How did cycling become popular?

In the 1800s, early forms of bicycles existed. Although the invention of the bicycle, to this day, is not entirely clear, cycling, as a sport and hobby, soon did become of great interest to the public. Shortly after the bicycle was invented, cycle races began to spread in many areas.

Early Development

Bicycles, of some types, appear as early as Leonardo da Vinci’s sketches from 1493. It is not clear if this device was actualized but indicate concepts that became used later on. By the early 1800s, several types of bicycles were made. Initially, different forms existed. However, among the earliest forms of what would become the forerunner to the modern bicycle was the Draisine (Figure 1), which was a two-wheeled vehicle invented by Karl Drais. This bicycle consisted of front steering and was pushed along by a person's feet, as pedals had not been introduced. The frame of the bicycle is familiar to us, which is what made it different from earlier forms, and gave it an appearance we would recognize. After this development, the next big innovation was the use of pedal. This is not clear when this happened but it could have been invented by Kirkpatrick Macmillan, a Scottish blacksmith. The key design modification though was when Pierre Michaux and Pierre Lallemen put the pedals at the front wheel and put a seat on the support beam in 1863. This now made the bicycle much easier to control and power, enabling the rider to stay stationary while directing the bike.[1]

With that innovation, cycling soon began to develop as a recreational activity and sport. In particular, cycle races began to develop by the 1860s. The first documented cycle race of a measured distance was in Paris, which was a 1200 meter event. held in Saint-Cloud Park. Bicycles, some similar to our own forms, now began to appear throughout Europe and North America. In the United States, early bicycle manufacturers were also carriage manufacturers. Riding schools and competitions began to develop by 1869, although in the United States already by then the sport of cycling began to decline due to the fact that early bicycles were often uncomfortable, particularly the seats.[2]

Figure 1. Replica of an early Draisine.

Modern Cycling

In the 1870s, cycling was focused on delivering faster speeds and was mostly a young man's sport, as it was often seen as dangerous and not suitable for the elderly or women. The so-called high-wheel bikes became popular (Figure 2), which often had a very large front wheel and small back wheel. Such bikes did make it possible to attain very high speeds, but the were notoriously unsafe with many fatal and major accidents having taken place. The main problem was these bicycles placed the driver high up, which meant that any bump or uneven surface made the cyclists loose control. In the 1880s, the so-called safety bicycle was developed which emphasized greater steering control and more even wheel sizes, giving the rider not only greater control but greater comfort by now giving back wheel chain control. By improving safety and comfort for cycling, these new so-called safety bikes also became the first bikes to be popular among both sexes and for different age groups. It is at this point that cycling begins to be pervasive among the wider population and at different age groups, including the elderly. In the late 1880s, improvements with the use of rubber wheels made bicycles also more able to travel rougher surfaces. The oldest cycling club in the US was soon established, in 1887, in St. Louis, called the St. Louis Cycling Club. In the 1890s, the roadster bike became among the most popular designs, which saw now bicycles developed for men and women, where women's bikes accommodated the fact they wore skirts and dresses which could get caught on the back wheels, thus a design to prevent this was developed.[3]

While bicycle design continued to improve in the early 1900s, Europe and United States soon began to diverge in their perceptions of cycling. In the United States before 1910, the automobile, such as the Model T, began to gain much greater popularity, which led to a major decline in cycling. In fact, cycling, in the United States, soon began to be associated as a children's activity and adults largely stopped using cycling as a means of transport to work or recreation. In Europe, cycling, even with the introduction of cars, continued to be popular. Clubs, tours, and racing contests continued in their popularity. The Tour de France is perhaps among the best known European cycling events, where it has been running since 1903. In the 1930s, multiple gears were introduced for racing bikes. This now made cyclists have easier control of their bikes as they changed and focused on different inclines in their rides.[4]

Figure 2. The high wheel bike became popular in the 1870s among cyclists.

Recent Trends

In parts of Europe, there were declines in the use of bicycles after World War 2. For the most part, most countries began to focus their transport spending on building roads or rail throughout the second half of the 20th century, and in particular as part of the reconstruction period after the war. In the Netherlands, in the 1960s it was evident cycling did begin to decline as cars displaced cyclists from roads. In the early 20th century, the Dutch had among the highest per capita use of bikes in the world. By 1970, it was evident that motor deaths began to become a leading cause of death for young people, which led to a reemergence of the importance of the bicycle in the Netherlands as a means for transport. Major campaigns began pressure politicians to develop specific infrastructure that segregated cyclists from motor traffic. This led to one of the first nation-wide master plans for cycling that focused on developing nation-wide bike routes and protected areas. The led to also dedicated bicycle garages, changing facilities, and parking areas throughout the country. The transformation and campaigns by Dutch activists to make cycling part of an integrated transport planning became the model where other countries have since tried to replicate, where now cycling is often seen as one of the best transport options or at least part of other options for short distances in urban regions and the countryside.[5]

In the 1980s, what began as mainly an upper class interest in health and fitness in the United States, began to renew interest in cycling. While overall the number of adult cyclists were low in the United States, weekend, recreational use began to make a comeback among some adults. By the 1980s, mountain biking was a new sport that helped to help put interest back in forms of cycling. In the 1990s, renewed interests in bicycle racing also helped Americans once again take more interest in cycling. During the first decade of the 2000s, it was high oil prices that made urban cycling become more popular in US cities. Dedicated bicycle lanes began to reappear as pressure groups formed in American cities. The rise of oil prices, high traffic, coupled with increased interests in health, with obesity becoming a major problem, has now led to cycling being of high interest in many countries in Europe, the United States, and East Asia. Almost every major city now has a master plan for integrating cycling with urban transport. The biggest recent trends have been urban communities introducing docking stations and dock-less bicycles as part of their urban transport plans.[6]


Cycling developed as a sport and leisure activity in the early 1800s. Early bicycles were uncomfortable and often dangerous, which made them less amenable to the wider public until the 1870s, when bicycles began to be developed having safety as a major priority. This led to the increase of cycling among the general population. That changed in the 1900s, as the automobile led to the decline of cycling. More recently, however, cycling has had a new lease, as it is now seen as part of larger urban transport plans as well as part of recreation and sport.


  1. For more on the early 1800s bicycles and how they developed, see: Herlihy, D. V. (2006). Bicycle: the history. New Haven, Conn.; London: Yale University Press.
  2. For more on the development cycling as a recreational activity, see: Hutchinson, Michael. Re:Cyclists 200 Years on Two Wheel. Bloomsbury Sport. London
  3. For more on how the modern style road bikes developed after the introduction of the high wheel bikes, see: Clayton, Nick. (2016). The Birth of the Bicycle. Amberley Publishing. Gloucester.
  4. For more on the decline of cycling in the United States and early 20th century cycling, see: Longhurst, James. (2015). Bike Battles: A History of Sharing the American Road. University of Washington Press.
  5. For more on the Dutch cycling transformation, see: Norcliffe, G. B. (2015). Critical geographies of cycling: history, political economy and culture. Burlington, VT: Ashgate Publishing Company.
  6. For more on the history of cycling in the United States, see: Reid, C. (2017). Bike boom: the unexpected resurgence of cycling. Washington, DC: Island Press.