The bicycle: The vehicle that really should not work

Anyone who has ridden the bicycle knows how hard it is to learn to do so. I learned to ride in the time-honored way, with my father holding the seat to keep it from falling to the side and running behind me as I pedaled, and then after some time slowly letting go without my knowledge, while still running behind to catch me if I fell. After a few such attempts, I was able to ride alone. The feeling of exhilaration at not toppling over is something I still remember. I used the same method to teach my younger daughter but my older daughter learned to ride on her own, pedaling a bit and putting her foot down when in danger of falling over, until the pedaling parts got longer and longer and suddenly she was off.

I think everyone has a sense of surprise at how stable the bicycle feels. Once you get moving, there is little danger of toppling to the side even though the width of the base is so narrow that the center of mass is rarely directly above the base. Understanding the stability of the bicycle turns out to be not simple and about six years ago, I posted about the various theories have been put forward to explain it and I am not sure if there is any definitive scientific consensus as yet or whether rival theories still exist.

What is clear is that the bicycle came into being by trial and error during the 19th century. This French documentary video from 1915 describes the history of the early attempts before the modern bicycle emerged.

The titles are in Dutch but the translations are given below.

  1. The draisine was invented only a century ago, in 1818 by Baron Drais de Sauerbrun.
  2. The vehicle that lies between the draisine and the 1850 bicycle has an improved steering wheel and a fitted brake.
  3. In 1863, Pierre Lallement invented pedals that worked on the front wheel.
  4. Around 1868, a third wheel was added. Although these tricycles were heavier than the two-wheelers, they were safer.
  5. Between 1867 and 1870, various improvements were made, including the increased use of rubber tyres.
  6. In 1875, following an invention by the engineer Trieffault, the frame was made of hollow pipes.
  7. Following the fashion of the day, the front wheel was made as large as possible.
  8. In 1878, Renard created a bicycle with a wheel circumference of more than 7 feet. Just sitting down on one of these was an athletic feat!
  9. At the beginning of 1879, Rousseau replaced the large front wheel with a smaller one, and the chain was introduced on the front wheel for driving power.
  10. The bicycle of today.

What impresses me is how someone got the original idea that such an unlikely contraption could actually be made to work and was willing to try it out.


  1. says

    Excuse the self-promotion, but here’s my post from two years ago shortly after the bicycle had its 200th birthday (March 1817, on the sites that I saw).

    In the late 19th century before the advent of cars, people likely saw the bicycle as the future of transportation. It was as fast as a horse without being a tempermental and easily scared animal that needs food, care and housing. As cars become less and less affordable and people are buying fewer things (e.g. the Tiny Home movement) and environmental concerns increase, bicycles are making and will continue to make a comeback. Even in the US with its “cars = FREEDUMBBB!!!” attitude, bikes may become the preferred option thanks to shorter winters.

  2. lorn says

    The origins of the original idea, and the durability of the concept in the face of seemingly unworkable designs, may have its root in the bicycle as a machine for riding down a hillside.

    The man in the video, IMHO, would have had a far easier time of it if he had selected a smoother and somewhat downhill slope for his test area. Most of those early designs were hard to mount and get going but workable, sometimes even enjoyable, once under way. Stopping, particularly the penny-farthing at any significant speed, was another problem entirely.

  3. Ridana says

    I miss bike riding, but I can’t afford to keep replacing them monthly when they inevitably get stolen.

  4. blf says

    I learned to ride a bicycle in what is now — in retrospec — a very dangerous way. Age uncertain about six or seven, I suspect, my parents had purchased a bicycle and outfitted it with “training wheels” to keep me from toppling over.† Not sure how long I rode it in that configuration, but a somewhat older neighborhood child convinced(?) me to remove the training wheels. That might have been Ok, except at the time we lived at the top of very steep hill. Hence, my first ride with training wheels was down that hill, at some speed, then a sharp right-angled turn into the road…

    Amazingly, I accomplished both maneuvers, and even “rode” along the road for a respectable distance (memory suggest perhaps 100 metres?). This was all in the days before helmets and other safety kit. My parents were not exactly happy, but dad did take me out on much longer rides…

      † Dad made a point of raising the training wheels slightly so I was never supported by more than three wheels — the front and back, plus at most one of the training wheels. The idea being I’d get used to being on two-ish wheels. Whether or not the idea was sensible, or accomplished what was intended, remains unknown to me.

  5. jrkrideau says

    @ 1 Intransitive
    While I do not agree totally with your discussion, I’d say it is at least 95% correct and I loved it. An old German friend of mine who had been in the German army in WWII used to say that he had peddled his ass all over Europe.

  6. jrkrideau says

    Bicycles are light,easy to store, are relatively fast and can carry fairly heavy loads.

    I have carted back 20kg or more in a shopping trip. Within a 5km or so range, they beat cars.

  7. cafebabe says

    Yes, the debate about the reason for the (relative) stability of the bicycle is an interesting one. There are various theories that are “simple, obvious and wrong” and almost all of these have been undone by experimental counter-examples. Analysing the stability of these things seems as hard as doing the same for the Navier-Stokes equations.

    However, there is now a good consensus about the best way to learn to ride, and it does not involve being held by a parent OR the use of so-called training wheels. What it does involve is a bicycle without pedals and cranks. Kids learn to steer and balance while sitting on these much as they would do on a scooter. Then, when they have mastered those skills, you buy a bike with pedals, or put the cranks back on the same bike. My children learned the old way, the grandchildren learned the new way.

  8. says

    A bicycle with relaxed geometry is so stable you can ride it along without your hands on the bars, just slightly shifting your weight to steer. Steeper head angles on the other hand can spit you off as soon as you drop your guard. Then there are some suspension forks that have just enough slop to go into a violent shimmy when you least expect it.

    Bicycles can be fun!

  9. OverlappingMagisteria says

    “8. In 1878, Renard created a bicycle with a wheel circumference of more than 7 feet. Just sitting down on one of these was an athletic feat! ”

    Is this supposed to be diameter of 7 ft? A circumference of 7 is just over 2 feet tall which is pretty small.

  10. Crimson Clupeidae says

    This entirely leaves out one branch, that while less popular, is arguably a much better machine: the recumbent bicycle.

    I ride a recumbent as well as a velomobile (fully enclosed recumbent 3 wheeler that allows me to ride even in snow and rather cold weather) for my commute nearly every day. It’s much more comfortable, more aerodynamic, and is, in many people’s opinion, more fun to ride. 🙂

  11. mnb0 says

    “Anyone who has ridden the bicycle knows how hard it is to learn to do so.”
    No, not anyone -- I’m an exception (am I one? I wouldn’t be surprised if most Dutchies didn’t know). I remember zilch about me learning it and have been riding bicycles as long as I remember.
    There is some evidence that safety measures like helmets are counterproductive. They invite people, including car drivers, to take far more risks. Anyhow The Netherlands, undisputed the most important bicycle country in the world, have managed to make traffic much and much safer.

    Bicycle = fiets = dark green
    Some explanation:

    We don’t need threewheelers (worse overview, because lower viewpoint) in the winter either.

  12. jrkrideau says

    @ 9 OverlappingMagisteria

    In 1878, Renard created a bicycle with a wheel circumference of more than 7 feet.

    That is definitely a diameter. It was about then that what the British call a Penny-farling started to evolve. Wheel sizes could be mind-boggling. It was not until the late 1880’s or early 1890s that the Starlings (sp?) started production of the bike we now know.

  13. jrkrideau says

    @ 11 mnb0

    I did not learn to ride a bike until I was about 12 so my memories are clear. It was a bit traumatic particularly as I almost rode down my school teacher’s husband as I was still figuring out how to use the brakes.

    I loved the “Cycling in snow video” though as a Canadian (Ontario) it looked more like cycling in a slight snow flurry. Around here, anything less than 30cm of snow is considered negligible. When one has to toss the bicycle over metre high snow banks, that is cycling in the snow.

  14. says

    Around my city using a recumbent bike could be difficult, as the chicanes at many level crossings are not designed for them (or any other form of personal wheeled transport). A few crossings have been converted to straight through electronic gates but not enough of them.

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