Cycling is huge news these days. It seems that week-by-week the number of people out on their bikes either racing, touring or leisure cycling is growing. From little children with their training wheels, to the ever-present MAMIL’s (those Middle Aged Men in Lycra) it’s seems everyone is enjoying riding bicycles.
Yet it’s not the first time that cycling has been widely popular. In many ways today’s popularity is just another phase of a craze that began nearly 200 years ago.
The first commercially successful two-wheeled bicycles were patented in 1818. Those early designs were little more than scooters, without pedals, and propelled by a walking motion. Although several thousand were built and used, they caused so many accidents that many towns banned their use.
It wasn’t until the 1860s that bicycles in the form we know today became standard, with pedal propulsion. Pedals on those first bicycles were mounted to the front wheel hub, making it difficult to pedal the wheel that was also used for steering. The rigid frame and iron-banded wheels gave a bone-shaking ride, ensuring those early bicycles were soon known as Boneshaker’s.
The desire for higher speeds led to a greatly increased front wheel size. For a brief time interest segued towards the large-wheeled Penny Farthing, which held sway during the 1870s-1880s.
The safety bicycle
It wasn’t long before the safety bicycle was invented. It featured equal sized wheels, a steerable front wheel, and a chain drive to power the rear wheel. Along the way, pneumatic tyres, under-seat suspension, and more manageable proportions, became standard.
Now, steering, safety, speed and relative comfort came together in a combination that remains the most popular configuration today.
The safety bicycle was arguably the most important development in the history of cycling. It helped build public perception of cycling. With widespread use the bicycle became an everyday transport option.
No longer were bicycles just a dangerous machine used mainly by young sporting men. Popularity soared and bicycles became popular for everyone. Importantly, women could also enjoy this new means of locomotion.
Cycling for women
From the mid-1890s, cycling became a popular and acceptable activity for women, reflective of their growing emancipation. Even women’s fashions were influenced, with freer dress designs made especially for bike riding.
A 1903 portrait of lady cyclist Ruby Holly Alma Breach (later Sinclair) is on exhibition at the Ashburton Museum. Known as Holly, she stands proudly alongside her bicycle, dressed in a neat skirt and blouse, with a panama style hat for sun protection. Contrasting skirts and tops were a very fashionable combination that marked out the smart young woman from the older, corseted generation.
A night ride
Ashburton was at the forefront of the new craze for cycling. Two cycling clubs, Tinwald and Ashburton, were active. Newspaper reports regularly reported on cycle races and competitors. On 22 June 1888, the Ashburton Guardian described a club ride at night:
“Quite an animated scene was presented opposite the Post Office last evening as the members of the Ashburton Cycling Club assembled, previous to starting for a moonlight run to Winchmore. A very creditable number of wheels turned out, considering that a ‘strong head wind was blowing, which made the outward run rather stiff.
The mount was sounded a few minutes after seven, sub-Captain Brown leading the vanguard. Winchmore was reached in an hour, the stiff nor’-west breeze making driving rather slow. After a few minutes spell a start was made for Ashburton, and with the wind and grade favourable, quick time was made, town being reached in forty minutes. No serious mishap occurred to mar the outing, which was much enjoyed by all who took part in it.”
While such a wild ride in the dark seems very daring, it was no doubt helped by the quality of roads. As the writer of The Wheel reported from Christchurch:
“The roads to and round about Ashburton are all that could be desired, and a run down there can be looked forward to with pleasure.”
- Miss Ruby Holly Alma Breach (later Sinclair) of Rakaia, photographed with her bicycle in 1903. ©Ashburton Museum.
- Cyclists outside the Ashburton Post Office about 1899. Ashburton Museum Archive collection. ©Ashburton Museum.
- Sergeant Jim Cleary’s police bicycle, now on exhibition at the Ashburton Museum.
- An unknown lady cyclist c.1895. ©Ashburton Museum.
Author: Tanya Zoe Robinson