the war people once again took the road in freedom on the only transport available in the years of frugality. The 1960's brought prosperity, mass car ownership and a fascination with modernity and speed that didn't include cycling and bikes were left unused and rusting in garden sheds. Then a group of young people in California developed the mountain bike and again cycling became fashionable. A fashion for fitness was back on the agenda and there were the added incentives to reduce pollution and congestion in cities and seek more environmentally friendly ways of getting about. Today the bicycle is once again in the ascendency.
Presenter: Martin Ellis
Producer: Simon Evans
A Pier Production for BBC Radio 4.