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Sports Then and Now

Origins of Road Cycling & Bike Racing

Posted on February 24, 2021 by Tyler Tafelsky

The history of cycling and bike racing extends as far as the early 1800s when a German baron named Karl von Drais designed and built the first steerable, two-wheeled bicycle in 1817. Drais, who is widely recognized as the father of the bicycle, earned a variety of names for what is widely known as “bike” today, including “draisine,” “hobby-horse,” “velocipede,” and “running machine,” according to historian author, Evan Andrews

What started as a tool used by the wealthy soon evolved for many users and purposes, largely thanks to a myriad of other inventors that progressed bicycling, particularly bike racing. Bikes were mostly used for transportation and traveling during the first few decades before 1868 when the first cycling sporting event took place, which was held in Hendon, Middlesex. 

These oddly-shaped riding machines exploded in popularity throughout the 1870s and 1880s. This period marks the rise of the first bike races and riding clubs. Helping blow up the popularity of bikes, English cyclist Thomas Stevens road around the globe in 1884. Soon after, interest in the two-wheeled contraptions grew, and by the 1890s, a major bike boom swept over both Europe and the United States. 

The Modernization of Bicycles & Bike Racing

In the early 1900s, cycling took-off as a highly popular activity, sport, and means of transportation in various countries throughout Europe and the United States. However, between 1900 and 1910 when the automobile was made available for mainstream use, bicycle use in the United States started to decline.

During this same time, bike racing in Europe began to increase in popularity and road bike races such as the first Tour de France in 1903 became cultural roots to various European cultures. With the invention of the derailleur in France during the early 1900s, road cycling became faster since single-speed bikes were less popular for racing purposes.

Although track bike racing was largely more popular in areas throughout Europe, long-distance road cycling brought more competition, events, and passion for the sport. Different versions of bike races connecting city to city were monumental events that evolved for years. These road bike races, such as Bordeaux to Paris remain competitions to this day. It was during this early 1900s time period when the shift from cycling went from being a team sport compared to an entirely solo sport.

Road Bike Racing & Modern Day Cycling

After the invention of the modern automobile in the United States, bicycle use diminished and eventually became a kid-dominated market comparable to toys. Such bikes were heavy single-speed cruisers that were adorned with lights, bells, and baskets. While counter-culture cycling did have a niche presence during the automobile era, mainstream and competitive use of bikes didn’t make a resurgence until the 1960s, and the popularity of road bikes escalated.

This was also the era when the fitness benefits of cycling became apparent. At this point, many cyclists began to prefer the European-designed bikes because they featured drop-bar handlebars, derailleur-controlled shifting, aerodynamic frames, narrow saddles, and skinny racing tires. This period also propelled sports like triathlon and the use of aerodynamic time trial bikes to achieve lower-drag bike positioning with the use of aero bars and an aggressive seat tube angle. 

Modern bikes are also made of lightweight material, have larger gear ranges, and are faster and more efficient than ever before. They also come with aerodynamic designs, including time trial bike technology used for various types of bike racing events, including triathlon. Unlike road bikes with drop-bar handlebars, triathlon and time trial bikes use aero bars and full aero handlebar setups. These further help maximize the speed and aerodynamic efficiency of the bike.

Today, you can find a wide variety of bicycle styles for a range of terrain, distances, and racing purposes. And of course, there’s also the casual bike industry of casual hybrids and commuter bikes. Whether it’s an entry-level road bike, triathlon bike, mountain bike, gravel bike, cruiser bike, recumbent bike, or hybrid, there is a vast spectrum of bikes for all types of individuals and athletes

This article was written by sports blogger and content strategist Tyler Tafelsky.

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