A BRIEF HISTORY OF THE BICYCLE | Unventured

A BRIEF HISTORY OF THE BICYCLE

An Invention that changed the world

For centuries, the world has seen the emergence and gradual settlement of a million inventions. The coherence of the fire and the wheel, to the cell phone to almost everything around this modern world at one point as a result of a hundred men’s need and one’s man determination to solve it.

The invention of the bicycle happened in the year 1817, in the state of Baden, Germany by Karl von Drais. Owing to a volcanic eruption, and the subsequent death of horses in the European vicinity left the masses with no means of transportation.

This is when Von Drais, a civil servant and a Baron, decided to create a vehicle that would be “faster than walking that we need not feed.”

The first bicycle, then known as “velocipede”, consisted of no pedals, no chains, just two steel wheels and a wooden steerable frame.

The Velocipede, also known by its nickname “hobby horse” since then has seen numerous modifications over the years, the most prominent being the “penny-farthing” – a bicycle that mirrors today’s modern bike in wireframe except it had a large front wheel and a small rare wheel.

By the time the Penny Farthing model was perfected for safety reasons where both wheels were made the same size, the Indian subcontinent was already under the British Empire.

In the early years of colonization, the British started importing these “bicycles” which initially were used only in the hill stations by Europeans and Parsis. However, it did not take long for the bicycle to find its way into the common lives of major Indian cities.

(Mahatma Gandhi on a bicycle)
(Mother Teresa riding a bicycle)

India’s Tryst with the Bicycle

This new two-wheeler arrived as a wrapped gift to the Indian middle class. Time was better managed, more work was being done, greater distance covered, all the while without relying on another person.

India might not have gotten its freedom for the next 70 years, but the bicycle brought a personal sense of independence for the Indian population.

It did not take long for the cycle to transcend the barriers of “need” and “want”. Several cycling clubs started coming up across the country – the first one being in Calcutta, in the 1890s which comprised of both Indians and Europeans.

Even in the pre-independence era, cycling was being taken up a recreational activity and by the 1910s bicycle-races had already become an integral part of the communities.

(Arvind Panwar)
(Rameshwori Devi)

The bicycle’s entry into Indian sports

It was only in the mid-thirties that cycling was officially introduced as a “sport” through the efforts of Sh. Janki Das, the only Indian cyclist to participate in the British Empire Games at Sydney, Australia in 1938.

The bridge between cycling being a necessity for the daily life to it becoming a recreational activity and a fitness regime has continued to be constructed over the last couple of decades.

The years have been more than kind to Indian cyclists, and cycling as a sport has emerged as a booming industry.

From cyclist Arvind Panwar winning gold at the South Asian Games to Rameshwori Devi – a native of Manipur who in her career has won 102 medals, inspiration in the form of Indian cyclists who broke barriers, stereotypes and records are hailed through the book of history.

But sporting activity wasn’t the only branch that the “simple bicycle” grew. 

Around the time when Sh. Janki Das was introducing cycling as a sport, a young group of Parsi men took up cycling as a means to explore.

The first Indian adventure on the cycle

In 1923, 7 young Parsi men from Bombay created history when they journeyed the globe at the pace of a pedal starting their route through Punjab, Balochistan, the Middle East, Europe, United States, Japan and finally South East Asia, covering the ground of 70,000 Kms over 5 years.

Three of these men went ahead to write the famous book With Cyclists Around the World – a memoir of their brilliant adventure and hardships, appreciated and commended by figurines all around the world including our late prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru.

Their sense of seeking adventure and exploring the world, stopping at a small village and wheezing through the mountains, never losing sight of the beauty around you, all on a little thing called a “bicycle” gave birth to the modern idea of Bicycle Tours as we know today.

In this modern world, as the “need” part of a cycle slowly disappears from the Urban communities, cycling is an active choice that many continue to make – to stay fit, to explore or just because.

If the brief history of the bicycle teaches us anything, it is to break the barriers of the known and step into a world, what comes next will always be a surprise, but a surprise that just might change the course and dreams of a million humans.

The bicycle when it came, did not just bring easy accessibility with it, it brought with it undying freedom barring no limits, and dreams that no journey is too long or too impossible. All it takes is a frame with two wheels, pedals and chain and a tiny bit of determination.

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