From Boneshakers to the Wright Brothers: 25 Fun Facts About Bicycles

Historic Bike

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Historic Bike
Alexander Scheuber/Getty

Pedal Power

A first bike is the childhood equivalent of a driver's license, but those familiar, two-wheeled, pedal-powered machines (and the outdoor trails best for riding them) aren't just for kids — bicycles transformed the nature of human mobility and are even a great way to get around in some cities. The two-wheeler concept dates back centuries, but modern bikes only emerged fairly recently. Once merely a novelty, bicycles are now a multi-billion dollar industry and a part of human culture on nearly every corner of the Earth.

Wikimedia Commons

The First Bikes Were Called 'Velocipedes'

Before there were bicycles, there were velocipedes. Primitive, pedal-less, and un-steerable wooden precursors to bikes emerged at the end of the 18th century, but in 1818, a guy named Baron von Drais earned a patent for a device with a padded saddle and a steerable front wheel. The patent was filed under the name "velocipede." The term "bicycle" didn't emerge until 1869. 

Wikimedia Commons

Some Velocipedes Were Known as 'Boneshakers' for Good Reason

In the 1860s in France, the Michaex Company produced a type of velocipede known as the "Boneshaker." It was a fitting nickname. The beastly bikes weighed 60 pounds, could go as fast as 8 mph, and rode on solid tires. It would be an understatement to say they were uncomfortable to ride. 

Ariel—50" high wheel bicycle
Ariel—50" high wheel bicycle by Mike deMille (CC BY)

The First Geared Bike Was Called the "Ariel"

In 1871, a man named James Starley made a huge leap forward in the history of cycling when he developed the first geared bike. Known as the Ariel, the gear system combined technology from three different patents. Although it was limited to the shortcomings of primitive front-wheel-drive velocipedes, cyclists could now change gears — but it wasn't easy. 

Rover Bike
Rover Bike by Karen Roe (CC BY)

The Path to Safety Bicycles Was a Rocky One

Although gears helped, there was a huge flaw with the first two-speed bicycles: riders had to stop, dismount, remove the wheel, flip it around, and reattach it. Then, if they weren't completely exhausted by the process, they could keep riding. Life improved for early bicyclists when John Kemp Starley invented the first safety bicycle, the Rover, in 1885. With two equal-sized wheels and a chain drive train fixed to the rear wheel instead of the front, the Rover effectively killed whatever limited enthusiasm there was for the velocipede. 

Wright Brothers Bicycle
Wikimedia Commons

The Wright Brothers Started on Two Wheels

Before they conquered the skies, the Wright brothers were a force to be reckoned with on the ground. Both Wilbur and Orville were caught up in the bike craze that took off in the 1890s after the invention of the safety bicycle. Orville even won a rocking chair in a race once, but they didn't just participate in the trend — they profited from it. The brothers owned several bike shops in Dayton, Ohio, before going into bicycle manufacturing and design. Ingenuitive and ambitious by nature, they were responsible for many significant cycling innovations. The Wrights were a success, quickly earning and saving thousands of dollars in a time when most Americans made just $500 a year. Much of their profits went to financing their more ambitious project — the one that made them famous and allowed the human race to travel through the sky. 

James Moore
Wikimedia Commons

The Sport of Cycling Is More Than 150 Years Old

The first true bike race took place between the entrance and the fountains of Saint-Cloud park outside of Paris on May 31, 1868. The race, which was won by an 18-year-old Paris-born English expatriate named James Moore, spanned a distance of 1,312 yards.

Bike Racer
Wikimedia Commons

Cycling Pre-Dates Baseball and Basketball in the U.S.

Cycling doesn't just go back a long way in Europe, it's one of the oldest sports in the United States, as well. America's first bike race took place in Boston on May 24, 1878. That's 13 years before the invention of basketball and two years before the emergence of America's pastime, baseball. 

Historic Bike Race
Wikimedia Commons

Cycling Became Wildly Popular in America

At the end of the 19th century, cycling was one of the biggest and most popular sports in America. By the 1890s, more than 600 pro cyclists competed on a coast-to-coast national circuit from San Francisco to Boston and in every major city in between. The country was home to more than 100 cycling tracks.

Madison Square Garden
Wikimedia Commons

Madison Square Garden Had the First Velodrome

Madison Square Garden is known worldwide as the home of the Rangers, the Knicks, and every concert worth seeing — but it's actually the fourth venue to bear that name. The first MSG was located, fittingly, near New York City's Madison Square in the late 19th century and was leased to P.T. Barnum. It was the home of the very first velodrome, a special type of cycle racing track that was used when the sport was at its peak in the U.S. The Garden was to cycle racing then what it is to basketball today — the center of that sport's universe.  

Mabel Love with a Bicycle
Wikimedia Commons

Women's Bikes Don't Have Crossbars to "Protect Their Virtue"

Even today, men's bikes have horizontal crossbars on the frames and women's bikes do not. That's because when bikes first went mainstream in Western Europe, women almost always wore dresses outside of the home. The thinking among male bike makers was that if a woman in a dress had to swing her leg over a crossbar to mount a bicycle, someone near her might accidentally catch a glimpse of her legs or unmentionables, which, in the Victorian Era, was frowned upon, to say the least.

sport cycling

The Fastest Bike Speed Would Blow Away Most Sports Cars

In 2018, a 45-year-old woman named Denise Mueller-Korenek demolished a record that had stood since 1995 and became the world record holder as the fastest human being ever to ride a bicycle on open ground. Her gearing was so steep that she had to be towed by a dragster to 100 mph, when she could finally start pedaling and the tow rope was released. In the last mile, she averaged 183.9mph, a speed that, in the motor vehicle world, is reserved only for supercars.

Trans siberia extreme

The World's Longest Race More Than Doubles the Tour de France

Everyone knows the Tour de France, the grueling 2,162-mile slog that's known as the world's toughest cycle race. That would be news to the Russians. To complete the Trans-Siberian Extreme, riders have to traverse the biggest country in the world — one-eighth of the world's land mass is on Russian soil — in 25 days. The course runs 9,103 kilometers — that's more than 5,656 miles.

1970s Biking
Tom Kelley Archive/istockphoto

Baby Boomers Fueled the Bike Boom

In the 1970s, decades after the Wright brothers defeated gravity, much of the Baby Boom generation was entering its physical prime just as Americans were becoming more exercise-conscious. It was at this time that 10-speed, derailleur-geared racing bikes became widely available. Those forces all combined to create a craze known as the Bike Boom, when millions of Americans bought their first bike and created a massive rise in demand and interest.

1968 Schwinn Sting-Ray Orange Krate 5-speed
1968 Schwinn Sting-Ray Orange Krate 5-speed by Nels P Olsen (CC BY-SA)

Motorcycle Racing Inspired BMX Bikes

In the early 1970s in Southern California, local kids unknowingly created a new sport and a new movement when they modified their Schwinn Stingrays to mimic the motorcycles their idols rode in wildly popular motocross (MX) competitions. Soon, the bike industry caught on and began designing durable, versatile, off-road sport bikes built for stunt riding and dirt-track racing. Bicycle Motorcross — BMX — was born.  

BMX rider

BMX Gave Rise to Freestyle Bikes

Shortly after BMX took off, the next crop of kids — also in SoCal — began modifying their newly arrived BMX bikes to perform daredevil tricks on ramps, in concrete skateparks, and on street obstacles like curbs and benches. They fixed aluminum pegs to their wheel axles and modified their handlebars to spin full rotations on the front tire. The result was a thrilling form of stunt riding called freestyle BMX, a sport that will be included in the next Olympics. 

biking amsterdam

The Netherlands Is the World's Per Capita Bike Capital

Biking is a national obsession in the Netherlands, which is the center of the cycling universe, in terms of population. The country boasts tens of thousands of miles of dedicated bike paths and tens of thousands more miles of bike lanes on roads shared with cars. In total, the Netherlands is home to 22.5 million bicycles in a country of 17 million people. That's 1.3 bikes per person.

Bike share in China

China Is Home to Half a Billion Bikes

The Netherlands has the highest bike-to-resident ratio in the world by far, but in terms of sheer volume, China is head and shoulders above all other biking nations. China's population is approaching 1.4 billion human beings. Between them, they share more than 500 million bicycles

23. Arizona

America Is the World's No. 2 for Total Number of Bikes

China claims about half of the more than 1 billion bikes in the world — and the next-closest country in terms of the total number of bicycles is the United States. There are about  100 million bikes in America, but in a twist of irony, about 86% of all bikes sold in the States are imported from — you guessed it — China.  

Related: Where to Buy Bicycles That Are Made in America

bike manufacturing

Four Bikes Are Produced Every Second

With more than 1 billion in use across the world, demand for bicycles is essentially nonstop. To keep up, manufacturers produce about 364,000 bikes every single day. For context, that's 15,000 an hour, 253 per minute, or four bicycles produced every second. Someone on planet Earth purchases a bike every two seconds.

Bike graveyard

All Those Bikes Must Die Somewhere

Some bikes, of course, go to first-time buyers, but much of that nonstop production—bikes are produced at twice the rate of cars — goes to people looking to replace old bikes. About 15 million people  throw away their bikes every year, and although they can be recycled, most wind up in landfills. In China, where recycling facilities are scarce, huge piles of old bikes continue to grow larger and larger as people simply ride their bike for the last time en route to a bike graveyard and toss it onto the already massive heap.

Find an Alternative Way to Commute

Nearly 900,000 Americans Commute on Bikes

Most Americans aren't breaking land-speed records on the Bonneville Salt Flats like Denise Mueller-Korenek — but more and more people are trading in their cars for bikes to get them to and from work. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, about 870,000 Americans now commute via bicycle, a trend that skews heavily toward young, urban professionals. 

bike store

Bicycles Are Big Business

Cycling is a major industry in America, with about 17.4 million bikes sold annually across the country. The value of U.S. bicycle imports is about $480 million. In total, the U.S. bicycle market is a $6.2 billion industry.

Walking and Biking Incentives

Biking as a Kid Can Prevent Adult Obesity

Many of the U.S.'s 100 million bikes are under the stewardship of American children, and those two-wheeled cruisers are much more likely to avoid struggling with obesity as grownups. Kids who ride bikes as adolescents are 48% less likely to be overweight as adults than those who don't. 

Stationary Bike

Even Bikes That Don't Move Are Hugely Popular

Stationary bikes are one of the health and fitness industry's hottest niches. The exercise bike market was worth $429 million in 2018 and that number is expected to grow to $598 million by 2024. Peloton alone has sold 400,000 of its wildly popular bikes and the company is now worth $4 billion.