Although I have not been back to Europe to see friends and family since 2019 due to the pandemic, I still follow important cultural and sporting events across the pond. Did you know that later this month the 108th Tour De France will take place, the most famous and prestigious bicycle race in the world?
The Tour De France is regarded as the world’s hardest and highest profile men’s multiple stage bicycle race, primarily held in France over 23 days. It began over a century ago on July 1, 1903, when 60 men from France, Belgium, Germany, Italy, and Switzerland mounted their bicycles in the outskirts of Paris for the glory of achieving this test of endurance and the significant prize money.
It started as a promotional idea for French sports newspaper L’Auto in an attempt to boost sales. L’Auto’s name aimed to evoke the excitement that the new sport of auto racing created, although it focused on sports of all kinds, including cycling. The initial race challenged riders to complete a 1,500-mile clockwise loop of the country running from Paris to Lyon, Marseille, Toulouse, Bordeaux, and Nantes before returning to the French capital. The route was so grueling that twenty-three riders gave up during the first stage of the race. This is not surprising as back in 1903, road conditions were primitive, riders were expected to continue through the night for long distances with insufficient rest, and it was each man for himself. There were no helmets, support vehicles or help provided if the bicycles developed mechanical problems. The riders sometimes rode with spare tires and tubes wrapped around their torsos in case they developed flats. So rather than simply cycling, it quickly became a test of endurance, strength, tenacity, and general all-around toughness.
I remember as a student in the 1980s going on one of my many trips to France (it is less than 300 miles between London and Paris – not much more than driving to Atlanta from here) and I experienced the thrill of seeing the riders finish the race as they rode into Paris. It was intensely exciting, and one of the great sporting moments of my lifetime. Being at the finishing line of The Tour De France was the European equivalent of going to game seven of the World Series or attending the Superbowl. While sport isn’t my thing, the excitement and pageantry of it was just fabulous.
During the 1500s, Italian inventors including Leonardo da Vinci designed human powered vehicles with 4 and 2 wheels, but it is believed that the first true bicycle was developed about 200 years ago in Germany. In 1816 there had been a serious crop failure in Germany and many horses were slaughtered. The following year, Baron von Drais of Karlsruhe, an acclaimed inventor who is credited with invention of a wide range of “firsts” including the first meat grinder, the first typewriter, and the first human-powered railcar, invented the velocipede as a replacement for horses. It was a two wheeled wooden contraption which required farmers to push off the ground with their feet in the absence of pedals.
By 1864, designs had evolved, and the “Boneshaker” bicycle was introduced in France, named for the terrible vibrations that riding the stiff frame on the bumpy roads of the time produced. Back in Britain six years later, I am proud to say the famous two-wheeled Penny Farthing was introduced, with its very large diameter front wheel and tiny rear wheel which reduced the vibrations experienced by riders. These early bikes were prohibitively expensive for most people, but the Industrial Revolution quickly led to improvements in design and affordability across the world.
One interesting aspect of the bicycle’s history is the role it played in developing women’s rights. Women had previously been focused on the home, in part due to culture but also because a cheap mode of transportation was not widely available. Bicycles in the late 1800s became an inexpensive and socially acceptable way for women to move around communities without chaperones. Women became more aware of the public climate and could meet each other freely to socialize and become involved in community events. As women adopted this mode of transport, there were also major moves in fashion towards comfortable clothing to accommodate bicycling.
On into 20th century, sitting down to pedal was yet another design breakthrough, and today bikes are again growing in popularity for racing, mountain riding, keeping fit, and an inexpensive and environmentally friendly way to travel. There is more information at www. history.com and www.letour.fr.
I say goodbye this week with a quote by American women’s rights icon, Susan B. Anthony - “Let me tell you what I think of bicycling. I think it has done more to emancipate women than anything else in the world. It gives women a feeling of freedom and self-reliance. I stand and rejoice every time I see a woman ride by on a wheel…the picture of free, untrammelled womanhood.”