This edited article about cycling originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 711 published on 30 August 1975.
The Greeks, and later the Romans were interested in a great many sports, but apart from chariot-racing, they cannot lay much claim to starting anything on wheels.
Human beings in general took a long time to discover that a round wheel could help them to travel faster and the progress and development of the bicycle has been a rather slow business. Indeed, the modern small-wheel, shock-absorbing models we see today, were the first major development in cycle design for 80 years.
These days, new cars are quickly accepted on the roads but because bikes had looked the same for so long, it took some time for the public to get used to the new 16-inch wheel design first introduced by Alex Moulton a decade and a half ago.
Looking back over the short life of the bicycle, everyone who has tried to pioneer a new design met a similar reception.
There is no doubt that man was slow in seeing that two wheels could be operated successfully, other than a cart pulled by a horse. The horse-drawn hansom cab or ‘bus was the most popular means of transport during the short reign of Edward VII.
The bicycle had been around for the best part of a century by then, but it was still considered a plaything of the wealthy. Steady rather than spectacular progress has been made since a rather sensational day in 1791 when a Frenchman, Count de Sivrac, first demonstrated his new toy, a heavy, cumbersome two-wheel wooden object operated by thrusting each foot to the ground alternately.
It created a game of “one-upmanship” among the wealthy French families to produce a better hobby-horse as these crude machines became known. Proud owners held races along the Champs-Elysees in Paris. At the time no-one considered this was to be a form of transport for the masses, particularly as the early examples had no efficient means of steering.
Gradually, improvements were made to the basic design and when a German baron proved that his machines could travel at an average speed of eight miles (12km.) an hour, coachmakers throughout Europe began to take the hobby-horse more seriously. A journey of 30 miles (48km.) in two hours was recorded in 1820 and some years later, the French issued some models to postmen.
The first major breakthrough in bicycle design came from a Scot, Kirkpatrick Macmillan. He fitted a pair of treadles on the front wheel and proved that it was possible to propel a two-wheel machine without the feet actually touching the ground.
Macmillan’s model played another small part in cycling history by being involved in the first cycling offence to be recorded. The Scot was fined in 1842 for knocking down a child in Glasgow.
The bicycle craze began to spread in the late 1800s. The French have a national monument in memory of the Michaux partnership, Pierre and his son Ernest, who first fitted pedals to the front wheel; the Michaux model with leg rests to coast downhill helped Coventry grow as the centre of the cycle industry in Britain; John Dunlop patented his pneumatic tyre in 1888.
The turn of the century saw a massive sales drive to promote the cycle, particularly among women. A Londoner, Harry Lawson, perfected the rear-wheel, chain drive, and James Starley, gave us the ‘Rover’ safety frame which was to be the basic cycle design for the next 70 years. They were prominent among the pioneers who provided us with an efficient means of transport which waned a little with the arrival of the family motor car and is now becoming popular again because of the soaring fuel costs.
Meanwhile, as the popularity of cycling grew, so did its appeal as a sport for the time-trialist, and road racer and track-specialist. Each demands a different technique and the British have tended to favour the lone time-trial against the clock. Not surprisingly, the Americans, who like the show-business touch with all their sport, pioneered the idea of the six-day race as far back as 1899.
But the strongest support for cycling remains on the Continent. Open any newspaper in France, Belgium and Italy and you will notice the amount of space given to cycling on road and track.
Track meetings are often staged in conjunction with the finish of a road race and an opportunity to see a Continental track meeting should not be missed.
The cat-and-mouse game of the sprinters and the sight of the motor-pace men pumping furiously behind the specially built pacing motor cycles causes great excitement even though it may appear rather difficult to work out the tactics at first.
Although Continental riders tend to dominate track racing, several Britons have made the breakthrough to win the rainbow jerseys awarded to world champions.
Among them, Bill Bailey won the world amateur sprint championship four times just before the 1914 war, Reg Harris took five world sprint titles (one amateur and four professional) between 1947 and 1954 and Hugh Porter, who is married to former Olympic swimmer Anita Lonsbrough, has been carrying off the world pursuit championship in recent years.
One of the good things about cycling as a sport, is that it can be enjoyed by the young and the not-so-young.
Reg Harris, outstanding star of the track in post-war years, returned to training last year at the age of 54 to win the British professional sprint championship beating a man 25 years his junior in the final.
Then there is the amazing Yorkshire housewife, Beryl Burton, winner of seven world titles. Years ago, Beryl and her husband would arrive at meetings with their daughter, Denise, in a carry cot. Now Denise is 19 and competes alongside her mother in national and international events.
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