Book Review: The History of Cycling in Fifty Bikes

history-cycling-50-bikes-bookContinued cold has made for little cycling but more reading, so here’s a review of my latest cycling book, The History of Cycling in Fifty Bikes, by Tom Ambrose.  As with many of my book reviews, this will be somewhat tepid.

I’ve been asking myself why I’ve been so critical in my reviews.  Lots of people write very positive things about almost anything they come across.  Clearly, I am not like those people.  It would seem I have high standards for my literature.  Whether those are fair or not I shall leave to you, Dear Reader.

One of my favorite authors is Bill Bryson.  He started out in life as a travel author, but even in those days he had a unique ability to tell a story rather than simply catalogue his destinations.  While describing a place, he weaves its history and its idiosyncracies with its modern-day charms, finally adding large dollops of humor to create a very entertaining and informative read.  Bryson has since taken on other subjects, including how the American version of English developed and the not-so-modest “A Short History Of Nearly Everything.”  Even these seemingly dry topics he makes interesting through his story telling ability.   Because of Bryson, I now understand why Bostonians speak differently than Virginians and how scientists know what the Earth weighs without ever putting it on a scale.  On a very good day, I hope this blog approaches some of Bryson’s characteristics.

So when I crack a binder on a book giving the history of cycling in fifty bicycles, I am hoping against all hope I do not get fifty separate, unrelated stories, but rather one long story, full of oddities and interesting facts that I was previously unaware of.  I’d like a few large themes that connect the smaller stories in a way that helps explain how we ended up where we’re at.  While not required, humor would be a pleasant addition.

In short, I’m looking for Bryson.  That’s not what I found, so I should probably just leave it at that and talk about other aspects of the book.

The Quadricycle - imagine if this version won out!

The Quadricycle – imagine if this version won out!

Ambrose begins (logically enough) at the beginning of cycling.  After a short chapter where he discusses “proto-bicycles” – good ideas that never quite caught on due to a lack of materials or technology, he picks up the story where most authors do, with the Draisine (1817).  In addition to well-known bikes such as the Velocipede and the Boneshaker, and Penny-Farthing, Ambrose includes other lesser known bicycles such as the Macmillan Pedal Bike, The Facile, and the Salvo Quadricycle.  He points out that there were widely different views on what a human-powered machine should look like, including how many wheels, the manner of propulsion, and the steering mechanisms.  It made me begin to wonder what is the first bike that had all the attributes we have come to understand in a typical bicycle.  I began to look for the first bicycle with brakes, and gearing that we would recognize in today’s machines.  More on that search later.

La Francaise Diamant

La Francaise Diamant

As the story moves into the 20th Century, things become a little confusing.  The focus of each chapter becomes less about the bicycle being highlighted and more about a famous person associated with it.  The bike’s influence on history, it would seem, is significant only because of the man who rode it.  La Francaise Diament is a case in point.  In a single paragraph it is pointed out as being typical of the bikes used in the first Tour de France.  A nice picture of the bike is provided for reference.  The next five pages are devoted to that first race with nary a mention of the bicycle again.

Automoto advert - it suggests you won't notice the Pyrenees with this bike

Automoto advert – it suggests you won’t notice the Pyrenees with this bike

I could see bicycles maturing with each story – pneumatic tires are introduced and primitive gearing is employed.  I could sense that we were getting close to the bicycle I was searching for and I was intrigued with the possibilities of The Automoto, the bike ridden by Italian legend Ottavio Bottecchia.  Ambrose builds the case that the Automoto was the center of the French bicycle industry and would be the first choice for many Tour riders throughout the 1920s.  The text acconpanying a picture of the brake pads states distinctive design features were used throughout the Automoto and another picture includes the statement, “Automoto combined fine engineering with a particularly Italian attention to detail.”  Sadly, no further information is given on the bicyle.  The four pages in this chapter are given to the career of Bottecchia.

After interesting diversions onto unusual ideas like the Velocar (which eventually would lead to recumbents) The Hercules (designed specifically for women), the Bartelo (first sprint bike), Schulz’s Funiculo (first mountain bike), my interest in the “first modern bike” was piqued again with a chapter on derailleurs.  The conversation eventually moves to the Campagnolo Derailleur, introduced in the 1940s.  This appears to be the first modern derailleur.  Then again, maybe it was pointed out on the next page when “modern parallelogram movement replaced the sliding bushing.”  Not much is given as an explanation for this seemingly important change, nor is it made clear what bicycles actually used the technology.

Merckx and his Ugo de Rosa

Merckx and his Ugo de Rosa

The pattern of highlighting the careers of the legends through their bikes continues.  Fausto Coppi’s story is told by referencing his Bianchi.  Eddy Merckx’s career is reviewed under the chapter supposedly dedicated to his Ugo De Rosa, and Tommy Simpson is discussed in detail under the chapter dedicated to his Peugot PX-10.  Each of the cyclists are discussed in detail.  Their bikes less so.

A chapter is spent on mountain bikes, featuring the Breezer Series 1 (1977).  BMX racing is covered by The Haro (1982).  By the time the author gets around to the super aerodynamic Lotus 108 (1992 – Chapter 39), the chapters are beginning to blur together.  I was curious to see my humble Madone made the list as the subject of Chapter 42, along with its infamous rider, Lance Armstrong.  The book was published after the revelation of Armstrong’s misdeeds, but the author skirts the issue by stating, “his recent fall from grace is all the more spectacular given his many achievements…”  An interesting notion, that.

Ambrose wraps things up with a few chapters devoted to bike share programs, city bikes like The Gazelle (which was invented in 1940 yet makes its appearance near the end of the book).  The final chapter looks to the future by examining some experimental designs in use today, such as square-wheeled bikes, origami bikes, etc…

Fittingly, there is no conclusion or summary.  The reader reaches the last chapter on futuristic designs and…  you’re done!  This is a fitting way for a book like this to end.  It’s simply a compendium of bicycles, fifty of them to be precise.  On this simple level, the book works well, apart from some shoddy editing.  Sadly, the book could have been much more than fifty separate chapters.  It could have been a cohesive, informative, and entertaining review of cycling history, combining the key bits of technology and the people who invented them or rode them in a gripping story.

I wonder what Bill Bryson is writing about these days.  Perhaps he would appreciate a suggestion…




There’s been a lot of talk recently about a former American cycling legend and his tarnished legacy. It’s probably time to review the achievements of the original American Cycling Legend so that he might once again be properly considered as a cycling great and a pioneer.

I give you Greg LeMond.

Most casual (American) sports fans can tell you Lance Armstrong won a bunch of Tour de Frances.  Many can even tell you the actual victory total is seven.  Very few of them will even recall the name of LeMond.  That’s a shame, because his story is almost as remarkable as Armstrong’s fiction and the fact that the former champion was bankrupted by the latter fraud makes the story only more poignent.

LeMond & Hinault in 1986

LeMond & Hinault in 1986

Before LeMond, no non-European had ever won the Tour de France.  Ever.  He finished third in his first-ever TdF (1983) and won the Young Rider classification.  The next year he finished second, helping his teammate, the great Bernard Hinault, win his fifth tour.  Most analysts believe LeMond could have beaten Hinault except team managers insisted he ride in support of the Frenchman.  Hinault promised to return the favor the next year and instead battled his teammate tooth and nail.  Despite the disloyalty, LeMond won his first TdF.

1989 - note the aerobars, pedals, sunglasses, and helmet

1989 – note the aerobars, pedals, sunglasses, and helmet

In 1987, LeMond suffered a dramatic setback akin to Armstrong’s cancer diagnosis when he was accidentally shot by his brother-in-law while turkey hunting.  After almost dying and with 35 pellets still in his body, two year’s of rehabilitation ensued.  Hoping to finish in the top 20 of the 1989 tour, LeMond won the whole thing behind a breathtaking time trial on the final stage, beating Laurent Fignon with an average speed of 55.5 km/hr (that’s 34.5 mph – try it sometime) – a record at the time which has only been bested twice since then.  Later in 1989, he won the World Cycling Championships.

That year, LeMond was Sports Illustrated’s Sportsman Of The Year, the first cyclist to win the award.

"Team Z"

“Team Z”

In 1990, LeMond won his third and final TdF after signing a record-breaking contract with $5.5 million to ride with Z-Tomasso (aka “Team Z”).  He won the tour without winning a single stage, taking the yellow jersey on the second to last day after yet another strong time trial performance.

LeMond continued to compete for four more years but grew increasingly less relevant in the general classification category.  He finished 7th in 1991, abandoned in 1992, was too exhausted to enter the race in 1993, he retired in 1994 after being forced to abandon once again.

In addition to his first-ever tour wins for a non-European, LeMond was a pioneer of cycling technology which we take for granted today, including the use of aerobars on time trials and the measurement of power (watts) in training regimens.  He was the first rider to win the tour on a carbon-framed bicycle and successfully use clipless pedals.  He played a big role in the success of Oakley sunglasses and Giro helmets, endorsing their products and improving their designs.

In 1990, LeMond founded LeMond Bicycles.  In 1995, the company partnered with Trek Bicycles.  Trek would eventually go on to sponsor Lance Armstrong.  When LeMond (always a strong opponent of doping in the tour) made comments questioning Armstrong’s achievements, it led to several years of bickering between him and Trek.  The acrimonious relationship eventually led to court suits in 2006 and an eight year feud with Armstrong.  Many people felt that LeMond was motivated by jealousy over the fact he had lost his position as America’s Greatest Cyclist.  Supporters argued that LeMond was simply being consistent with his strong anti-doping advocacy.

Whatever his motivations, it is now apparent that he was right.

So let us reflect on the achievements of Greg LeMond, three-time TdF winner, the first non-European to win the tour, a man who overcame a near-death accident, a pioneer in cycling technology, and a staunch advocate of anti-doping measures.  Theres a lot to be said for a career like that.

Further Reading

Greg LeMond Webpage

Cycling Hall of Fame

Bicycle History – The 19th Century

I’m a history buff, so it was only natural for me to eventually get around to learning a bit about the history of cycling.   I have quickly discovered that much of cycling’s earliest history is hopelessly mired in unprovable theories involving Leonardo di Vinci and other lesser-known characters of the Middle Ages.  It’s all interesting stuff, but difficult to summarize in a blog post.  I shall therefore pick up the story in the 19th Century, where things crystallize a bit.

The first verifiable two-wheeled vehicle powered by a person who was required to use his balance and own muscles to power it was known as the Draisine.  It was built in 1817 by Baron Karl von Drais of Germany.  The bike weighed about 48 pounds, was made entirely of wood, and could travel about eight miles an hour.  It was a somewhat useful alternative to the horse, which was a good thing as much of the horse population of Europe had just starved to death due to a crop failure.

Little changed in the next few decades.  Some Scots fiddled with the design in somewhat murky circumstances, but nothing really caught on until the 1860s when the velocipede (or Boneshaker, as it was known in England) was introduced.  This bike featured pedals attached directly to the front wheel and thus was a major improvement over the Draisine, which required the operator to propel it by pushing off the ground.

The major problem with the Boneshaker was that pedals attached directly to the wheel meant the top speed was limited by the size of that wheel.  Enter the Penny Farthing and its massive front wheel.  This bike featured a lighter frame and was built for speed.  Its popularity spread from England throughout the empire and made inroads into Europe.  In America, the most popular areas were Boston and New York City.  Due to its geometry, it was prone to any number of mishaps and was therefore used primarily by young men interested in racing and willing to take a risk.

15 years later in the awkwardly nicknamed “Gay 90s,” cycling became mainstream with the invention of the Safety Bicycle.  This machine featured a chain-drive system attached to the rear wheel and thus took the shape of today’s modern bicycle.  The large front wheel was no longer needed to achieve high speeds and thus this bike could be operated by people of all ages and genders.  This was cycling’s Golden Age.  Millions of these machines were produced, leading to large bicycle companies, bicycle magazines, and bicycle clubs.  Racing events were extremely popular, with events ranging from short sprints to marathons on oval tracks lasting several days.  Over 100,000 people joined the League of American Wheelmen.  Clubs such as these were responsible for greatly increasing the amount of paved roads for bicycle use.  In so doing, they helped create the conditions which would usher in the automobile just a few years later.

There are several interesting characters during the turn of the century, which I hope to get into in future posts.  In America, the post-WWI era began a Dark Age for cycling which did not fundamentally change until the 1970s.  But that’s a story for another post!

Bicycle Demo!  Check out this video to see the Boneshaker, Penny Farthing, and Safety Bicycle, including a demonstration of how to mount and dismount the Penny Farthing.  I might try this on one of my bikes – not!