It’s been a golden summer for Team GB’s cyclists. The country collectively cheered when Sir Chris Hoy, Jason Kenny and Philip Hindes managed a world-record 42.6 seconds in the men’s team sprint. However this talented trio must be glad that they weren’t reliant on Britain’s first two-wheeled vehicles. Londoner Denis Johnson patented his version of the ‘velocipede’ in 1819. Although these wooden contraptions shared the two wheels and handlebar steering of the modern bicycle, Hoy might have been slowed down by the lack of pedals. The velocipede was propelled just by running. Nevertheless it started a craze amongst rich young men, eliciting some disapproval.
According to bicycle historian David Herlihy, some of the ‘dandies’ who rode these contraptions were publicly taunted. If Victoria Pendleton had competed in the 1860s, she might have been asked to ride in the more ladylike side-saddle position. Women cyclists were actually seen as dangerous rebels and satirised in cartoons like the one below.
Inventors weren’t deterred though. The ‘Bradley Wiggins effect’ may have caused a massive spike in bicycle sales this year, but the first commercially successful bikes were ‘boneshakers’ in the 1860s. Their bumpiness inspired Coventry inventor James Starley to add innovations like tangent spokes and rubber tyres. He also made the front wheel much larger than the back. This was the famous ‘penny-farthing’ design, which was extremely unsafe. Riders frequently died after falling over the high handlebars.
Luckily, in 1885 Starley’s nephew, John Kemp Starley, perfected his ‘safety bicycle’, featuring equally-sized wheels and a rear-attached chain. Over the twentieth century, bicycle clubs became an acceptable and popular method of recreation. The British Cycling Federation was formed in 1959. Their successor organisation, British Cycling, still govern the sport today and Team GB owes much of its success to them.